POLK COUNTY -- Citizens will select a new Polk County District Attorney during the Nov. 4 general election in the first contested race for the position since the mid-1980s.
"It's the most critical election on the ballot for the county," said candidate Aaron Felton of West Salem, who is challenging Stan Butterfield of Dallas for the spot.
"The DA is going to have direct oversight over the criminal justice system here for four years."
Former District Attorney John Fisher planned to finish out the remaining three months of his term, but resigned effective Oct. 1 because of a family illness. Mark Heslinga, deputy chief district attorney, was appointed to take over Fisher's duties in the interim until Jan. 1.
Reform has been the common theme of Butterfield and Felton's respective campaign platforms, and both are promising a more aggressive stance toward pushing criminal prosecutions through the courts.
Some local law enforcement officials have publicly criticized Fisher's office in recent months for not bringing enough cases to trial and for what they claim were frequent absences by Fisher from work.
Butterfield said discussions with frustrated officers during his years as a Dallas defense attorney drove him to seek office.
If issues are stemming from weak cases being brought forward, then it's the DA's responsibility to provide direction to strengthen them, Butterfield said.
"And if that isn't the problem, the DA just has to have the will to go forward in the courtroom and to trial more often," he said.
Felton, the city of Salem's assistant legal counsel, said the relationship between the office and law enforcement agencies needs to be restored.
"They need to know from the moment they make a car stop or put the cuffs on somebody that they have an advocate and partner in the DA's office supporting them," he said.
Felton said experience is his edge over Butterfield. He has been an attorney for 14 years, five of them as a Polk deputy district attorney.
Butterfield has practiced law since 2004.
"I have more experience directly related to the job," Felton said. "I don't need to learn how to be a prosecutor and I can hit the ground running."
Butterfield argued that he has nearly the amount of experience in criminal law as a trial attorney as Felton does as a district attorney. He also noted his 11 years working for the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons.
"I would say that being a defense attorney is just the other side of the same coin," Butterfield said. "I don't think in terms of practical lawyering it puts me at a great disadvantage."
Said Felton: "For me to say as a prosecutor that I could just become a defense attorney without some transition is incorrect to say."
Conversely, Butterfield said that Felton's past employment with the district attorney's office makes him a "status quo" candidate. That some personnel in the office were once his peers will "make it hard for Felton to do what needs to be done about making changes," Butterfield said.
"I haven't worked in that office for four years," Felton countered. And "one reason I left was because I was dissatisfied with the way things were going."
Administrative duties will also be key. The district attorney oversees a budget of about $1.4 million, more than 80 employees and volunteers in the prosecution division, and additional programs such as victim's assistance.
Butterfield said running his own practice and his executive level duties with the DOJ have prepared him to manage a staff and payroll. Felton said having been a prosecutor makes him more qualified to hire and train deputy district attorneys.
Both said they would seek law enforcement grant funding to offset the potential for lost O&C timber payments when the recently approved four-year extension expires.
"I'm hoping that by being able to increase revenue from other sources ... that we could weather any storm that comes along," Butterfield said.
Butterfield and Felton also pledged a greater presence outside the courtroom, and more regular communication with officials from surrounding municipalities and community organizations.
Felton has said that he wants to seek funding for programs such as Head Start, Gracie's Place and others that target at-risk youth.
"The DA needs to be tough on crime and actively involved in good crime prevention programs," Felton said.