A major chapter in former Ashtabula County Sheriff William Johnson’s life is complete, but sitting around doing nothing is not in the cards for the man who won seven four-year terms until his defeat in November.
“My law enforcement career days are done. I accept that,” Johnson said. He said he appreciates all the voters that kept him in office all these years and will miss working with all the people that helped make the sheriff’s office a success.
“I can’t sit still,” Johnson said. He said he doesn’t need a job, but would like to find a way to help the community.
In passing Johnson mentioned the possibility of relaxing for most of this year and then consider a run for a seat on the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners.
Johnson said if the Hulett machines that were used to unload ships in Ashtabula had continued operation he never would have gone into law enforcement.
“I loved those machines,” he said.
Johnson said the accomplishments he was most proud of during his 28-year career as sheriff included the fact that he was able to fulfill many of the promises he made before his first election.
He said changes in the detective bureau, the purchase of vehicles from the state program, housing federal prisoners and switching to a more modern radio communications system were all extensions of those campaign promises more than 28 years ago. He said helping find ways to raise deputies salaries was important as well.
“When I first started they could have been on food stamps,” he said.
Johnson said budgets in a small county are always a challenge.
“Money equals people, equals service,” he said.
“We are never going to be rich in this county,” he said. Johnson said working with employees, unions, commissioners and other parts of the justice system was the only way to try and make things work for the betterment of the community.
Johnson said the budgets for sheriff’s departments in the surrounding area are at least double the one Ashtabula County has to operate with.
“You’ve got to make some tough decisions. We found a way to live within the budget and get things done. I am proud of that,” he said.
“There were people [in the department] who went above and beyond,” he said of his staff that dropped from 114 when first elected to 86 when he left office last week.
“There were some trials and tribulations,” Johnson said of his long career.
Legal issues in criminal and civil court were a part of the challenge.
“I knew before I had nothing to hide from. They used the system and I was in the system,” Johnson said of his response and ability to continue for almost 30 years.
Johnson said applying for state and federal grants was a key to helping the department grow under challenging financial situations. He said one such grant included $450,000 for the department that only three counties in the state received.
A large county with a relatively low budget provided challenges for serving residents, Johnson said. He said some people would call and thank him for prompt service.
“You were in the right place at the right time,” Johnson said he told one resident who thanked him for quick assistance.
Johnson said a long-time friend, who just happened to be the Lake County Sheriff for many years, was a good person in whom he could confide and debrief after a challenging day.
“Dan Dunlap and I have been friends for a long time,” he said of the man who retired in 2019.
Dunlap and Johnson were on the same college basketball team at Kent State Ashtabula. Johnson said they also were in the same class at the police academy.
Johnson said he will not miss the overwhelming concern about keeping people employed during budget negotiations and the possibility of having to go to a spouse’s house if a deputy were to lose their live while serving.
He said the law enforcement job has gotten much more difficult over the decades as drugs and mental health issues have escalated in Ashtabula County.
“Those guys [deputies] deal with crazy things almost every day. You have to be a special breed,” Johnson said of young police officers starting their career.
“If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t change anything,” Johnson said.