Nancy Molnar

A former state Trooper of the Year is facing a former Alliance police chief in the Tuesday’s general election for the chance to serve as Stark County sheriff for two years.

Each man would bring more than 30 years of law enforcement experience to the office.

Republican Lawrence A. Dordea, 58, currently police chief in Hartville and a councilman in Alliance, ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2008 and 2012. He lost the more recent race to Michael A. McDonald, who then became unable to take office due to an illness that claimed his life only a few months later. The remainder of that term is at stake in this election.

Sheriff George T. Maier, 54, a Democrat, received his party’s nod to replace McDonald — but not without a contested vote and some party division.

Former Sheriff Timothy A. Swanson fought Maier’s selection before the Ohio Supreme Court, with justices removing Maier from office in a split decision.

A month later, a second vote of county Democrats returned Maier to office, and subsequent Supreme Court decisions have affirmed his qualifications to serve as sheriff and to run for election.

Years of experience

Maier, a graduate of Massillon Washington High School, was safety-service director in his hometown before being selected as sheriff. Before that, he was assistant director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

He spent nearly 25 years with the State Highway Patrol, where he rose to the level of captain, supervising six posts in 10 counties. He worked as post commander in Steubenville after having served in various supervisory positions since 1993. He was named Trooper of the Year in 1991.

Alliance High School graduate Dordea previously served as police chief in that eastern Stark County city. He was promoted to the job in 1998 from the rank of captain after the removal of a police chief, James R. Black, who later pleaded guilty to aiding an illegal gambling operation.

Dordea said that upon his appointment as chief he set about remaking the department and its approach to law enforcement.

“I put on citizens’ police academies,” he said in a recent interview. “I brought the Stark County NAACP into it and taught them why we do what we do and actually became very good friends with some people in that organization. And we went about going after the crime and drug problem in the city of Alliance.”

He said the results showed in a United Way study of Stark County crime between 2000 and 2005.

“Alliance was the only community to buck the trend of increasing violent crime, and their statistics showed that violent crime in Alliance was reduced by about 50 percent,” Dordea said.

“I know that we had major drug raids in ’98 and ’99 and I know how we were getting after the criminals in ’98 and ’99. There’s no question in my mind that ... during my first seven years as Alliance police chief, violent crime was reduced in Alliance way over 50 percent.

“We went from being on the radar screen as being extremely violent to not even being an important statistic.”

Maier said the state faced a drug problem, with local sheriffs expressing a need for help, when he was Highway Patrol post commander. He said that under his leadership, multiple law enforcement agencies cooperated in making traffic stops, getting guns and drugs off the streets and clearing warrants to make a significant number of arrests for narcotics offenses and other felonies.

The approach became known as the Shield Program of the Highway Patrol. It has been used in recent years to sweep the Canton area before the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement festival.

“So that’s really a cooperative collaboration with law enforcement — state, local and federal law enforcement — to help make our communities safer that’s still going on today,” Maier said in a recent interview. “The Highway Patrol certainly is a partner in the communities that they work in to try to promote a safer community.”

If elected to fill the remaining two years of the sheriff’s term, Maier said, he would continue collaborating with local law enforcement partners.

“From what I’ve seen in the short time that I’ve been here, there have been a lot of barriers over the years. We’re trying to mend those fences and tear down those barriers.”

A recent example was the school safety program that put deputies on buses and in school zones across Stark County.

He also plans to continue holding “Coffee with a Cop” events, which give citizens a chance to meet the sheriff, deputies and local law enforcement officials in informal sessions at coffee shops and restaurants.

Dordea’s campaign has included criticism of Maier’s operation of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, citing the lack of a full-time detective bureau, deficiencies at the jail and what he characterizes as “bankers’ hours” kept by the Stark County Metropolitan Narcotics Unit.

Maier said that while he is looking to create a staff that is balanced between investigators and road patrol deputies, the department has a full-time detective and others who can be assigned to cases as needed. A team assembled in response to a Canton Township bank robbery arrested a suspect in fewer than 48 hours, he said.

Shortcomings at the jail are being addressed, Maier said. It has been restored to its 501-inmate capacity after past reductions due to budget cuts. Bids for needed roof repair will be sought in the spring, he said.

Opinions vary

Among those expressing an opinion about the contest between the candidates is former Sheriff Swanson, a Democrat, who has endorsed Dordea.

“There is only one qualified candidate appearing on the November ballot, Larry Dordea,” Swanson wrote in a prepared statement released last week. “I cannot believe the audacity of the Democrat candidate, who was found to have illegally occupied the office of Sheriff by the Ohio Supreme Court.”

That ruling, in a suit Swanson brought, was followed by a decision in a second case — also pressed by Swanson — that allowed Democrats to choose Maier as sheriff a second time. In a third case taken to the state high court by a Massillon woman, justices found Maier qualified to appear on the ballot, a determination based on the same law that specifies requirements to hold the office.

Plain Township residents John and Patricia Fehlman became fans of Dordea when they heard him speak in 2012.

Her opinion developed in part from two tours of duty on the grand jury. The first time, before Dordea became Alliance police chief, she noticed many drug cases from Alliance, to the point that fellow jurors said they would avoid that community. On a second three-month stint, several years later, she observed that few drug cases were presented from Alliance.

“The prosecutor said to me, ‘That’s because they’ve got Dordea over there,’?” she recalled, understanding it to mean that drug dealers were afraid to operate in Alliance.

The Fehlmans’ admiration led to them chairing Dordea’s current campaign.

“He knows how to handle drug dealers,” John Fehlman said. “He did it in Alliance.”

Louis Giavasis, president of the board of Plain Township trustees, is equally enthusiastic about Maier’s campaign, which he serves as a volunteer.

He said he has experienced better communication and cooperation working with Maier as head of the sheriff’s office than he had with his predecessor, Swanson. The issue is of special concern to Giavasis because the township contracts with the sheriff for police protection.

Giavasis recalled that Plain trustees were unable to persuade the previous sheriff to open a substation in the township. As a result, the township came close to switching its contract to North Canton police, he said.

After Maier took office, Giavasis asked the new sheriff about a substation.

“He said, ‘Absolutely; let’s talk about it,’?” Giavasis said.

A substation opened in July at Fire Station No. 3 in the Avondale neighborhood of the township.

Nancy Molnar can be emailed at nancymolnar2002@yahoo.com.