Gun rights, centralized dispatch debated by four candidates for Merced County sheriff post

(l-r) Candidates Jim Soria, Vern Warnke, Pat Lunney and Frank Swiggart receite the pledge of allegiance during the Merced County Sheriff candidate debate at the Atwater VFW in Atwater Thursday. (4-17-14)
(l-r) Candidates Jim Soria, Vern Warnke, Pat Lunney and Frank Swiggart receite the pledge of allegiance during the Merced County Sheriff candidate debate at the Atwater VFW in Atwater Thursday. (4-17-14) bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

Few differences, if any, came to light Thursday night during a debate between the four candidates vying to be the next Merced County sheriff.

Gun rights were the major theme during the debate hosted by the Merced-Atwater Tea Party at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Atwater. All four candidates, Pat Lunney, 66; Jim Soria, 45; Frank Swiggart, 47; and Vern Warnke, 55, said they support concealed weapons permits for self-defense and promised to be staunch Second Amendment supporters, if elected.

Lunney, Soria and Warnke all said they would support gun shows in Merced County.

Swiggart was unable to stay for the whole debate because of previous commitment at a fundraising event. In his prepared statement to the audience, Swiggart touched on a range of subjects, from the need to “close loopholes” in the state’s prison realignment law and hardening security at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility to preparing for drought-related crime and putting more “boots and badges” on the streets to combat gangs and drug violence.

Ultimately, gun issues remained the hottest topic of the evening. The three remaining candidates said they supported extended magazines for firearms, but stopped short of endorsing fully automatic weapons. They also spoke about their experiences with various law enforcement agencies and how they would run the Sheriff’s Department and its approximately $43 million budget.

The candidates said they planned to stay in office for more than a single term, if elected. Lunney, the oldest candidate, said he’s received the question before. “I don’t intend to be a one-term sheriff,” he said.

All three spoke of a need to change the culture at the Sheriff’s Department when an audience member raised the issue of a unified dispatch center, an issue that has been debated for many years. All three said they supported the idea and that progress had been stalled earlier because of the “previous Sheriff” Mark Pazin.

“It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit,” Warnke said.

Lunney noted his candidacy has been endorsed by every police chief in Merced County, and said that support would carry over into unified dispatch discussions.

Additionally, all three candidates came out in favor of installing cameras on patrol cars and on deputies’ uniforms, which has already happened at the Merced Police Department. “Video doesn’t tell a lie,” Soria said.

All three supported “narrowly focused” and “limited use” of computerized drones during police operations and said they would not be used as routine patrol devices.

Lunney and Warnke used Thursday’s platform to announce their intent to sign “a clean campaign pledge.” Lunney said both candidates feel that it was the best way to ensure the public believes the next sheriff will be “honorable and trustworthy.”

Soria made no comment on the pledge and it was unclear whether he would sign it or if he’d been invited to do so.

Several audience members noted there appeared to be little, if any, disagreement on the issues raised Thursday. Warnke agreed, saying each candidate had the same answers, but perhaps different styles. He said he believed that, if elected, neither he nor Lunney would allow “your rights to be trampled on.”

“Vote for me and I’m going to take care of business. Vote for Pat, and he’ll take care of business – but I’m better,” Warnke said, getting the biggest laugh of the night.