CRYSTAL LAKE – The gloves came off Tuesday night when the candidates vying to be the next sheriff of McHenry County squared off in a debate.
Right out of the gate, candidate Bill Prim went on the offense in his opening remarks, commenting not on what he would do if elected, but saying what he wouldn't.
When it was his turn, Andrew Zinke instead used his opening remarks to comment on his experience as the current undersheriff of McHenry County.
Prim, a retired police commander in Des Plaines, threw the first punch, bringing up a now-debunked allegation that Zinke tipped off a Crystal Lake business owner who was part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the shipment of marijuana.
The state's attorney determined Zinke broke no laws, and an internal investigation found he did not violate the sheriff's office general orders.
A local blogger later filed a Freedom Of Information request for the internal investigation, and that remains part of a pending court battle.
Zinke called Prim's allegations "bogus," saying that "if you repeat it enough my opponent believes it's true."
Prim has a powerful ally in State's Attorney Lou Bianchi, who publicly endorsed him. Prim says, if elected, their relationship will put an end to public battles between Bianchi and the sheriff's office.
"I won't create a division between other elected officials by publicly berating them," Prim said.
Zinke downplayed the bad blood between Bianchi and retiring Sheriff Keith Nygren as a beef between those two men.
"The fact that Lou Bianchi and Keith Nygren don't get along – that's an issue for them to deal with," he said. "I've got no hard feelings with Mr. Bianchi. I've got no issues with him."
Zinke later pointed to his relationships with McHenry County police chiefs. He delivered the next blow, criticizing Prim for not reaching out to local law enforcement.
"You have to have a good working relationship with all law enforcement chiefs and police officers in McHenry County," Zinke said. "You can't come in here not knowing anyone and think you're going to be efficient."
To which Prim replied: "I do believe I can forge those relationships. My history says so, my reputation says so, my endorsements say so."
Prim called out Zinke for growing the sheriff's budget despite what he says was a decrease in calls for service and population at the jail, all while increasing the number of sheriff's office employees.
"I look at my tax bill just like everyone else in this room and I see it going up," Prim said.
Zinke said calls for service relate to a decrease in crime as a result of the efforts of the sheriff's office staff. Any budget increases come from personnel costs, which are not controlled by the sheriff.
In discussing sheriff's office employees, Prim blasted the office for having low morale.
"You can't build upon a faulty foundation, and right now their foundation is crumbling," Prim said.
Zinke said his opponent was talking about a few disgruntled employees, but that sheriff's office employees overall are happy.
When it came to the county's contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal detainees, the candidates again offered the crowd more tense dialog.
Zinke said he would favor an extension of the contract with the federal government when it expires in 2015.
"Absolutely if it's cost-effective," he said. "That's not up to me, that's not up to the sheriff, that's up to the County Board. … We are actively seeking an increase in the [per diem rate]."
Prim said the contract has been losing money, and that if elected he would take a more active role in the negotiations.
"The extension of the contract can't solely be put on the County Board," he said. "I'm certain they're going to look for some direction from the sheriff's office. You're responsible for your budget, and at least some type of recommendation."
The primary election is March 18. The winner of the race could face Woodstock-based attorney Jim Harrison, who has indicated he will run as an independent.
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Northwest Herald. It was moderated by the League.