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Candidates, both hopeful and incumbent, took the stage Tuesday evening in Bel Alton to field questions from county residents about what they hope to achieve in office.

The county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted a candidate forum that included hopefuls for circuit court, sheriff, orphans’ court, clerk of the circuit court and register of wills. The event was held at the Bel Alton Community Development Center. Each candidate had a minute and a half to answer questions that came directly from the audience about a plethora of subjects.

The candidates briefly introduced themselves to the crowd before the question-and-answer period began. Incumbent Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) was not present, citing an obligation he could not abandon, and although spots were set out for orphans’ court judge candidates Janice Talley, a Democrat, and Brian Still, a Republican, neither attended.

The candidates were asked about the greatest challenges they face. Register of wills candidate Abena McAllister, a Democrat, and current Register of Wills Loraine D. Hennessy (D) seemed to agree that community education and outreach are a priority for the office, a theme that continually would come up during the event.

“I do make a difference. I tell everybody to call me, and I’ll come out and talk to any group,” Hennessy said later.

“You have to go out into the community, not wait for them to come to you,” McAllister said in response to a later question.

Both women were ardent supporters of diversity in the office.

“When I had a vacancy, I hired a minority,” Hennessy said. “I’ll continue to do that. I am going to make sure there is diversity in my office.”

“There needs to be equal balance ... and representation of the community as a whole,” McAllister said.

Circuit judge candidate Thomas Simpson described his biggest challenge as “keeping up with the ever-changing law” and applying it fairly, while current judges Hayward James “Jay” West and Jerome R. Spencer felt it is a matter of balancing their court duties with reaching out more to the community.

Although both currently are sitting judges, West and Spencer are running to retain their respective positions as they are fairly recent appointees. A circuit court judge’s term lasts for 15 years.

Sheriff hopeful Troy Berry (D) cited the prevalence of prescription drugs as the biggest hurdle and said “we need to eradicate that element from our community because it’s killing our children.”

“The greatest challenge any member of the judiciary has is ... hoping to be able to apply those rules and statutes in an equitable manner,” Orphans’ Court Judge Frank Lancaster (D) said. “Ninety percent of the time when people come before us with their situations, they bring them, we settle them if we’re wise and we know the rules.”

Orphans’ Court Judge Lorraine Berry (D) said she hopes for peace for the families in her courtroom, while candidate Darlene Breck, a Democrat, said she’d hope to get the chance to use her “compassion and common sense” to help families through tough times.

Lancaster said the primary function of his office, historically, has been to “protect the widows and children of the deceased.” Lorraine Berry said she saw her own cousins orphaned after a murder-suicide many years ago and has felt compelled to help since.

“There is something to be said about taking care of these children,” Lorraine Berry said. “There are some wonderful parents who are diligent, and others who ignore the process. It is emotional, but at the end of the day you feel like maybe you made a difference in the community.”

After the death of her husband, Breck said, she was moved by the compassion of those in the office and feels she could bring the same.

“The help they give is insurmountable,” Breck said.

Many of the questions throughout the evening went to Troy Berry. When asked if he supported the use of cameras in police cruisers, Berry said he felt they are a valuable tool.

“If used properly, it gives an accurate representation of what occurs on the scene,” Berry said. “It’s been a very useful tool to give accurate accounts. I am a [supporter] of those because it safeguards the officers and the citizens.”

If elected, Berry said he also would push for more transparency in the office and voiced his support for a citizens’ review board, saying there is “a cancer within the sheriff’s office” currently and that such entities, along with making more of the office’s cases public knowledge, would increase the public’s trust in the entity.

“Charles County is not as safe as people believe. We need more officers on the street,” Troy Berry said. “We ... always have to be mindful that what needs to be done gets done.”

The three circuit judge candidates had similar hopes for the people they see in the courtroom and their effect.

“I hope people walk into my courtroom and come out knowing that I listened,” Spencer said. “Everyone who comes into my courtroom is entitled to know that ... and to feel as if their case was heard and treated fairly.”

“They had their day in court, and ... sometimes they’ll disagree, but I think it could be a major accomplishment if they ... could live with the decision because they found it fair,” West said.

“There’s going to be a winner and a loser, and you hope that the loser feels they were treated fairly,” Simpson said.

All candidates encouraged the public to come sit and court and see what they’re about.

“Come see us do our job. Courtroom drama is free entertainment,” Spencer said. “The best way to evaluate us is to watch us.”

lrenner@somdnews.com