The candidates for Niagara County sheriff met face-to-face Tuesday afternoon in a forum sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lockport.
Sheriff's Chief Deputy James C. Voutour and Niagara Falls Police Detective Capt. Ernest C. Palmer were in good spirits as they shared lunch and joined about 50 Rotarians and supporters in a few songs, including rousing renditions of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "God Bless America," at the Town and Country Club.
The levity didn't last, as disagreements over endorsements and the way the sheriff's office operates took up most of the rest of the program.
Palmer, a Republican, outlined his endorsements by the county's municipal police chiefs and years of experience outside the sheriff's office, while Voutour, the Democratic candidate, ticked off his list of union endorsements, his education and the important role he's played inside the department for years.
Voutour called Palmer's endorsement by the seven police chiefs in Niagara County "nothing but complaining about [former] Sheriff Thomas Beilein" and "politics in Niagara County at its worst."
The two candidates are running to serve the last year of Beilein's unexpired term. Beilein resigned over the summer to take a state job on a commission that helps monitor local jails.
"I am supported by every big union, the UAW, CSEA, AFSCME, CWA," Voutour said. "These are the people I want to protect."
Palmer, however, said it was significant that he has been endorsed by the chiefs, as well and the New York State Police Benevolent Association and Western New York Police Association.
"I ask you to trust these endorsements," he said. "Look around at these people. This is the first time in the history of the sheriff's race that the chiefs have ever endorsed a candidate in a sheriff's race."
After noting his endorsements, however, Palmer said that people in the sheriff's office should be prohibited from endorsing a sheriff's candidate.
Voutour agreed, noting that people have taken sides in the sheriff's race within his department and that it has impacted morale.
Following a question about homeland security, Palmer said he believes the sheriff should "dictate policy" to federal employees, and said a few months back he spoke out against adding another layer of government when the County Legislature proposed the position of homeland security manager.
"The Legislature has agreed to wait," Palmer said. "The sheriff should be at the forefront coordinating efforts countywide. We don't need a homeland security director in this county. We have a sheriff."
Voutour said it is not the role of the sheriff to dictate legislation and added that one of the reasons the Niagara County chiefs had complained about Beilein was that he had too much authority over the distribution of homeland security money.
"Now you want to put the sheriff back in authority?" said Voutour. "What I plan to do is sit down with the police chiefs and talk with them and decide the best way to distribute those funds. We have $3.2 million right now that hasn't been distributed. Cooperation is key. We have to have the state police, the federal government and all the agencies that exist in Niagara County decide what is best. It's not up to me who will lead it."
Palmer did say he proposes establishing a county law enforcement council.
Voutour, 42, of the Town of Lockport, holds a bachelor's degree in management and finance from Brockport State College, has taken specialized police training and is currently pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice from John Jay College in New York City. He has been with the sheriff's department for 16 years.
Palmer, 49, of the Town of Lewiston, has an associate's degree in criminal justice from Niagara County Community College and completed law enforcement training at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. He has been with the Niagara Falls Police Department for 26 years and is a former Village of Youngstown police chief.
The candidates were asked if they had experience preparing a budget.
Voutour told Rotary members he was currently working on the $16 million budget for the jail, which is part of the sheriff's budget.
Voutour said the department has lobbied successfully to increase the daily fee for housing federal prisoners, which will bring the county $3 million this year.
"There is no fluff," he said. "Road patrol is $15.1 million. We can't just shut off [patrol cars] to save gas. There's too much electronics. It would kill the batteries. We have to keep them running.
"We have to make cuts," he added, "while also maintaining a high level of efficiency."
Palmer said in his years of government experience that he's managed an $11 million budget in Niagara Falls as the former superintendent of police and managed a small budget as Youngstown chief. He said that right now he is in the middle of the budget process as a councilman in Lewiston.
The two candidates will meet again today as part of the Niagara Falls Block Club Candidates Night. The forum starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Niagara Falls Public Library, 1425 Main St. Other candidates invited are those for Niagara Falls City Court judge and the 138th Assembly District seat.