SALT LAKE CITY — One side calls it a race between a policeman and a politician. The other calls it a contest between a bridge builder and a divider.
But one point with which both Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder and Cottonwood Heights police officer Beau Babka concur is that this year's race for Salt Lake County sheriff comes at a crucial time — in the wake of creating a countywide Unified Police Force and its funding.
Winder, a Democratic incumbent, is seeking a second term after he unseated longtime Sheriff Aaron Kennard to become the county's top law enforcer in 2006. Among the accomplishments under his watch, Winder lists the formation of the Unified Police Department, the reopening of the Oxbow Jail and maintaining the level of protection the community expects even after being forced to cut $14 million from his budget.
"Citizens of this county are not looking for people who pass off answers and don't have answers. What they want is results. What I've given is results," he said.
Republican challenger Babka has been in law enforcement 18 years, working his way through the ranks to become the South Salt Lake Police Department's chief and later the Salt Lake County undersheriff for Winder. This is also his third run for public office, having lost in a 2002 campaign for sheriff and losing a bid for Congress two years later. He is currently an officer with the Cottonwood Heights Police Department.
"I've proven in the communities that I serve, I'm able to come up with problem solving strategies," he said recently during a debate on "The Doug Wright Show" on KSL Newsradio. "I'm a community cop. I'm somebody people can come to as a resource."
Despite his penchant for politics, Babka says he's a law enforcer first. But he says there are times a sheriff has to be politically aware when presenting budget proposals and policing strategies before mayors and county councils.
Winder, meanwhile, says his own accomplishments over the past four years speak for themselves.
"Those are real solutions, not rhetoric, not discussion, not academics. It's rubber meets the road, job work product."
Unified Police force
One of the hot-button issues for the sheriff's race is the Salt Lake County public safety fee. In order to make up for a budget shortfall, Salt Lake County decided to bill businesses and residents in its unincorporated areas for police service. Without the money, UPD would have had to lay off more than 100 officers. The fee is about $174 for an average house. But for businesses, fees climb into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The biggest business, Kennecott Copper, is being billed more than $1 million.
Early on, the fee was commonly referred to as a UPD fee. A three-member board composed of County Council members voted on whether to impose fees. They called themselves the Unified Police District, something that quickly added to the public's confusion about who was behind the fee.
But Winder said he had nothing to do with it. An outspoken opponent, Winder stressed to the public that he did not have the power to raise taxes or impose a fee.
"The information sharing was poor. Implementation in the early stages was very problematic," he said. "The sheriff does not raise taxes. The sheriff manages a budget. … Don't blame me for what I didn't do."
Babka, however, says the sheriff should have known what was happening.
"For my opponent to say he didn't have anything to do with it, is wrong. He legislated it. He brought it to the council," Babka said. "He allowed it to go on. He has a role in this. He needs to be accountable."
Babka said a sheriff or police chief needs to be accountable for the services that department is providing to their community and how they provide it. The UPD in theory is good, he said. But once the Legislature denied giving UPD taxing authority, Babka said it should have been put on hold until a different model was developed.
Winder said even if he could have stopped the UPD from forming, it wouldn't have made a difference. The county still would have been short on its budget and likely would have raised property taxes. The fee and the formation of the UPD do not go together, he said.
"It's like comparing apples and oranges. They're not associated at all," Winder said. "The fee was not created because of the Unified Police."
The public safety fee aside, Winder points with pride to the creation the Unified Police Department.
"There's never been a model like it," Winder said.
For the first time, law enforcement and elected officials were able to get together and write and design their own policing strategy, he said.
"It doesn't matter who the sheriff is in that position," Winder said. "It matters what the relationships are, and we have created relationships on paper that improve the policing for the communities we have and it will continue to grow."
Babka, however, says those relations are not nearly as good as Winder claims, and that some cities feel alienated.
He points to Bluffdale, which earlier this year ended its relationship with UPD and contracted police services from Saratoga Springs.
"The personality needs to change at the top," Babka said. "Nobody is getting along."
Winder called Bluffdale's decision to leave premature. And says that like his record, his endorsements speak for themselves about his relations with other cities.
Winder's list of endorsements includes the Unified Police Federation and the mayors or former mayors of seven cities including some that aren't part of the UPD.
Babka has received endorsements from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, several mayors, police chiefs and at least one other sheriff.
Both candidates list on their websites as being endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Under Winder's command, the Oxbow Jail reopened two units in 2008 to help relieve overcrowding at the main Adult Detention Center.
Babka, however, called it a "shell game," noting that two units in the main jail had to be closed in order to reopen Oxbow. Only recently did the last of those two units reopen.6 comments on this story
Both candidates concur overcrowding in the jail will be a big issue for the next sheriff. Winder wants to implement more programs to help rehabilitate inmates from reoffending rather than warehousing them until their next arrest. He also favors programs that work as an alternative to incarceration such as ankle monitoring.
Babka said he would come up with a plan and "a real solution" within six months of being elected that would examine different programs and therapies for jail inmates, and get the mayors and chiefs of each city involved in the planning, something Winder said he already did.
A recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV showed Winder with a 53 percent to 35 percent over Babka.