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McDonough County sheriff candidates talk about SAFE-T Act and other issues

McDonough County Sheriff Nick Petitgout (left) is being challenged in this fall's election by Mark Clark.
McDonough County Sheriff Nick Petitgout (left) is being challenged in this fall's election by Mark Clark.

The sheriff in McDonough County is running for a second term. He’s being challenged by a long-time member of the Colchester police department.

The candidates

The incumbent is Nick Petitgout. He won the Republican primary in March 2018, then was appointed sheriff shortly thereafter when predecessor Rick Van Brooker left office early. Petitgout went on to win the general election in 2018. Now he’s on the ballot again after running unopposed in this year’s Republican primary.

Mark Clark is also on the ballot for sheriff. He is running as an independent. Clark is a police sergeant in Colchester. He’s been with the department since 2000.

Why are they running?

Clark said he is running because he wants to make a difference for the community.

“I want to refocus on rural patrol. I’ve heard from people that they’re not seeing deputies on the back roads and out in the county as much so I want to refocus on that,” he said.

Clark also said he wants to bring back 24-hour patrols and implement an independent hiring board for the sheriff’s department.

Petitgout said he’s running for a second term because he wants to continue serving the county’s residents.

“A lot of people go about their daily lives and don’t really have that influence over: is this a safe community or is this not a safe community? Every day when I wake up, I get to have that influence over: is McDonough County a great place to raise your kids? And I think that’s the motivation for me,” he said.

Petitgout said he served in the Marines, and has been with the sheriff’s office for nearly 16 years. He said he’s lived a life of service and enjoys it.

The SAFE-T Act

Petitgout said he cannot name anything he likes about the criminal justice reform measure. He is upset with the way the Illinois legislature handled the bill.

“I hate the way it was conducted as far as being passed in the middle of the night. I don’t think people understand how much it changes the entire criminal justice system and we don’t have any answers as to how we do that,” he said.

One problem, Petitgout said, is that the measure does not give discretion to judges when considering whether to release a person before their trial. He said that needs to be changed.

“One of the things that the bill does eliminate is, for instance, if you were held on one of those lesser offenses, and a judge would have the determination to hold you in jail, for instance, if you were on a crime spree. One of the things we don’t look at is that some of these people we deal with, they get out of jail and they commit another crime, commit another crime, commit another crime. And then finally somebody has to hit the pause button,” Petitgout said.

Petitgout is on the executive board of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association, which he said is working with the legislature on possible changes to the act. He believes decision-makers in Springfield are listening to their concerns. But he said there’s been no action yet. He hopes something happens during the veto session.

Clark, on the other hand, said he can find some good things in the SAFE-T Act.

Clark said he knows some people lack the money to pay for bail, so he does not have a problem with the no-cash bail provision in the bill.

“I’ve researched the act and I understand that a judge has to make that determination on whether somebody will be released. So I understand both sides of it. But I think, there again, people being able to get out if they don’t have the means is good,” he said.

Clark also said the act has some good accountability measures, such as requiring body cameras for law enforcement. He said body cams are not perfect but they can provide some information about situations as they occur and can help alleviate some complaints.

Clark added he has some concerns about the SAFE-T Act. He does not like a provision that allows for anonymous complaints to be filed against law officers.

“And so if somebody gets mad at you because you didn’t handle a call the way they think you should have or if they think you didn’t treat them the way you should have, they could file a complaint and you don’t have any way to necessarily talk to a person, or as an administrator go back and say, ‘You filed this complaint. Can you talk to me about it? Can you tell me what happened?’” Clark said.

He said both the law officer and the person making the complaint need to be accountable.

The biggest challenge facing the office

Petitgout believes hiring is the biggest challenge facing the department. He said that’s because other police agencies can pay more.

“You have the state police in the collar counties that pay very well. If you’re a single guy, a single girl and you’re a police officer, you can pretty much write your own ticket,” he said.

Petitgout said that makes it a challenge to bring in quality people who want to stay in McDonough County. As a result, the department might have to hire applicants who are a little younger than what it’s accustomed to and mentor them.

Petitgout also said being sheriff is a challenging but rewarding job. He said he has learned from other sheriffs and from the people around him.

Clark believes the budget is the biggest challenge facing the sheriff’s department. He said as sheriff, he would work to ensure the department is making wise spending decisions.

If bail goes away and other things that are going away like that, money is going away and so trying to give people raises, pay for gas, pay for equipment, I just think that’s kind of where things are going to squeeze,” he said.

Clark said he would address that challenge by going through the budget line-by-line and make sure money is not being spent on vehicles or equipment that are beyond what the county needs. He said he would also seek out grants.

Who won the 2020 presidential election?

TSPR also asked the candidates about something else to gain insight into their personalities: Do you believe Joseph Biden won the 2020 presidential election or do you believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump?

This is how Clark responded.

Clark: “That’s not my area to say. I don’t know.”

TSPR: “But, you know, we hear people -- all levels of government, from the highest down to local – are weighing in on this. I think this is an issue (that) voters want to know -- they want to know this about the people they might vote for. What are your feelings on this issue?”

Clark: “I believe we need to have faith in our electoral system. I’m going into this trying to get elected. I have to have faith in the system so I just have to have faith that whatever happened was the way it turned out and that’s all I can say on it. I don’t know. I want to believe that our election system is fair, and I have to believe that. That’s an underpinning of our whole society.”

TSPR posed the same question about the 2020 presidential election to Petitgout.

“I believe Joe Biden won the election,” Petitgout responded.

Election Day is November 8

The McDonough County Sheriff’s Department has 27 full-time employees along with a multitude of part-time deputies and jailers.

Sheriff Nick Petitgout believes voters should choose him to continue leading that department. He said experience matters, and said he has that experience from doing the job every day the past four years.

Challenger Mark Clark said he is an independent candidate so he has no political leanings. Clark said voters should choose him because he will listen to citizens and run the department the way he thinks it should be run.

The sheriff’s office is the only county-wide office in McDonough with a contested election this fall.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.