Driving around Augusta County, you might have noticed some sign that there is a sheriff race on the ballot in November. Highways and back roads across the 971-square-mile county are dotted with the colorful signs promoting the candidacies of three county sheriff’s deputies – Derek Almarode, Todd Lloyd and Donald Smith – and Department of Game and Inland Fisheries conservation officer Neil Kester.
The quartet is running to succeed Randy Fisher, a 17-year veteran who is stepping down at the end of the year amidst a scandal involving nearly $4,000 in missing money from the evidence room at the sheriff’s office, a discrepancy that came to light after the office had already gone through the re-accreditation process earlier in the year, and received favorable marks.
Upon the news of the missing money being made public, Fisher withdrew the sheriff’s office from its accreditation review, adding a second item of controversy to the mix for the candidates to have to sort through this fall.
With each of the four promising to make accreditation a top priority when elected, the choice for county voters isn’t cut-and-dried.
Almarode, the Republican nominee, is pushing the idea that he is the only candidate who can promise “continuity and consistency” from the current Fisher administration to the future.
“My experience means that there will be no learning curve. Obviously there will be things to learn in terms of administration. But in terms of the administration of the day-to-day operations, I think I bring that consistency and continuity as the most experienced of the four candidates,” said Almarode, who has 21 years of experience in the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office, most recently as a crime-prevention officer.
Lloyd can point to 19 years in the sheriff’s office, and a lifetime preparing for the job. The son of former Augusta County sheriff Glenn Lloyd, who died after a battle with cancer in 1998, Lloyd began his career in law enforcement working at the Augusta County Jail, before moving on to stints in court services, the SWAT team, criminal and narcotics investigations and warrant services.
“I believe that one of the characteristics that makes me stand out in this field of candidates is that I am the only one who has worked in or been associated with nearly every division of the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office,” Lloyd said.
Smith, the assistant commander of the county’s SWAT team, promises to be a hands-on sheriff.
“No organization runs because a CEO-type person sits behind a desk,” said Smith, a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. “Whatever kind of organization you’re talking about, a corporation, an agency, whatever, that person needs to be engaged. If you’re not engaged with the people who work in the day-to-day operations, you don’t know who’s doing the job, who to promote, what the problems are. You need to have your finger on the pulse of the organization to know how to make it run.”
Kester is the wild card of the candidate field. The only outsider, Kester is admittedly “aggressive” in his approach, with his campaign focused on his directive to change things up in the sheriff’s office if he is elected.
“From back when I started in February going around getting signatures on my petitions, people were saying to me that we need new blood in the sheriff’s office, a new direction. The only way we’re going to get that is to go outside the sheriff’s office,” said Kester, who has 23 years of law enforcement experience, most recently in his ongoing 15-year stint as a conservation officer with DGIF.
Kester has raised issue with lack of manpower, saying he would work to add 23 new positions to the sheriff’s office, which currently employs 83 people, including 72 sworn law enforcement officers. Almarode has cautioned that the current budget environment in Richmond and Verona will force whoever is elected sheriff to live within current means, and has proposed trying to beef up the roster of deputies by subsuming the county’s animal control department under the auspices of the sheriff’s office.
Almarode would also carve out a position to create a one-man crime-analyst department aimed at increasing efficiencies in deployment of existing resources by the sheriff’s office.
“Right now, we patrol the same way we patrolled 20 years ago,” Almarode said. “The goal is that we’re actually in the areas that we’re needed. We’re present throughout the county, but we have enough information on what the problem areas are, where we need to put our attention, where the greatest need is. So we saturate those areas as much as we can, but we also have officers accessible in other parts of the county.”
Lloyd and Kester have both talked up putting more resources into illegal drug interdiction efforts.
“In order to be effective in this area, we have to promote strong working relationships with other law enforcement agencies, citizens of the county, and with our schools,” Lloyd said. “The citizens are the eyes and ears that law enforcement officers rely on to get information. This greatly improves the chances for being successful in eliminating and reducing the use of drugs and gang affiliation in our county.”
“Drugs are a big issue here,” Kester said. “There are a lot of drugs running up and down the two interstates and coming into our county, and a lot of drug money. The current approach is something I have questions about. It’s no longer a joint effort like it used to be, and that’s a concern for me.
“I think we’re more effective if we work together. Get Waynesboro, Staunton, the State Police, Augusta County, all working together, and that makes the effort to combat drugs more effective,” Kester said.
Smith has highlighted in his campaign the need for the sheriff’s office to beef up its presence in the county school system, noting that the office currently has five school-resource officers on staff to cover the school system’s 20 schools, presenting an obvious security issue.
“We have all these schools scattered across the county, they have no school-resource officer, the doors are unlocked, they have no surveillance,” Smith said. “If you study the school shootings, there’s never been a documented shooting with a school-resource officer present, in unmarked cars, with our officers out of uniform. Uniformed police presence is a deterrent. We need to address this if we want to keep our schools safe.”
Each of the candidates noted the difficulty in being able to stand out in the four-man race. The sign war got going a bit early, with campaign signs starting to go up in the early summer, months ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
If traffic on the Augusta Free Press news website is any indication, at least, interest from county voters has been high for a local election, stoked by the controversy over the accreditation and missing money investigation issues.
Each of the candidates submitted op-eds to the AFP on the accreditation and investigation controversies, and the pieces combined have drawn more than 12,000 page views to date.
But just how much that interest translates to Election Day remains to be seen. Turnout for purely local elections most years doesn’t surpass the 20 percent mark.
The feeling here is that Augusta County voters will come out in numbers beyond what would normally be expected for an off-year local election.
Who their choice will be remains to be seen.
– Story by Chris Graham