Sheriff candidates spar at Chamber forum

By: GEOFFREY STOUTE

PATTERSON — St. Mary Parish Sheriff Mark Hebert touted his experience and what the sheriff’s office has accomplished. Candidates Patrick LaSalle and Jack Smith said how they could improve it if they were elected.

All three squared off during this morning’s Sheriff’s Forum at the Atchafalaya Golf Course at Idlewild clubhouse, hosted by the St. Mary Parish Chamber of Commerce and the Franklin Republican Women’s Club and sponsored by AT&T and St. Mary Seafood.

Each candidate was given 10 minutes to speak and was asked to answer what they thought were the two most important priorities to improve the functions of the sheriff’s department and how they would achieve those as well as what they think are the most important needs of the sheriff’s office and how they would fulfill it.

A fourth declared sheriff’s candidate, George Rodriguez, did not attend.

During his remarks, Hebert touted his experience as a 28-year veteran of the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s office working under three different sheriffs.

He also noted he has been trained in many professional and law enforcement areas.

Hebert said one of the most important needs of the sheriff’s office is to continue to work with the citizens and civic groups.

The sheriff also has said the sheriff’s department has continued to improve its technology in criminal tracking and communications, while he also has implemented a sophisticated accounting program recently that he said will better protect the sheriff’s department’s funds.

A sound fiscal department, Hebert said is one of his priorities.

“I firmly believe that good business means good business practices, and it’s no different in your business than it is in ours at the sheriff’s office,” he sad.

Hebert said he manages an annual budget of approximately $13 million, and he directs 210 deputies.

“A very important part of deciding which candidate should be your next sheriff is, who do you trust with your tax money?” he said.

He said that he also would like to continue to educate officers in the fields they serve in.

“I’ll continue to sponsor the deputies and assist them with college tuition as they pursue their degrees in law enforcement, something that we’ve been doing for many years now,” he said.

During his 10 minutes, LaSalle expressed a need for communication and education as the two priorities that are needed in the sheriff’s office.

“Some of things that the … appointed sheriff just said, I know nothing about,” LaSalle said. “We do not communicate, the computer systems do not blend, they do not share the information. As your sheriff, the very first thing I’m going to do is make all chiefs of police part of my active staff. We will communicate with them everything that occurs in the parish, because through communication, we can change things.”

He said his deputies would be the “finest educated deputies,” he will educate the citizens about the laws and he will maintain a close working relationship with businesses to move the parish forward.

“I will be your first servant sheriff,” LaSalle said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to. I want to serve you, not just to a particular group. I want to become a part of your neighborhoods. I need to be out there with you, involved with you and I cannot do it from a secular location. I have to be involved in everything.”

He also said leadership is another priority.

“As your next elected sheriff, my goal will be to train future leaders of St. Mary Parish,” he said.

As sheriff, LaSalle said he would use a computer system that could be incorporated in all police departments.

“We cannot continue to serve you, piecemeal,” he said. “We need to know what everybody has so that we can do the job.”

Smith said he entered the race not because the sheriff’s department is bad. He said he thinks the department is a good one and wants to make it a better one.

“The issue in this race is who is best suited to not only maintain good programs and divisions within our departments, but who is best prepared to meet our priorities and who is best prepared to meet our needs for the future to make our department the best it can be,” he said.

He touted himself as the only candidate with a degree (bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and minor in business administration from Louisiana State University) and other education coursework he has completed.

He also touted his experience as a police officer for the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s office, as well as with the Patterson Police Department and as St. Mary Parish coroner. He noted his nearly 20 years of service as state representative, where he served on the Criminal Justice, Judiciary and Appropriation committees.

As sheriff, he said the top priority is to protect and serve the citizens of St. Mary Parish by providing a safe place to live and work.

“We must work diligently to remove illegal drugs from our community,” he said.

He also said he would work to bolster the department’s uniform patrol, which he said is the backbone of a successful law enforcement agency.

To increase the patrol count, he proposes reactivating an auxiliary deputy force that would be trained through the same academy as deputies, but their service would be volunteered.

“The cost to implement this program is small when compared to the much needed benefits we would all receive,” Smith said.

Smith said these auxiliary patrols are used by most municipalities throughout St. Mary Parish and by other sheriff’s offices in the state.

He also said the department needs to assess non-patrol personnel to see if they could be used to bolster its force.

As for needs, Smith said the sheriff’s department needs to enhance its technology for its units and must budget its monies based on performances.

He suggested a need to implement a first call warning system, a first class K9 system, as well as substations at Bayou Vista and Four Corners.

“The sheriff’s office is the largest department in our parish yet it has the least amount of technology in its patrol units,” he said. “All of our city patrol units in all of our cities in our parish have more technology than our sheriff’s office.”

While he said the department has around a $13 million budget, and on the surface it produces a surplus, Smith said when looking at special revenues, there is a $3 million deficit mainly for the cost of operating the parish prison.

“Are we getting the productivity we all want based on the dollars spent?” he asked. “Who knows? Right now there is no way to measure the dollars spent and the performance goals met.”

Smith’s proposed first call warning system would be used to immediately warn parish citizens about any issues concerning public safety.

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