Merced sheriff’s candidates square off at forum

Gang violence, administrative experience and racial diversity were some of the key topics Wednesday during a forum for the four candidates vying to become the next Merced County sheriff.

More than 70 people turned out to listen to the debate hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Civic Center in Merced.

As with previous debates, candidates Pat Lunney, 66, Jim Soria, 45, Frank Swiggart, 47, and Vern Warnke, 55, basically agreed on nearly every issue. Perhaps the only difference of opinion came during a question about racial diversity at the Sheriff’s Department.

While all agreed on the importance of diversity, Soria and Warnke disagreed about the current racial makeup of the department. Soria said he believes the department needs to improve its diversity. Warnke said he believes the department accurately reflects Merced County, but said he would continue to build and improve relationships with minority groups.

All four candidates expressed support for concealed-carry permits for firearms and needs to address gang violence and to improve response times in rural areas. All pledged to continue to improve public faith in the department.

There was a clear difference of opinion, however, on whether endorsements were important for candidates running for office.

Lunney and Warnke, who together have picked up all key endorsements from the major law enforcement groups, said endorsements were important if they showed faith in a candidate’s ability to lead.

“Some are important because they can give the community an idea of what’s going on in a race,” Lunney said. “I’ve been endorsed by three previous sheriffs. That’s important because they’re the ones that know how to run the department. I’ve also been endorsed by the correctional officers, that’s also important.”

Warnke agreed.

“The (Deputy Sheriff’s Association) recruited me to run for sheriff,” Warnke said.

Swiggart and Soria downplayed the importance of such public recommendations.

“Is it important to know which special interest groups have endorsed?” Swiggart questioned. “The biggest endorsement is from the public.”

Each candidate proposed different approaches to basic and innovative leadership strategies at the department.

Lunney said building relationships with neighboring agencies and integrating more technologies could help deputies target specific neighborhoods. Warnke agreed, and also said he would like to find ways to bring youth into programs that involve law enforcement officials. Swiggart pointed to groups like Hilmar Farm Watch and said they would be key factors in reducing violence throughout the county. Soria recommended reaching out to Kiwanis Clubs and Knights of Columbus to address issues like blight.

The candidates also differed on their individual work histories and administrative experiences.

Moderator Geri Brown posed a question from the public regarding each candidate’s budget experience and ability to build networks with local, state and federal agencies.

Lunney noted his experience as director of the law enforcement division of the state Justice Department, time as chief of the Merced Police Department, and his present position as chief of investigations at the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

Soria pointed to his nearly two years on the Livingston City Council and discussed advocating legislation for Merced-based groups in Sacramento.

Swiggart spoke about his experience as a senior sergeant at the Sheriff’s Department and his time running the public safety department at Merced Community College for the past three years.

Warnke, a retired sheriff’s sergeant, discussed his time working in every operational division at the department and his time running several key divisions, including public school-based programs, such as resource officers.

Candidates were also asked to address what they believe is the sheriff’s most important role.

“It’s to hear the voice of the community and make sure people are treated fairly and with dignity,” Soria said.

“Building trust in the community and finding a way to hear your voice,” Swiggart said. “He is the go-between for law enforcement and the community.”

“Being committed to the community,” Warnke said, adding that sheriffs historically were put in place to defend small communities against tyranny from larger governments.

“The most important role for the sheriff is to set a vision for the department and carry it through,” Lunney said, adding that he wants voter input into his overall vision for the department.