Will County Democrats hold all countywide offices, but Republicans are challenging in four races this year

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Four incumbent Democrats are seeking reelection to Will County countywide offices, but all face challenges from Republicans who say they believe they can do a better job.

Voters this year will choose a county clerk, sheriff, treasurer and regional superintendent of schools for four-year terms.

Democrat Lauren Staley Ferry, 44, of Shorewood, said she is proud of running three successful elections during the pandemic while implementing safety measures for her staff and election judges, and responding to the surge in vote-by-mail requests. In the 2020 presidential election there were nearly 123,800 vote-by-mail requests compared to about 30,200 requests in the 2016 presidential election.

Lauren Staley Ferry

Lauren Staley Ferry (Lauren Staley Ferry)

The county board approved her request for an automated vote-by-mail system costing about $1.9 million, paid for from federal pandemic relief funds. The process went into effect for this June’s primary election, and savings will be reflected in future elections because part-time help will not be required to handle the large quantities of vote-by-mail requests, Staley Ferry said.

The requests for a permanent vote-by-mail status will also help increase turnout for the spring municipal elections, which historically have low turnout, she said.

“Here in Will County we have very successful, fair and secure elections,” Staley Ferry said.

She said Republicans and Democrats verify signatures when processing vote-by-mail envelopes, and bipartisan teams of three or four election judges collect ballots from drop boxes. She also invites residents to watch how voting machines are used and encourages residents to become election judges. She said one person on her team is dedicated to removing those who are deceased from the system, and there are checks and balances in place to maintain the voter rolls.

Staley Ferry said she has worked to modernize the clerk’s office, saying when she was first elected, credit cards could not be accepted as payment for vital records. Vital records were also scanned off-site, and Staley Ferry said her staff now digitizes records in house.

The Republican Party asked Gretchen Fritz, 49, a county board member from Plainfield, to run for clerk. She said her experience in county government, her background working with nonprofit organizations and her degree in library and information science qualifies her to manage records and clean up databases.

Gretchen Fritz

Gretchen Fritz (Gretchen Fritz)

“I am a creative, problem-solver,” Fritz said.

Fritz said her main goal is to proactively clean voter rolls. She said she would like to compare death records to the voter rolls to ensure those who died are no longer getting election mail, a problem she has heard while campaigning. She said she doesn’t want families of the deceased to have to reach out to the clerk’s office to remove their loved one’s name.

Fritz said she is also in favor of showing identification to vote and believes it would improve confidence in the election process. She said she would lobby Illinois lawmakers to pass legislation requiring identification. She said she too often hears stories that voters are disfranchised with the process.

Fritz said she believes spending more money isn’t the answer, and she is concerned about money being wasted. She said the county board approved automating the vote-by-mail process, a move that is supposed to save $500,000 per year, and she would like to see the savings reflected in the clerk’s budget.

Fritz said another concern is the software used to produce marriage certificates allows residents to only select one race. She said it is unfair to multiracial applicants and she would like to either update the software to better reflect people’s racial identities or remove the question altogether.

Staley Ferry said the state of Illinois and the Department of Public Health require this information be collected for statistical purposes, and they aren’t allowed to make any changes to the form.

Incumbent Democrat Mike Kelley, 55, of Lockport, said during his eight-year tenure, the office partnered with school districts to get federal grants for security upgrades, including adding state-of-the-art video surveillance equipment to monitor the premises and updating outer doors. If reelected, he wants to continue working with schools to upgrade security and safety measures.

Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley (Mike Kelley / HANDOUT)

Kelley also reinstated the K-9 programs, eliminated by the previous sheriff. The Will County sheriff’s office now has nine dogs, including those trained to detect drugs or explosives, a bloodhound to look for missing people and a comfort dog to help victims of crimes.

During his tenure, Kelley said the whole department has been outfitted with body cameras, which increase transparency.

Kelley said he wrote a letter urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to veto the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today law, or SAFE-T Act. Since that hasn’t happen, he said he has worked with police and state legislators to make improvements to the law and continues to lobby for more changes before Jan. 1, when some of the provisions take effect.

“I’ve put in many man-hours to get it fixed,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he believes morale is high. He was named the Illinois State Crime Commission Sheriff of the Year in 2017, and the department was twice recognized as one of the top places to work in Will County.

If reelected, Kelley said he would like to work with the county board to add more personnel.

Republican challenger Jim Reilly, 57, of Wilmington, said one of his top concerns is the SAFE-T Act, and said it should be repealed. He said the act is haphazard and reckless, risks the safety of law enforcement officers and undermines their ability to do their jobs. Reilly said he supports Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow, who filed a lawsuit alleging the law violates the state constitution.

Jim Reilly

Jim Reilly (Jim Reilly)

Reilly said he believes one of the fallouts of the SAFE-T Act is that morale among officers is at a low, which he said he can improve.

He said his 20-year career in law enforcement as well as a doctoral degree in criminal justice demonstrates his qualifications. He wrote a dissertation on community policing and law enforcement methods to improve relationships within communities and would put those practices into effect.

Reilly said officers should get to know the people and businesses they serve. He said it is also important to deploy personnel based on crime statistics, citing catalytic converter thefts, home invasions and carjackings.

“It’s time to be engaged, time to lead and time to support law enforcement,” Reilly said.

Democrat Tim Brophy, 59, of Joliet, said he’s implemented measures to make the office more efficient. Employees have been cross-trained to handle multiple tasks so there’s never an interruption in services when employees are sick, take a vacation or have a maternity leave.

Tim Brophy

Tim Brophy (Tim Brophy)

Residents who need a copy of their property tax bill are no longer charged for this service, he said.

During the pandemic, Brophy implemented the county board’s plan to divide the property tax payments among four installments instead of two to help ease the burden to residents suffering financial hardships. He said while some residents opted to pay the traditional two payments, he heard anecdotally the measure provided relief to others.

Brophy said one of his priorities is coordinating the county’s real estate system among several related offices, such as the supervisor of assessments, recorder of deeds, clerk’s office and 911 system. He said it needs to be updated so all offices have access in real time to the county’s more than 275,000 parcels in a more user-friendly way.

Brophy said his background in business administration, finance, banking and as a real estate managing broker covers all aspects of the treasurer’s office, and believes that experience is an asset.

Republican Raj “Pi” Pillai, a 44-year-old certified public accountant from Plainfield, said he wants to improve accountability and transparency in the treasurer’s office. He wants to ensure money is not being wasted and residents can easily understand the treasurer’s website. Pillai said it is important the average person can view clear, concise reports of where their tax dollars are spent.

Raj “Pi” Pillai

Raj “Pi” Pillai (Raj “Pi” Pillai)

He said he also wants to work with the county board to help protect county funds.

“We can’t just rubber stamp checks,” Pillai said.

Pillai said he supports consolidating the treasurer and auditor offices to save money and increase transparency and said other counties have done this successfully.

He said his background as a certified public accountant and his experience working in the private sector in auditing, accounting and budgeting will ensure the taxpayers are protected.

The Regional Office of Education serves as the intermediate agency between the state and local school districts and is responsible for professional licenses, background checks, bus driver training and ensuring school safety. The office also ensures that school districts meet the minimum state education requirements.

Democrat Shawn Walsh said during the pandemic, his office petitioned to allow teachers to be a priority to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. He worked with the county executive office and health department to start mass vaccination clinics for teachers. They received their first and second doses in about a month, and the initiative was recognized by the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce, which named the office the 2021 Educational Institution of the Year.

Shawn Walsh

Shawn Walsh (Shawn Walsh)

Walsh, 45, of Elwood, said he set up a school safety task force and works with the Will County Emergency Management Agency to share best practices and plan safety seminars with school officials.

Wash said he is addressing the teacher shortages by meeting with Will County institutes of higher education, such as Lewis University and the University of St. Francis to help create new pipelines for teachers. The office is also offering professional development opportunities to retain existing teachers and coordinating bus driver trainings.

Media literacy and using technology properly are important, Walsh said, and one of the silver linings from the pandemic was the ability to use technology to receive lessons from anywhere.

“Media literacy is important to instruct youth how to discern what is reliable information versus noise,” Walsh said.

Walsh said as a lifelong Will County resident with 15 years experience in the office, he has built relationships with state and local education leaders. He also cites his longtime service to various community organizations.

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Republican Elizabeth Caparelli-Ruff, 52, of Homer Glen, said in her 23-year career, she has experience in private and public education from elementary schools to the collegiate level and has worked as a teacher and administrator.

Elizabeth Caparelli-Ruff

Elizabeth Caparelli-Ruff (Elizabeth Caparelli-Ruff)

She was recognized nationally for starting a microbusiness for special needs students at Bolingbrook High School to promote job skills, in which students packaged luxury soaps and stationary for upscale stores and created gift baskets to sell in the community.

Caparelli-Ruff, a former dean at Carl Sandburg and Bolingbrook high schools, said a top issue is improving safety in schools, citing widely publicized fights that broke out in some of the larger high schools. School safety correlates to students’ learning outcomes and teacher retention, she said.

“When students feel safe, they are more open to learning,” Caparelli-Ruff said. “Do they know that their school has enough security? Do they know that there is a social worker they can go to? Do they know that they’ve made a bond with at least one of their teachers, or paraprofessionals or a lunch lady, someone that is a trustworthy adult that they can talk to should they be in a crisis?”

Caparelli-Ruff said she plans to attend school board meetings throughout the county. Each district is unique, but their challenges and needs may be similar, she said. She said such an approach will help connect school districts so they can share experiences and best practices.

Addressing teacher and bus driver shortages is important, she said. She would like to explore incentives for teachers to get master’s or doctorate degrees or take other continuing education classes. She said she is concerned about mandates teachers face with state standardized testing and said teachers are spending too much time teaching for a test.

She said school times could be staggered and she would invite districts to share resources, such as bus barns, to help address the driver shortage. Vans, smaller buses or background-checked transportation companies can also be used to transport a few students at a time instead of a full-sized school bus, she said.

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October 24, 2022 at 06:58AM

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