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Despite lack of interest, Onondaga County sheriff race has strong candidates

Republican Gene Conway, left, and Democrat Toby Shelley are the candidates in the race for Onondaga County Sheriff. They spoke with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher.

For the first time in two decades, Onondaga County will have a new sheriff next January. The two men vying for the opportunity to succeed longtime sheriff Kevin Walsh, who’s retiring, are making the rounds across the county this fall, trying to convince voters to pay attention to the race.  

The candidates are Republican Gene Conway, currently the police chief in the town of Dewitt, and Democrat Toby Shelley, a 16-year veteran of the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department, who retired in 2011.

Both say when they knock on doors during this campaign, it is budget issues most people want to talk about. The $83 million department budget is bursting with overtime costs and some controversial programs -- like the Air One helicopter service and take home vehicles. The sheriff also runs the Justice Center, which is so overcrowded the county is forced to send inmates to nearby jails.  

At a Thursday morning roundtable in DeWitt, Conway said he would run the department as efficiently as possible.

"We do that through working together with the county legislature -- trying to demonstrate fiscal integrity between the sheriff’s office and the county legislature, and finding things every day to be most efficient," said Conway.

Shelley says one way to pare down the budget is a plan for innovative scheduling of staff.

"I proposed one four years ago, I presented to the county legislature. It didn’t get implemented. We can take another look at that. In essence that is you move your resources from the quiet times to the busy times,” said Shelley.

On other issues, Conway wants to see a discussion in the community about getting better resources for the mentally ill, who often end up in jail because there’s nowhere else to go.

And Shelley promises to put an office in the Justice Center, so he can learn firsthand what’s happening at the troubled facility.

Both candidates admit, the race for sheriff is under the radar.

"There is a disinterest in the sheriff’s race, and that doesn’t hurt my feelings, and that’s the reality because we’re overshadowed by the bigger races in town, the congressional race and the gubernatorial race. But people do care,” said Shelley.

And Conway says part of their job as candidates is to let people know how important the sheriff’s department is.

A lot of people only pay attention to law enforcement when they need police services. So I think it’s incumbent on people in law enforcement, such as myself, to be out in the community, educating the community the role that law enforcement plays in our safety,” said Conway.

Shelley has the edge in this race enrollment wise, with more Democrats enrolled in Onondaga County than Republicans. Conway however has the edge when it comes to money, raising almost four times as much as Shelley over the last three years.