Candidates share visions at forum
The challengers for Hubbard County Sheriff and county attorney made their strategy clear Monday night: Youth versus the old guard.
Hubbard County Sgt. Cory Aukes and attorney Nathaniel Welte said they are the county's future and have new ideas about how to lead and run their departments.
Aukes is opposing Frank Homer, who was appointed sheriff 18 months ago to fill the spot vacated by former Sheriff Gary Mills.
Welte is opposing Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne, who is seeking a second term.
The incumbents are stressing their experience as reason to keep them in office.
A candidates forum hosted by Nevis Community Education and the League of Women Voters in Nevis Monday night drew a large crowd. It is the first time the candidates have squared off in a publicized event. Many have appeared in smaller venues or in town parades, but this was the first chance all the candidates have had to speak to the public at large.
Hubbard County Dist. 1 Commission candidate Kathy Grell stressed her business experience in her challenge against Don Carlson, a retired dentist seeking his second term on the board.
n Aukes said he wants to be a "working sheriff," still out on patrol rather than behind a desk.
He said a recent poll of local law enforcement officers shows overwhelming support for his campaign.
"Why is that?" he asked. "Who knows you better than your co-workers?" The audience was filled with officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters.
Aukes wants the department to immediately hire another drug officer and cut down the paperwork that bogs down road deputies. He said there's no reason why deputies should be filing out reports by hand when in the past they've been computerized.
He stressed accountability to the public, which he claims has been missing from the department in the last few years.
He wants the department to simplify its procedures in many areas, freeing up time performing routine or mundane tasks.
n Homer said the county belongs to two separate drug task forces and needs 24/7 road coverage before it needs a drug officer. He wants to be involved in the community to forge ties that are "more interactive and participatory," not adversarial. Too many times law officers distance themselves from a community, which doesn't help their image, he believes.
Homer would like the department to purchase on board laptop computers, which would cut down on the expenses incurred in the purchase of new radio equipment mandated in the coming years.
But he said budget constraints and hard economic times are driving the choices between what is possible for the department to do, and what it can't.
Homer said he has implemented a policy manual to make the department more consistent and accountable for its actions.
Forging working relationships with neighboring counties is a way to do more with less, he said.
Both Aukes and Homer said they would continue Hubbard County's contract with the city of Nevis, which pays for much of a deputy's salary in return for coverage,
But both said they would be open to changes if Nevis officials felt the need to alter or change the contract.
n Welte criticized the county attorney's philosophy of resolving serious criminal cases through plea offers that result in reduced sentences for the offenders.
As the city's prosecutor in 2007, Welte said he has experience with most cases, including felony level prosecutions.
Plus, he said his land use and zoning experience will ensure prosecution of shoreland violations and protection overall of those ordinances for county residents.
"I'm concerned about the number of cases dismissed and pled down in the county," he said.
He stressed a "multiple gate-keeping" approach to reducing the office's costs, making early determinations about charges or whether cases should not be charged out.
He said the amount of dismissals and plea deals, 43 percent by his reckoning, leads him to the conclusion defendants are being overcharged or not properly charged.
In response to recent queries about his residency, the Perham-based attorney said he moved to Park Rapids July 1, where his firm has a satellite office.
n Dearstyne stressed his three decades of experience as an attorney and former police officer.
"We spent $319,877.09 to run my office for a year," he said, noting he has come within his tightened budget since he had control of it.
"It costs each citizen $17.90 to run my office" for a year, he said.
Dearstyne said his office has increasingly reached out to victims and their families and weighs their input in deciding to resolve a case through a plea agreement. Many times those victims are instrumental in wanting cases to end, he said.
He denied his office engaged in the practice of "plea bargaining."
He recently got two brothers to go to prison on an upward departure of sentencing following an armed standoff with nearly two-dozen officers, he pointed out. Prosecutors need the flexibility to handle cases as they see fit, he said, noting Welte had resolved most of his city cases through such offers in 2007.
n Grell, as a board member of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission, stressed the importance of that office in the county's economic recovery.
Her business background, she said, would extend the county's "fiscal responsibility" to its citizens.
Grell said she wants to reduce the county's cost of delivering services by analyzing each department's to look for efficiencies and weaknesses.
"I understand budgets, finances and management," the housing developer told the audience. "I bring a unique set of skills to the commission not there now."
Broadband coverage for the area would enable more people to tap into the digital job revolution, she maintains.
And because Dist. 1 is primarily "lake country," Grell said she wants to "find a better way" to enforce shoreland ordinances and reduce the inequities of the variance process.
"There needs to be a clearer definition of hardship," she said of the criteria for granting a variance. And she stressed better education for members of the planning commission and Board of Adjustment to ensure more consistent results.
n Carlson, too, wants better enforcement of shoreland ordinances.
"I'm unhappy with the way shoreland ordinances are used and controlled," he admitted. "We are a nation of laws."
Carlson said if various land use boards will not enforce the laws, those laws should be changed.
Carlson, while praising his opponent's background, said there is no substitute for on-the-job experience.
He, too stressed the importance of jobs growth and fostering the entrepreneurial spirit. He said the county also needs the skill set to accommodate high tech employers, large or small.
And he said while cell phone communications are necessary, "no one wants a cell phone tower next to them."
He said the county has successfully fought back against the state's unfunded mandates and allotment cuts, but he doesn't want the county to dig itself into a financial hole.
A second candidates forum, including Dist. 3 candidates Greg Larson and challenger Floyd Frank, will be held Sept. 28 at the Hubbard County boardroom. It begins at 6 p.m.