BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Tom Bensley believes the Grand Traverse Sheriff's Department is in far better shape than it was four years ago.
But Joe McCarthy — who contends Bensley makes poor spending decisions and is out of touch with employees — doesn't agree with that assessment.
Bensley, the Republican incumbent, faces off against McCarthy, a Democrat, on Nov. 6.
Bensley will wrap his first four-year term as sheriff this year. He handily defeated two-term Sheriff Scott Fewins in the 2008 primary. He had retired in 1999 after about 30 years with the department in a variety of positions.
McCarthy has been with the Traverse City Police Department since 1987, and served as a patrol officer, school liaison officer and detective, among other roles. He supervised other detectives and handled several high-profile city investigations since he became a detective sergeant in 2004.
Bensley recently used about $800,000 seized after a sprawling, national illegal workers probe to buy land and construct a building to house several sheriff's department vehicles. McCarthy contends that money wasn't properly used.
"We needed a pole barn on existing county property that could have been built for a fraction of that," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he'd have rather used that money to install video recording equipment in sheriff's department patrol vehicles.
Bensley said the building was needed to consolidate and protect important equipment. Plus, he said, the county board approved the building.
"The bottom line is, when it comes to money, we have to get everything OK'd by the board," he said. "They were ... OK with that decision, and they spent the money. They saw the need, we saw the need."
Additional asset seizure money was used to buy Tasers and devices that allow deputies to remotely access jail and department records. The cards have been a huge boost to deputies as they go about their work, Bensley said.
McCarthy also criticized Bensley because the department no longer has a school liaison officer program. The department until recently had officers stationed at Traverse City West and East middle schools, West Senior High and Kingsley high schools. The program was scuttled when the schools — which covered half the cost — decided to stop paying their share.
Bensley said he supports the idea of school liaison officers, but had no choice other than to pull out when the county board decided to stop funding the program. McCarthy doesn't buy it.
"I think that's an excuse," McCarthy said. "As the chief executive of the sheriff's department, he allocates the resources of that department, and if he wanted police school liaison officers, he would have them."
McCarthy criticized Bensley's treatment of two deputies who attempted to cover up a Traverse City police officer's February 2010 drunken driving incident. Bensley fired Robert Sillers and Mark Noffke after they admitted they didn't give city officer Joseph Soffredine sobriety or other alcohol tests after he crashed his vehicle while off duty. Both deputies pleaded guilty to criminal counts of neglect of duty, then were fired.
"I believe that those officers were subject to discipline, but the discipline they received was far in excess of what was appropriate," McCarthy said.
McCarthy contends that's part of a broader issue of Bensley having a contentious relationship with employees. But Bensley contends morale at the department is just fine, and that he's been "fair, open and honest" in dealing with personnel issues.
"Our biggest asset is the people who work here, but they are humans, and they are not all the same," he said. "When we get into these discipline issues, each situation is different, and we try to ... handle them as uniformly and fairly as possible."
McCarthy also believes he has better experience than Bensley, who spent much of his sheriff's career supervising the marine division.
"I've been a police supervisor for 15 years. I've been in charge of officers investigating burglaries, robberies, stabbings, shootings, homicides," he said. "Tom Bensley, running the marine division, was in charge of college kids and retirees for 15 years. He was never in charge of police officers until he was elected sheriff."
But only one of the two candidates has been sheriff, Bensley said.
"I think it's clear that I have the managerial experience. I've been in this job for four years ... I've had to deal with some tough issues, and that's good experience going forward."