The Rapidian

Voting for Kent County Sheriff: Lawrence Stelma wants voters to choose experience

This November, Kent County voters will elect a Sheriff, who oversees the security of the county courts and the jail in Grand Rapids. This article is second in a series of six in which each candidate sat down for an in-depth interview.
Lawrence Stelma has served in the Kent County Sheriff's office since 1972.

Lawrence Stelma has served in the Kent County Sheriff's office since 1972. /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

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This November, Kent County voters will elect a Sheriff. Though the municipal police departments have jurisdiction over patrolling and policing functions within city limits, the Sheriff oversees the security of the county courts and the correctional facility, which affects city residents who are charged, tried, or sentenced. Many of the county’s largest schools, including East Kentwood High, Rockford High, and the Forest Hills district, are also under county jurisdiction. The first interview in this series with the other candidate for Sheriff, Michael Scruggs, the Democratic candidate, is here.

The current Sheriff, Lawrence Stelma, has 44 years of experience in the Sheriff’s Office and if elected will be serving his fifth term. In an interview on October 19, 2016, Stelma shared his perspective on the job.

A large and diverse scope

“We are one of the largest Sheriff’s offices in the nation-the largest in Michigan outside of metropolitan Detroit. Every police and fire department outside the city of Grand Rapids goes through our dispatch, and we have a redundant dispatch connected to Grand Rapids so if they go down, we can cover them and vice versa.” Stelma said if the equipment goes down, “we can’t ask Ottawa County, which may have three or four bodies working dispatch, to pick up the work of our 15. It’s not like in the Detroit metropolitan area where you have lots of neighboring agencies that are large. We are it, and we have to be self-sustaining.”

Stelma continued, “We run a complex organization with diverse functions. We have a little over 600 employees. We’re pushing a $70 million budget. It’s absolutely critical that the Sheriff have the knowledge and experience to be efficient with the $70 million, and to be effective in deploying the 600 employees. We’re responsible for all of the judges’ security, the courthouse security, all the prisoner transports. We’re responsible for public safety in the county parks, and Millennium Park, which sits among five political jurisdictions. We have all of the marine functions in the area, whether in a Kent County park or the Grand River or Reeds Lake, we do recovery. The Sheriff has got to have significant knowledge and experience in all of those arenas if that person is going to be effective.”

History

“The office of Sheriff is a constitutional office, established in the 1830's when Michigan became a state,” Stelma said. “There were no educational requirements for law enforcement, no experience requirements, the complexity of the job was entirely different. The constitution hasn’t changed. Anyone can run. So that brings forth a lot of unqualified candidates with no experience with a big budget, who have never worked a day in a jail. There are counties that are struggling today because [voters] made a poor choice. In Kent County we’ve never had an unqualified Sheriff, though we have had unqualified candidates. [Voters] better be careful of who they put in office.”

This election

When asked why he’s running in this election, Stelma answered, “Serving this community is just in my DNA.”  

Stelma continued on the topic of this election: “The biggest issue that’s facing us now is referendum on the 911 surcharge that’s on the ballot."

"It really is critical to public safety communications, we are way behind,” Stelma said, referring to the upcoming November 8 ballot request for voters to approve a 70 cent surcharge to be levied for every phone. The income will help convert the county's outdated dispatching system to the modern network used by neighboring counties and the Michigan State Police.

In the next part of the series, Stelma will talk about whether race or ethnicity is an issue in the upcoming election.

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