GONZALES — Byron Hill, one of two Republican candidates for Ascension Parish sheriff, accused the interim sheriff and his predecessor of politically based law enforcement decisions, a top heavy administration and undermanned operations in which the leadership is disconnected from rank-and-file deputies.

But interim Sheriff Bobby Webre, who has been with the department for more than 34 years, suggested that Hill was exaggerating any problems in the office because he lacks an election platform of how he would operate the office and countered that Hill had laid down "his badge" three times by leaving his law enforcement career.

"I never laid down my badge," Webre said. "My opponent, while I appreciate his service to the Army National Guard, his commitment to law enforcement is just lacking," Webre told about 75 people during an Ascension Republican Women luncheon candidate forum Thursday. "My opponent has been employed with law enforcement three times in under 10 years, and he left three times. He laid down his badge, not once, not twice, but three times."

The forum provided the first time the two candidates had faced off in a public setting since qualifying ended last week.

Moses Black, a Democrat with 19 years of law enforcement experience in Ascension and a former Gonzales Police Department officer, is also running for sheriff in the Oct. 12 primary but was not invited to the Republican-only forum.

Moderated by local attorney and parish Planning Commissioner Matt Pryor, the forum allowed the two Republican candidates opening and closing statements and required them to answer a series of questions in between. But the strongest commentary centered around attempts to undercut the other man's standing as a candidate.

Webre questioned Hill's experience for a job managing an office with diverse responsibilities, 350 employees and a $43 million budget while Hill attempted to cast Webre as the latest representative of a long-standing good old boy political network that is trying to anoint the next sheriff and has played favorites in the field.

"In my opinion, there's no need for all of the politics," Hill said. "There is a little bit of a gray area from time to time on the fact of do we write a citation or not, not whether or not we make arrest because someone's connected to someone's pawpaw."

Hill, who now works as an Army National Guard recruiter after having left the Sheriff's Office for the last time in 2015, also defended his departures as symptoms of politics at play.

He said he twice left the Ascension Sheriff's Office because "the administration in place was tainted," including once when Webre was chief deputy. No one ever asked him why he was leaving or tried to convince him to stay, Hill said.

"But instead, the administration puts themselves, their friends and their (political) connections first," he said. "When I'm elected the sheriff, you will be first, not me."

In a later interview, Hill said he had a brief stay with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office in 2016 but didn't like the leadership, poor pay, equipment and training and left after about a week.

In the forum, Webre defended the management of the Ascension Sheriff's Office, touted his diverse management roles in the office over his career and the changes he has made since taking over for the retiring Sheriff Jeff Wiley in January, including regional patrol divisions that Hill complimented and a restoration of the canine unit. 

Trying to brush back claims of mismanagement from Hill, Webre said his office has a $23 million surplus, enough to cover expenses for six months, an especially important thing in times of disaster. 

Webre also went after Hill's personal voting record, noting that though Hill has encouraged people on Facebook to vote or risk getting poor government, he has personally missed voting in 22 of the last 32 elections in the parish, including the November 2015 runoff for parish president. 

"This is an example of, in my opinion, telling people what they should do, while he does something else," Webre said.

Secretary of State records substantiate Webre's claim, showing Hill had missed voting in elections from Sept. 30, 2006, to March 30, 2019. The records show Hill did vote, early, in the parish's presidential primary in October 2015.

Hill said later that Webre's claims don't take into account the fact he may have been on Army training or was out of town when he operated a trucking company for a time after he left law enforcement.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.