SIDNEY — Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart announced Tuesday morning that he will not seek re-election when his term expires on Dec. 31, 2020.
“I was asked to come back and I felt that I should step up and do what I did,” said Lenhart of his second term as sheriff that started in 2010. “I accomplished the goals I started out with and brought some semblance of order for our law enforcement officers. We have a semblance of financial responsibility. We have an open door policy. You can ask me any question and I’ll always tell the truth.
“I think it’s time for me to move on,” he continued. “I have no idea what I’ll do, but I’m not retiring. God didn’t put me on this Earth to coast.”
Shelby County Commissioners Bob Guillozet and Tony Bornhorst wished Lenhart the best in the next phase of his life.
“Sheriff John Lenhart has served our community very well for over 50 years and we wish him nothing but the very best in his future endeavors and a very long, healthy, and happy retirement,” said Guillozet. “We hope he enjoys the fruits of all of his labors and thank him for all of his years of service to our nation, our state and especially Shelby County!”
“Sheriff Lenhart’s service to the citizens of Shelby County spans many years both as sheriff and as an involved community member, and I wish to thank him for being there, thinking outside the box and common sense solutions for local situations,” said Bornhorst.”It has been a great honor to serve with John these past eight years, and wish him and his family the best.”
Lenhart, 74, started his career with the sheriff’s office on Sept. 13, 1966.
“I had an uncle who was a deputy sheriff,” said Lenhart. “When we had family functions at Thanksgiving and Christmas, he would always come to the homes and he was always in uniform and driving a marked car.
“As a kid, I thought that was pretty cool,” he said.
On Sept. 11, 1966, he had just completed basic training for the Ohio Army National Guard and was looking for a job. And he found one in the sheriff’s office.
“I enlisted in the Army and received my draft papers on the same day,” said Lenhart, who served six years in the National Guard.
When he started his new job, there were four deputies and the sheriff manning the office, which operated on a $47,000 budget, which paid all the bills and salaries. Today the sheriff’s office has 81 employees and has a budget of $5.5 million
His starting salary was $4,720 a year. One week, said Lenhart, he’d work 48 hours and the next week he’d work 54 hours. Lots of overtime, he said, that they didn’t get paid for.
“No one was on the roads after midnight,” said Lenhart. “I slept, overnight every third day in the upstairs at the jail. There were no city police or Ohio Highway Patrol on duty after midnight either.
“We had no hand-held radios. We had no cellphones. The closest backup we had was another deputy or the sheriff coming to rescue you,” said Lenhart. “We’d go to the situation with hat in hand and got talking to make things go your way.”
DNA testing wasn’t available at the beginning of his career.
“I was at a homicide once,” Lenhart recalled. “I found a cigarette butt at the crime scene and I think the person urinated outside the building. I picked it up and sent it to the lab. This was before DNA and they told me, ‘don’t send us that, we can’t do anything with it.’”
Years later, enter Attorney General Lee Fisher and Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine who introduced DNA testing in the state. At the time, Lenhart was working for Fisher.
“Last month, there was a robbery at a gas station,” said Lenhart. “The deputy recovered a beer can at the scene and sent it in for testing. We got a hit in the data bank.
“Results can come back in a matter of hours or days,” he said.”Back then it could take five to six months. Technology has gone from the stone age to the moon.”
Lenhart was a deputy for seven or eight years when he was appointed to be interim sheriff after Sheriff Don Laws left office. He was appointed by the Democratic Central Committee, who then appointed Don Knasel as sheriff. When Knasel “got into some trouble,” said Lenhart, he was appointed to sheriff, ran for office and was elected to a post he held for 24 years.
After leaving the sheriff’s office, he became the superintendent for the BCI, a position he held from 1991-95. He also worked in the private sector for Plastipak in Jackson Center and provide corporate security and communications for their North American plants.
When Richard Cordray was elected attorney general, Lenhart became the office’s director of law enforcement.
“I had 1,500 employees,” said Lenhart. “I oversaw the labs, organized crime investigations and peace officer training programs.”
Lenhart recalled a time when he and Cordray were traveling from Cleveland to Columbus late at night. Cordray was on the phone with governors and other attorney generals who had General Motors, Ford and Chrysler plants in their states. At the time, the three companies were pondering bankruptcy because of their debt and the economy status.
“The attorney generals and governors were threatening to sue the auto makers so they couldn’t file bankruptcy,” said Lenhart. “The next morning, he asked me what they should do. I told him that if the governors and attorney generals didn’t do something, that instead of going into a recession, the country would have a great depression. This was a farmer from a small town talking.”
“Those folks made the right decision and kept the country out of a depression,” he said. “Years later all three companies paid back every dime they were given. I saw history in the making then. I saw the power of those offices and the weight on the men’s shoulders.”
Lenhart said during his time in the attorney general’s office, he witnesses seven executions.
“This is not a spectator sport,” he said. “You’re sitting there with the attorney general, who is on the red phone talking with the governor. These people committed heinous crimes, but it’s still a touchy spot to be in.”
When turmoil entered the sheriff’s office again, the Shelby County Republican Central Committee approached Lenhart about returning to the office of sheriff. At the time he was a Democrat.
“I’ve always been a maverick in the area of politics,” said Lenhart. “There are good men and women on both sides of the aisle. I always follow my heart.”
So Lenhart returned to the sheriff’s office to lead the office out of the turmoil.
“I walked into this with my eyes wide open,” said Lenhart. “The men and women working there had asked me to run for office. I felt sorry for them. They were embarrassed by what was going on in the office.
“Some of them I had hired,” he said. “And I had hired some of their parents who had retired from the office.
“So with Jim Frye at my side, we started work,” he said. “We got the budget in hand and were able to generate more money for the office.”
When he was returning to office was when the Sandy Hook School shooting happened. With that tragic event, Lenhart knew the state and Federal government was not going to do anything to protect students in school.
So Lenhart, along with his deputies, began a school safety program, which included arming teachers as part of a first response team at the school. The success of the program is nationally recognized.
“I’ve also told the commissioners they cursed me with the animal shelter when they made me the dog warden. I knew there was room for improvement.”
And that improvement has led to a new shelter being constructed. The Shelby County Rescue Foundation has raised funds for the Bob Sargeant & Family Shelby County Animal Shelter and Adoption Center which will be opening soon.
Lenhart has also seen the rise of opiate use in the county and he started a drug treatment program for inmates. That has led to the construction of the STAR House.
“Both facilities are being built with no tax levies,” said Lenhart. “I’m very proud of the fact we’ve been able to make the government work.”
During his first term as sheriff, Lenhart started a garden which was planted and cared for by the inmates. He recalls one time when he was working along side the inmates planting tomatoes. He observed a man watching him.
“He asked me how much time I had done,” said Lenhart. “I told him 15 years.”
Later, the deputy operating the tractor asked,”Sheriff are you ready to take a break,” said Lenhart. “The man was shocked and asked what I was doing out there. I told him I liked it and it was good therapy for everyone.”
The produce grown in the garden is used in the jail’s kitchen, saving the cost of purchasing items from the store.
The STAR House also has its own garden, he said.
“In eight years, we’ve saved the county $7 million through the housing of federal and out-of-county inmates,” he said. “If an inmate doesn’t like the cuisine we’re serving, they can buy food.”
They also have a Skype-like program installed where the inmates can purchase time to talk to their family members.
“Law enforcement has been the same for centuries until DNA and computers came into place,” said Lenhart. “I remember writing a letter in the late 1960’s to the Milford, Oregon, sheriff asking if he had a warrant on a suspect. I asked him to send the warrant on to me.
“Today, the officer knows if there’s a warrant on the person before they get out of their vehicle,” he said.
Lenhart said he will be completing his elected term and has no plans to retire.
“I’m not going to retire,” he said, “It’s not in my DNA. I’m a great believer in fate. There’s a plan out there for me. I’m just waiting for God to say, “hey you have to do this.’”
Lenhart said he will continue working his family farm and is looking forward to spending more time with his family.
“I’ve been blessed that they would put up with my crazy hours and working on holidays,” he said.
He said he had conversations with family, friends and longtime co-workers before making the decision to not run for re-election.
“Many of them told me I could win again. I told them I didn’t want to be walking into the office at 85 with a walker,” he said. “I love what I do, but I felt it was time to move on.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.