Franklin County’s next sheriff promised to bring transparency and leadership to the office.

And those are two qualities that will be crucial to rebuilding public trust in the department, observers and voting delegates alike said Thursday night during a special Republican convention to nominate the county’s next sheriff.   

“It’s a new era and it’s a new beginning, and I believe that [Jeff Richards] has demonstrated that he’s going to bring the level of leadership that this county deserves and that the department deserves,” Stephen Hunting, Franklin County attorney, said.

If Jeff Richards is not a household name across Franklin County, it likely soon will be.

The Franklin County Republican Central Committee voted 33-0 to select the veteran law enforcement officer as its nominee for sheriff.

Clayton Barker, executive director and general counsel for the Topeka-based Kansas Republican Party, served as chair of the special convention Thursday night at the Church of the Nazarene, Seventh and Elm streets, Ottawa. Barker said he planned to hand-deliver the nomination to the governor’s office in Topeka.

Gov. Sam Brownback would have to appoint Richards as sheriff. Committee representatives said Thursday night they anticipated the governor would accept their nomination of Richards, and they expected to receive word from the governor in about a week’s time.

Richards perhaps is best known in the city’s county seat of Ottawa, where he was just elected Tuesday night to a second term on the Ottawa City Commission. Richards said that if he is appointed sheriff by the governor, he would resign from the city commission.

Professionalism and empathy

With 20 years of law enforcement experience under his belt, the 44-year-old Richards would succeed Jeff Curry, who resigned Monday as sheriff in the wake of allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

Richards served as a law enforcement specialist and law enforcement supervisor — among many other law enforcement-related duties — while in the U.S. Air Force for nine years. Before enlisting in the Air Force, he worked as a reserve/part-time deputy and jailer with the Neosho County Sheriff’s Office.

At the end of his second enlistment in the Air Force, Richards moved to Ottawa in 2000 and went to work for the Overland Park Police Department, where he has been a detective in the criminal investigation division for the past nine years.

“Jeff is everything you would want in a leader,” Det. Sgt. Charles Tippie, one of Richards’ longtime supervisors with the Overland Park Police Department, told the delegates when speaking on Richards’ behalf during the convention.

Richards conducts himself with great professionalism and has retained a sense of empathy that some detectives lose after years of working homicides, burglaries and other criminal investigations, Tippie said.

“Jeff possesses all the qualities you would want in a sheriff,” he said.

Richards defeated Capt. Randy Allen, with the Ottawa Police Department, who was the only other nominee at the convention.

Allen, a lifelong Franklin County resident, also brought impressive law enforcement credentials to the table Thursday night. Allen said he began his law enforcement career in 1987 and has served in numerous capacities while moving up the ladder at the Ottawa Police Department, where he has served in a leadership position for more than a decade.

The veteran public servant appeared to take the loss in stride after Richards was announced the winner.

“I think they elected a good man,” Allen said. “He’ll be a good sheriff. I know him as a city commissioner, and I’ve met him professionally on a few occasions. He’s very professional, very knowledgeable and I think he’ll make a great sheriff.”

Familiar territory

The Franklin County Republican Central Committee had the task of nominating the new sheriff because Curry was a Republican. If appointed by the governor, Richards is expected to serve for two years, according to state statue, until the next general election in 2014. Richards also is a staunch member of the Republican Party, and currently serves as the county Republican Central Committee’s chairman.

Curry himself was appointed sheriff using the same process in 2010, following the resignation announcement of then-Sheriff Craig Davis. Curry, who served the sheriff’s office in some capacity since 1994, announced his resignation plans March 21 during the first hearing of the ouster proceedings filed against him by county attorney Hunting after Curry’s Feb. 27 arrest by agents with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation on a felony charge of interference with law enforcement and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.

The charges against Curry would be dismissed if the former sheriff successfully completes a 12-month diversion agreement reached Monday in Franklin County District Court.

Candidates talk county issues

Helen Hood, an Ottawa resident and a voting delegate at Thursday’s convention, asked Richards if he would be transparent in his dealings with the Franklin County Board of Commissioners with regard to his budget. Hood had been critical of Curry for not seeking the commission’s advice before he made some big-ticket purchases, including vehicles for the department.

Richards said he would seek the commission’s blessing for his budget and would take spending proposals before the commission.

“I realize [county commissioners] are accountable to the taxpayers, just like I would be,” Richards said.

As a city commissioner, Richards said he also is familiar with how budgets work, and he would be careful with how he spent taxpayers’ money.

“I would be very frugal with taxpayers’ dollars,” Richards said.

Don Stottlemire, county commissioner, said after the convention that he thought Richards was the right man for the job.

“He’s going to face a lot of challenges, but I think he will hit the ground running and he’ll do great,” Stottlemire said.

During his comments to the convention delegates, Allen also said he was familiar with the budgeting process. As a captain with the Ottawa police, Allen said he had input into the department’s budget.

When asked about gun control, Richards and Allen both said they believed in the right to bear arms and would protect citizens’ Second Amendment rights.

Asked about his initial goals, Richards said one of his first acts would be to do away with the public information officer role at the sheriff’s office. He said the public should hear from the sheriff, the person elected to the office.

“I don’t think there should be a buffer between the sheriff and the public,” he said.

Richards said he would have to analyze how the department is functioning before he made any other changes.

“I don’t want to go in there with an agenda — that would not be fair to the men and women of the department,” he said.

Richards and Allen also said if they were nominated for the position, they would look at ways to make patrol officers more visible in the outlying areas of the county. Allen said officer visibility is a good deterrent to crime.

Confidence in a new leader

After the convention, voting precinct delegate Richard Oglesby, assistant chief of the Ottawa Fire Department, said he was satisfied that the process worked as it was supposed to work.

“I have all the confidence in the world that he’s a man of integrity and that he’ll fill the office quite well,” Oglesby said of Richards. “I’ve known Jeff for about six years. I’ve found him to be a man of integrity.”

Almeda Edwards, who was among the more than 100 audience members in attendance, as well as a member of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Action Committee, said she was pleased with the Republican Party’s choice.

“I’m happy for Jeff being selected,” she said. “I’ve worked with him on a lot of committees, and I think that Jeff is a real fine person, and I think it’s a good selection.”

Hunting said he was optimistic that the highest professional stands of law enforcement are going to be demonstrated and exhibited by Richards.

“I’m very happy for him, and I’m very pleased for the law enforcement community and the citizens of Franklin County.” Hunting said.

After convention chairman Barker announced the results, Richards shook hands with Allen, and he told the committee he was humbled by their vote of confidence and looked forward to serving the citizens of Franklin County.

“I believe our county, in general, and the sheriff’s department, specifically, needs a strong, ethical leader to move us through and past this current situation,” Richards told the committee members during his opening remarks. “I am that leader. I want to continue to serve my community and will use my training and experience to help guide us through this rebuilding time.”

Bobby Burch, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.