EDITORIAL: Bartlett for sheriff

THIS COUNTY HAS LOTS of departments besides the 180-or-so people who work for Sheriff’s Office. Other agencies spend more than the sheriff’s $10-million budget. But when there’s a crisis, our sheriff’s the go-to person–the face of the county. With good reason.

The sheriff’s duties range from running the County Jail to the administration of road patrols and the resident deputy program, which reach throughout the county. The Sheriff’s Office polices the Hudson River, conducts searches and rescues, and coordinates with other police agencies on all manner of security and law enforcement issues. County residents depend on the Sheriff’s Office in ways most of us never hear about. And every four years we have the chance to choose a new sheriff. Picking the right person matters.

Incumbent Sheriff David Harrison Jr., isn’t seeking a third term after eight years of what you could call quietly exceptional service–professional police work without needless drama. Two county residents, each with an extensive background in law enforcement, are running to succeed him. Republican David Bartlett is a captain in the Sheriff’s Office. Democrat Mike Winnie is a former chief of the Stockport Police, has held several police jobs and spent much of his career with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.

Both candidates understand how important the sheriff is to the welfare of people who live in or visit Columbia County. Each has the strength of character needed to handle the post. Both are qualified.

But by the measure of current qualifications, Capt. Bartlett has an overwhelming advantage. Not only does he have years’ more experience with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, but his career path has kept him more current with, and connected to, the maze of law enforcement agencies and funding sources the next sheriff will have to navigate. Capt. Bartlett is better prepared than Mr. Winnie to assume command of the Sheriff’s Office with no break in continuity.

Is that really such a good thing? After all, the arrival of an outsider with new ideas can shake up an organization, and change can be beneficial. What Mr. Winnie has had to do is convince voters that the Sheriff’s Office needs a reformer at the top and that he is the guy. He did what he could, collecting examples of what he believes are shortcomings of the current administration. No surprise, he was treated to a shameful bureaucratic runaround by county officials, who appear to have improperly ignored some of his lawful requests for documents. But what he was able to learn failed to reveal systematic mismanagement, which has left Mr. Winnie without a cause to run on other than his record.

One issue does distinguish the two candidates: their approach to the state SAFE Act, Governor Cuomo’s gun control law adopted by the legislature early this year. Neither candidate likes the law, and it is highly unpopular in rural communities. But it has the support of a large majority of state residents overall. The difference here is that Mr. Winnie says he would enforce the gun law. Capt. Bartlett says he would not.

Capt. Bartlett bases his position on the belief that the law is unconstitutional, and Sheriff Harrison has already allied his office with colleagues around the state calling for repeal of the SAFE Act. Capt. Bartlett will undoubtedly reaffirm this if elected sheriff. That’s his right; the law would be fairer if certain parts of it are revised or overturned. But Capt. Bartlett’s blanket promise not to enforce the law is incompatible with the office he seeks.

Police officers make decisions all the time about which laws to enforce. Citizens expect them to exercise good judgment and restraint. But that’s not the same as preemptively excluding the use a state law you’re sworn to uphold. The Second Amendment does not trump the Constitution itself, which defines a separation powers; nowhere does our Constitution say that sheriffs have powers greater than those of lawmakers or the courts.
Capt. Bartlett, a seasoned lawman, knows that parts of the SAFE Act are useful. And as much as he dislikes this flawed law, he also knows his duty. It is unimaginable based on his record of outstanding public service that he would permit his personal beliefs to interfere in any way with his duty to protect the people of Columbia County. He understands that the task ahead is far larger than one law. Voters should accept that fact too. He is the right person for sheriff. Please vote for David Bartlett on November 5.

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