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Candidates for sheriff not county residents in some cases

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Voters in four area counties will decide sheriff's races this fall that feature a candidate from outside their county.

Ray Westendorf, a Charles Mix County sheriff who did not seek re-election, filed as an independent candidate in Sanborn County to run against 20-year sheriff Tom Fridley in November.

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In Jones County, independent Erik Crazy Bear, a Bureau of Indian Affairs supervisory corrections officer in Lower Brule, who lives in Chamberlain within Brule County, filed to run against independent Rich Sylva, a sheriff's deputy from Murdo in Jones County, and Republican John Weber, a Pierre police officer from Draper in Jones County.

Another Pierre police officer and Pierre resident, Troy Swenson, filed to run for Jerauld County sheriff against Republican Jason Weber, a sheriff's deputy from Wessington Springs.

Jim Lentsch, an independent candidate from Salem in McCook County, faces Republican Randy Bartlett, of Alexandria in Hanson County, in the November Hanson County race. Lentsch filed his petition within an hour of the deadline for independents to file on June 8.

No state law prohibits a non-resident candidate from filing for most county offices, Secretary of State Chris Nelson said. If that candidate wins the general election, he or she must become a resident of that county by the time the office begins on Jan. 1.

No state lawmaker has ever taken up the issue, nor has a bill been introduced to change the practice, Nelson said.

"The people of the county are the ones that sort out whether or not they want that person to represent them as sheriff," he said. "If people decide they want someone who is currently not living in the county, that's the people's choice."

Two surrounding states -- Minnesota and Nebraska -- also allow this practice. However, Minnesota candidates must move to that county at least 30 days before the general election, said Pat Turgeon, assistant director of communications for the secretary of state's office. In Nebraska, the winner must move to that county by the following January, with an exception for a county attorney who doesn't live in that county, said Neal Erickson, deputy secretary of state for elections.

Analysis of the 2008 South Dakota general election candidate list -- the first year a complete list of county candidates was available from the state -- shows that three counties, Buffalo, Clay and Lyman, had candidates from different counties file for state's attorney. In Faulk County, a Rapid City man ran against a Faulkton woman for county treasurer and won.

Steve Fox, of Chamberlain in Brule County, was elected in Buffalo County to a second term as state's attorney in 2008, said Elaine Wulff, county auditor/register of deeds. Because few, if any, lawyers live in the sparsely-populated county, its prosecutors often come from Brule County, she said.

Anita Fuoss ran for Jones County state's attorney as a Republican in 2008 and for the same position that year in Lyman County as an independent, when no one ran in Lyman County's primary. She won the Jones County race and defeated independent David Natvig, of Kimball, in the Lyman County race. Natvig was elected Brule County state's attorney that year.

State law allows a state's attorney to serve in a neighboring county of less than 5,000 people and live next to that county, Nelson said. If a state's attorney is not full-time, an office could be maintained at his or her regular address, he said.

Lentsch, a part-time Hanson County deputy, had been a strong supporter of incumbent Sheriff Mark Kessler, who lost the Republican nomination to Bartlett on June 8. Bartlett said then he had no misgivings about Lentsch filing, saying everyone has the right to do so.

Westendorf, who is in his 28th year as Charles Mix County sheriff, said he decided four years ago that this would be his last term. He and his wife, Betty, wanted to move -- preferably to Woonsocket, where their son, Allan, and his family lives.

Westendorf said he filed for sheriff in Sanborn County because he was asked to run. He gained 13 signatures on his independent candidate petition all in one day, turning it in on June 1, said Diane Larson, Sanborn County auditor.

"I thought it won't hurt anything to run," Westendorf said.

He said some residents who signed his petition said they were dissatisfied with Fridley, but Westendorf would not elaborate on their concerns.

If elected, Westendorf said he would have to adjust to a much smaller department, from 22 employees in Lake Andes to three in Woonsocket. If he doesn't win, he intends to pick up odd jobs and find some law enforcement work to keep up his certification.

Sanborn County Sheriff Tom Fridley ran into Westendorf at the county courthouse when he picked up his petition. Fridley, 59, is facing his first contested re-election bid in his 20 years and welcomes the challenge. When asked about candidates filing from outside the county, he said it's an issue that voters must decide.

"I'd like to believe I have given them a job that has been satisfactory to be put back into office," he said.

Community ties play a role for two of the candidates who are running.

Swenson, who has been a Pierre police officer for 11 years, views his candidacy for Jerauld County sheriff as a good opportunity to bring his family home to his native Wessington Springs. He and his wife have three children.

"It's my hometown and I always wanted to have my family back there," he said.

Without those local ties, Swenson said he didn't think he would have as much interest in running.

Despite the 100-mile distance from Pierre, he already has started campaigning and said he has garnered positive feedback.

If a state law had been in place banning candidates from filing for office in other counties, Swenson said he likely would have been resigned to spending his law enforcement career in Pierre.

Crazy Bear, who grew up in Okaton and graduated from Jones County High School in 1995, said his friends circulated a petition on his behalf there after he had expressed interest. He also has family there. Given that he is a federal employee, he cannot actively campaign for another office unless he resigns.

Crazy Bear has 15 years of law enforcement experience, including a few months as a Murdo police officer a decade ago, and as a tribal and BIA officer in Lower Brule. He moved to Chamberlain last September after living in Arizona.

The Rosebud Sioux tribal member anticipates that friends will post signs for him in Jones County.

"I think it's going to be very tough," Crazy Bear said of his ability to campaign. "I think everyone has a fair shot at running for any kind of office."

Weber, a Republican running for sheriff in Murdo, has been with the Pierre Police Department for eight years while operating a farm and ranch near Draper. He said he has no qualms about Crazy Bear running, saying he knows of other law enforcement officers who have done the same thing in counties with smaller populations.

"People have the right to run for sheriff, and it's up to the people who are voting to determine whether he should be sheriff, whether he's an outsider or local," Weber said.

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