While the three incumbents running for county officer positions touted their experience on Tuesday night, their challengers told a crowd of about 60 people what they could bring to those positions.
But the candidates’ forum hosted by the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce also had the two candidates for one of those positions raising their voices about their opponents’ actions.
Not only did the incumbent state’s attorney, Democrat Stephen Friedel, say that his opponent, write-in candidate Dan Goggin, has no prosecution experience, but also alleged that Goggin had committed fraud in trying to get on the ballot as an independent candidate.
The forum at Los Amigos Restaurant also offered looks at the candidates for circuit clerk and coroner.
In the circuit clerk’s race, Democrat Mary Sue Ruot is being challenged by Republican Nona Beckman, a retired educator.
The incumbent coroner, Republican Bruce Bowen, is opposed by Democrat John Cearlock as he – like Friedel – seeks a third term in office.
Ruot, a 26-year employee in the circuit clerk’s office who was appointed circuit clerk at the beginning of August, cited that experience in her opening statement.
She said she has had the privilege of learning from and working alongside Marsha Wodtka, whom Ruot said had developed a reputation as “the most knowledgeable persons in the circuit and probably in the state.”
“We have constantly been updating the office,” she said, noting that the local circuit clerk’s office was among the first to switch over from handwritten record-keeping to the use of computers.
Ruot also said the office has accepted credit card payments for fines, but said that “has not been real popular, because there’s an 8-percent upcharge.”
She said she has “been involved in a lot of changes” in the office, that the office is “multi-faceted” in the number of cases it handles, “and I can handle all kinds of cases.”
Beckman said she has gained “a wealth of experience in education,” with that career including teaching jobs, working for the Regional Office of Education, teaching adult literacy classes and working for a private educational company.
She also said she has done bookkeeping for a couple of businesses, operated a couple of small businesses and currently does the books for a local fraternal organization.
“I feel like I have a wealth of experience I can draw on,” Beckman said.
She said that she decided to run for the office because, “I have an interest in government, and I also have an interest in bringing more technology to Fayette County.”
Beckman conceded that while she is not familiar with the operations of the circuit clerk’s office in this county, she has gone to other counties to learn about how those offices are run, including services offered in those other counties that may not be offered here.
Both were asked by moderator Todd Stapleton to describe things in their background and experience that made them qualified for the office.
Ruot again cited her 26 years in the office, as well as working on a daily basis with judges, attorneys, law enforcement and other county offices.
“I know how to handle everything that may come through the office,” Ruot said.
Beckman said, “I’ve worked with people in all walks of life, and I have a lot of experience working in office settings, as well.”
She said that an office has to handle daily operations, “but you also have to reach out to people and accept new ideas.”
Beckman said she has “a lot of information I have gathered” by studying other clerks’ offices and that she could offer those new ideas here.
“I think I do have the management skills,” Beckman said.
Both were asked what improvements they would like to see in the office, and Beckman said, “I’ve approached the whole campaign on the issue of technology.”
She said she’s been approached by people who’d like to see the office offer more services online.
Beckman said she’s learned that other offices accept payments through the state treasurer’s office. “It’s working well ee and it increases the efficiency of the office. The benefits of the program far outweigh the issues with it.”
By offering ePay services, Beckman said, “We can save our citizens time, and the money would come into our office immediately. It can be here sooner.
“Anything we can do to bring efficiency. I think it’s the No. 1 issue.”
Ruot said, “Of course, we need to stay on top of automation. It’s a continuing thing.”
She said that to a large extent, the office is controlled by various agencies, and it must be operated under rules established by the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts.
“We can set some policy, but everything must be approved,” Ruot said.
On the issue of ePay, Ruot said, “It’s just another manner of payment. It doesn’t speed anything up. It doesn’t come directly into your office; it goes to the state treasurer’s office and they disperse the money to the county, where(as) we disperse the money to the other (county) agencies” after receiving payments.
Also, she said, the state is “not set up to collect additional fees,” such as late fees. “And that’s a loss of money to the county.
“There are a lot of bugs in that system.”
People paying fines don’t like to use the alternative payment options, Ruot said, because there are additional costs, and many times, they don’t have enough money to pay just the fines.
“We work with them (on getting fines paid)ee that’s what we’re here for,” she said.
Beckman said she has heard from most citizens about upgrading the technology in the office, and that while there may be problems with online payments, other counties “use it and have found it to be effective.”
Ruot said she hears from citizens, “Don’t spend my tax dollars foolishly. In the times we have now ee it is a big, big issue.”
Both were asked why residents should vote for them.
Beckman said she feels she would “bring skills and personality” and would want “to make people feel good about coming into the office.
“I want to bring my new ideas and energy,” Beckman said.
Ruot said she believes citizens should vote for her because of her experience.
“I know the ins and outs, and the ups and downs in our office.
“You don’t hear much about what’s going on in our office because it runs smoothly and efficiently every day,” Ruot said.
In her closing statement, Beckman again said she would like to see possible technology upgrades considered, and that she feels she has to offer “people skills and enthusiasm.”
Ruot, in her closing, again citing her experience in working with judges and others using the office on a daily basis, “and I have handled each and every type of case.”
Bowen said that in his eight years as coroner, “I have made extensive changes” in the office.
The improvements, he said, include “greatly improving the response time,” quicker issuance of death certificates, the introduction of computers into office operations and a commitment to continuing education in the area of death investigations.
Cearlock noted that he comes from a family steeped in public service, that he is a certified registered nurse and that gained “strong administrative skills” during his career with the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Asked the most important job of the coroner, Bowen said, “Being compassionate and helpful to the family,” as well as collecting and preserving evidence.
Cearlock said he believes that it’s important for the coroner to be available and have timely response.
The worst part of the job, Bowen said, “Without question, is when I have to walk up on a parents’ doorstep, knock on their door and break the news to them that their teenager has died or been killed in a car accident.”
Cearlock said that’s a hard question to answer, since he hasn’t served in the job, but added that he feels it could be tough “maybe delaying that response (death notification). If you go too early, you could jeopardize an investigation.”
Both candidates were asked to state improvements they would like to see in the coroner’s office.
Cearlock said, “Response times can always be improved,” adding that record preservation and storage are also important.
Bowen said, “I’m a perfectionist. I think I have an average response time of 15 minutes, and I would challenge anybody to improve that.”
On the question as to why people should vote for them, Cearlock said, “I would be the person with the highest qualifications ever elected to this office.”
He also said his experience would help him to manage tax dollars and maintain records.
Bowen cited his eight years of experience and extensive education in death investigation.
“I have proven myself,” he said.
In his closing, Cearlock said that it’s rare that voters have a choice of two strong candidates.
“I believe I can offer a better and stronger choice,” he said, talking about his experience as a nurse and administrator with the IDOC.
Bowen said, “I have brought a positive change to the coroner’s office,” talking about “hundreds of hours in death investigation,” experience in working with forensic specialists and others in law enforcement, and getting involved in such programs as elderly abuse, child car seat safety and organ donations.
In his opening statement, Friedel said, “I believe I have a record of service, one I do not believe can be argued.”
He said that when he took office eight years ago, only half of the felony cases resulted in convictions and that the conviction rate for domestic battery was 25 percent.
Now, he said, the rates for those two types of cases are “well over” 80 percent and 75 percent, respectively.
“I promised to bring you better prosecution, and I believe I’ve done that,” Friedel said.
When he first took office, Friedel said, “I explained that there was a meth problem.”
On his first day in office, five people were arrested on methamphetamine charges, Friedel said, and he – with other law enforcement personnel – went out into the community to explain the meth problem. “Now, it seems, like most people in Fayette County are educated on the problem.”
Friedel claimed that he has been in the forefront on that issue.
“It’s important to have a prosecutor is qualified and effective” in the prosecution of meth cases, he said.
Friedel also noted that juvenile cases, including abuse, neglect and delinquency, are not “well liked” by most prosecutors, who turn them over to their assistants.
“I have been the only attorney (in this county) to handle juvenile cases,” he said.
In his opening statement, Goggin cited his experience with federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including in methamphetamine cases.
“What I want to do, basically, is justice,” Goggin said.
After hearing from people in the county, he said, “I believe that what they want in a state’s attorney in this county is someone who treats cases fairly.”
Goggin said that he’s been told that people who commit the same crimes get “reasonably the same sentences,” regardless of such things as “standing in society.”
He also said he’s heard from business people “who want their property protected,” talking about burglary incidents, and who want deceptive practices cases prosecuted.
Both candidates were asked to give their strengths and weaknesses.
“I believe my strength is my experience,” Goggin said, again talking about his work in state and federal courts.
“Very few attorneys go on and do that federal level practice,” he said.
“I believe that my extensive experience at the federal level has well qualified me for pursuing the office,” Goggin said, saying that he has handled 37 jury trials at that level since June 1997.
As to weaknesses, Goggin said that he tends to procrastinate. “I tend to do my best work under the guneeI tend to do my best work when I’m late.”
Friedel said he feels that his “philosophy of being a prosecutor is one of my greatest strengths.”
He said that when he was a law student, he did not set out to be a prosecutor, that he had planned to be a defense attorney, because he believed that was the best way to accomplish justice.
A law professor, however, told him that the “best way to achieve justice,” was to be a state’s attorney, “to make sure that victims are protected,” Friedel said.
Successful prosecution, he said, is not always “about getting the largest sentenceseeit’s about achieving justice.”
He told about a federal meth case where the defendant talked about his meth activity in various counties in Southern Illinois. The defendant said he did not deal meth in Fayette County “because the prosecution is too harsh,” Friedel said.
He said a state’s attorney “has to have a thick skin.
“There is simply no way you can be a state’s attorney and please everybody.”
Friedel said a state’s attorney “makes a lot of decisions, and I am the first attorney to tell you that I have not made all of them right.”
“I have built what I would like to think is a small group of people who are not pleased with me, and that’s the way it is,” he said.
“If you replace me, four years from now, there will be a group of people who will be equally displeased with another person who is holding the office, because it’s the nature of the office,” Friedel said.
As to how he handles criticism, Goggin he also believes that a prosecutor is will make enemies in doing his job, and that he feels he has learned from observing both good and bad state’s attorneys.
“All I can do is promise to do the best I can,” Goggin said.
On how he would handle a case in which he is called to prosecute someone has supported him, Goggin said.
“It would be a crushing blow to me, but, professionally, I would have to do my job,” he said, adding that he would consider bringing in someone else to prosecute such a case “if I feel there is a conflict.”
On that question, Friedel said, “It’s difficult, but it’s part of the job.”
He said that the people in this county who are upset with him “are my proof that your party affiliation does not affect the prosecution that comes from my office.
“I treat you on your own merits, not by who your name is, not by whether you have an R (Republican) or a D (Democrat) behind your name. It is the facts of the case, not the person,” Friedel said.
Both candidates were asked to state any changes they would like to make with the office.
Goggin said that first of all, rumors that he would terminate employees in the state’s attorney’s office if elected are not true.
“What I will do differently, doing business for the people of the county, is always putting what are their interests as first.
“I think the fact that I am a write-in candidate shows that hasn’t always been done in this county,” Goggin said.
“For me to end up as a write-in, the people deserve a choice,” he said.
How he handled himself throughout the process of being a candidate for the office, Goggin said, “shows how I conduct myself.”
He said that after failed attempts to run as a Republican and an independent candidate, Goggin said, he remains in the race as a write-in candidate is a way “to put the people first” because he is giving them a choice.
He said that he chose not to initiate litigation because it would be costly to taxpayers.
When Friedel challenged signatures on his nomination papers, Goggin said he chose not to fight the issue because he felt Friedel would use the documents to “draw charges on them (people who signed his petitions).”
These allegations kicked off heated discussions.
In response to Goggin’s allegations, Friedel said that he followed the laws when he filed his nomination papers and simply believed that Goggin should do the same.
“If a person is going to be qualified to be the state’s attorney, it is also important that they follow the law,” Friedel said.
“In the signature contest, it was clear to me that the law was not followed,” he said, noting that a county electoral board “proved me right.”
In Goggin’s attempt to run as an independent candidate, Friedel said, “There were four affidavits that were falsely attested to, signed and attested to by a person who did not circulate them.
“It is my belief that Mr. Goggin was present when those affidavits were done, and he was the one that filed those. And it is my belief that if a state’s attorney if going to be an effective state’s attorney, it is a requirement upon him to do it right.
“It is requirement for him to know what people are doing on his behalf, and to make sure it is done,” Friedel said.
“If Mr. Goggin wanted the people to have a choice, the only thing I required of him was to be legal,” Friedel said.
In response to that, Goggin said what upset him the most about Friedel’s objections to his petitions was when Friedel, speaking on the radio, “said we were bumbling, that I was bumbling, that it wouldn’t look right for a guy who was trying to be state’s attorney but didn’t know how to fill out the papers.
“He knows that’s a lie,” Goggin said. “He knows that’s an outright lie.
“I didn’t nominate myself the first time, the Republican Party did. Randy Pollard (chairman of the Republican Central Committee) filed out that paperwork, he filed it. I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
“And he knows that there wasn’t even an error on the paperwork that he filed,” Goggin said, explaining that the nomination papers were kicked out because of a misunderstanding by Pollard.
“He was trying to call me incompetent, when he knew all along had nothing to do with me,” he said.
“The other two (attempts to get on the ballot) speak for themselves,” Goggin said.
“The way I responded to those, I feel, shows that I have the people’s best interest in mind, the decisions I made throughout that ee and I think the fact that I’m on a write-in ballot shows that,” he said.
Both were asked why people should vote for them.
Goggin said, “All I can do is promise them I will be what I say I will be.”
He said that he has asked people what they “want me to be. You told me what I want, and I will do my best.”
Friedel said, “There are good reasons to vote for me and good reasons not to vote for my opponent.
“You know my record,” he said. “There is no question about what I am and who I am.
“My opponent has no criminal prosecution experience whatsoever,” Friedel said.
“The entire methamphetamine fight in this county, are you prepared to handle that over to someone who has no criminal prosecution experience whatsoever,” he said.
“I would ask the question why is Dan Goggin running in Fayette County,” Friedel said, stating that Goggin is a native of Bond County, has lost two bids for state’s attorney in that county and is not running for state’s attorney there this year despite the fact that a Democrat is running unopposed.
Friedel acknowledged that he is not a native of this county, but did move here after deciding to run in Fayette County. “I voted for myself in my first election.
“I will leave you on this point – if the election came down to my vote and Mr. Goggin’s vote, who would win?
“I would, because I will vote for myself in Fayette County, and he will cast in ballot in Bond County,” Friedel said.
In response, Goggin said he became a candidate in Fayette County because Pollard “pleaded with me to run in Fayette County.
“I was done in politics at that time. Randy (Pollard) made it seem so easy when he told me it would be easy, but as it turned out, it got a little controversial.
“And I made a commitment to serve the people and finish this out, and that’s what I’m doing,” Goggin said.
He said that talked with people in the county, “and I think they know what I’m all about at this point. I think I can pursue the justice that people want.
“I am from Bond County, I’m not hiding from that.
So I will defer judgment to the people of Fayette County to know Mr. Friedel better than I do.
“So you know what you’ve got with Mr. Friedel. I can’t dispute that, because I am from Bond County.
“I’ve told you what I am, where I’m from and what I can do in that office. So you have a choice,” Goggin said.
In his closing, Friedel said, “You can only be a state’s attorney for so long before people build up an amount of resentment.
“But I am pleased with myself in the job that I’ve done.
“You know that you will have by re-electing me,” Friedel said.
“You know you will have effective prosecution, that I will address crime at all level, that will continue to serve and represent the county board,” he said.
“When you look about the grand promise of what must be better, you must recognize that it might be worse,” he said.
“There are some people who do not like what I’ve done, and to any of them I do wrong by, I do apologize.
“It is never my intention to do anything on a personal level with anyone I prosecute,” he said.
“I bring for you what I believe I believe is integrity, is honesty and is hard work,” Friedel said.