In their campaigns for Lafayette Parish sheriff, Mark Garber and Chad Leger have agreed on most of the local issues. But what may make the difference in Saturday’s election is how voters perceive the candidates’ law enforcement experience.
Although Garber led Leger in the primary, taking 46 percent of the vote to Leger’s 39 percent, another 15 percent of primary voters are up for grabs as well as any other voters who missed the Oct. 24 election but may vote in Saturday’s runoff.
The two candidates, both Republicans, share similar views on how to lead the agency after four-term Sheriff Mike Neustrom, with their most prominent differences realized in their work experiences — attributes each candidate is highlighting in the final week of a more than 10-month campaign.
Garber, a 45-year-old Lafayette attorney, touts his experience at local, state and federal law enforcement levels, including time as a civilian interrogator with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq, as a U.S. Secret Service agent and as a 15th Judicial District prosecutor.
“We will be as well off as we can possibly be if I’m elected sheriff,” Garber said.
Leger, the 49-year-old police chief of Scott, said his lifelong dedication to serving Lafayette Parish makes him the best man for the job. He spent 14 years working numerous divisions at the Sheriff’s Office and another 13 years as chief.
“I understand the culture. I understand the dynamics. I understand the people,” Leger said. “And most importantly, I see and know the needs of the people of Lafayette Parish.”
Each candidate said in separate interviews Monday that correcting staffing issues would be his top priority, if elected, with a focus on increasing both the number of deputies patrolling the streets and working inside the jail. Both suggested a possible reallocation of existing employees to fill those slots, while adding they want to enhance both recruiting and enforcement efforts.
Leger has said throughout the campaign he’ll increase the number of deputies on patrol by re-allocating manpower from corrections and administrative roles, which make up about three-fourths of the agency’s more than 850 employees.
Garber has shared similar ideas, adding that he wants to increase the agency’s enforcement capabilities by upgrading crime analysis software without a need to hire additional employees. He said his experience with technology at the federal level would give him an advantage in efforts to tamp down local crime and protect the parish from any outside threats.
“I’m equipped to bring every possible tool to bear because of my knowledge and experience in counterterrorism,” Garber said.
Both candidates support existing alternative sentencing and diversion programs, although to varying degrees.
Garber has said he has no intention of scaling back any existing programs, suggesting he may give employees who work in those programs additional responsibilities in order to increase efficiency.
Leger said he wants to keep programs that are both successful and fiscally responsible, although he has not indicated whether any particular program would be cut. He has, however, suggested he wants to expand the existing Juvenile Assessment Center, where underage offenders are evaluated for possible social programming in an effort to divert them from incarceration.
Leger also said he supports the idea of a multi-agency and/or grant-funded effort to address mental health in relation to criminal justice.
Garber said the same of mental health programming, further citing his support of the current administration’s admiration for the concept of a “Restoration Center” — something like an adult version of the JAC for low-level offenders suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues. But Garber said he’s leery of taking federal government grants that come with strict guidelines.
The Sheriff’s Office is also in a budgetary bind with its $23.5 million debt owed on the West Willow Street public safety complex that’s still only partially operational after more than a year-and-a-half since construction finished.
Garber said he would make the facility revenue-positive by increasing the amount of regional law enforcement training done there and by housing more state inmates at the facility.
Leger said consolidating some of the agency’s more than two dozen properties to that one building would be a more efficient use while also saving operations and maintenance costs across the board.
Unknown at this point is whether the other 15 percent of voters who cast ballots in the primary will accept the endorsement choice of their once-favored contender.
Rick Chargois, a retired State Police lieutenant who won 11 percent of the primary vote, endorsed Garber.
John Rogers, a current Sheriff’s Office employee who won 4 percent in the primary, endorsed Leger.
Assuming the same voters show up at the polls Saturday, Leger would need to capture at least 76 percent of Chargois’ and Rogers’ votes to best Garber.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.