Hubbard County Sheriff's Office in transition
In the transition to a new Hubbard County law enforcement regime, Frank Homer has essentially become an enigma.
But his staff insists things are running well in a team effort, the department is responding to the citizens' needs and the new administration is poised to take over.
Sheriff-elect Cory Aukes, who takes office Jan. 3, said getting through the holidays would be a challenge. He and Scott Parks, his choice for new chief deputy, already have the January schedules out for dispatchers, deputies and jailers.
"We're down a person even now," he said of the road staff. In January he will begin filling vacancies.
"It'll be tough over the holidays," he said. "We have to utilize our part-timers the best we can to fill those positions.
"This isn't about rewarding your friends kind of thing," Aukes reiterated about filling the vacancies and promotions. "That was part of my campaign as well. We're going to do the best person for the job.
"Promotions for sergeant, we'll have interviews and a process," he said. "We'll see how that turns out. I certainly don't know what it's going to be right now. We'll see who's interested in and it'll be a process.
"The jail? I don't think there will be any changes," he said. "There will be a new schedule starting the first of the year," he said. "We're implementing an entirely different schedule where the employees are going to be on straight shifts rather than going from days to nights and backwards."
And he said that would entail permanent night shifts for some.
"We kind of went through a voting process, majority rules and they voted and that's what they picked," Aukes said.
"What they do is by seniority they get to bid shifts, is how they did it.
"I think we're going to try it for six months at a time so you'll be on straight days or straight nights. Then after six months I'll look at it to make sure it worked truly and was a good way to go and they truly were happy with that.
"One of the biggest issues that the people have, especially some of the younger people who haven't been there all that long that did get stuck on straight nights, is a little bit less time to be with their family. That was the one issue and I can certainly understand that completely.
"But it was a democracy thing and they voted so we'll give it a try," he said. "I think initially the current administration told them they were stuck with it for a year. I think we'll try it for six months and we'll know if they like it or not after that time."
Aukes, meanwhile, said he would not be taking a vacation with his family like he'd hoped this month. He begins a night patrol shift tonight.
Chief Dep. Jerry Tatro did not return calls seeking comment for this story. Dick Kimball, campaign co-chair, said he had not seen Homer since election night.
"All of us at the sheriff's office take pride in our work and we work hard everyday to help and protect the citizens of Hubbard County so if someone or a group of people have a personal vendetta against Frank, I wish they would take it up with him and leave the office out of it," said department administrative assistant Linda Eischens.
Homer has spent almost no time in his office since the election Nov. 2. He has not returned phone calls to the media since the election. For this story, calls were placed to his home, his cell phone and his office phone. He was not available by phone or e-mails to his home or office.
"That I'm going to let him answer on his own," said Eischens. "I did hear that there's rumors going around that apparently the employees at the sheriff's office aren't getting paid. And I guess that kind of bothered me that that would be said. It reflects on the whole sheriff's office."
Auditor Pam Heeren also said those rumors were untrue. If Homer cannot sign for the payroll, several others can, she said. The latest paychecks were direct deposited Friday without delay.
Aukes said he signed for the payroll last week and there were no hitches.
When asked at the county board meeting Nov. 17 if he could comment on the election, Homer said, "Losers don't have anything to talk about."
He promised he would discuss his future plans after he talked to state retirement officials but did not return calls seeking that information.
Absence not unprecedented
His absence has not gone unnoticed by his bosses and fellow department heads.
"It's concerning a lot of us," said Hubbard County attorney Don Dearstyne, declining further comment.
"I guess I could see sulking for a week," said one department head earlier this month. "Then you pick yourself up and go on."
But Homer's absence is not unprecedented, board chair Lyle Robinson said.
"Well, the truth of the matter is an elected official does not have to come to work at all," said a clearly frustrated Robinson, who asked Tatro where Homer was last week during the board meeting. Tatro's reply was inaudible.
"There's no way to force them to" come to work, Robinson said. But he added, "The job has to get done."
"Things are getting done over here whether Frank's here or not," Eischens said. "I guess I don't appreciate whoever's going around saying this kind of stuff that we aren't doing our job. Things are going well actually."
"Granted he was not elected to the position of sheriff, however he was appointed and as such he is treated as an elected official," said county coordinator Debbie Thompson. "An elected official accrues no vacation, sick leave or comp time. An elected position answers solely to the public as to performance," she said. "The county board's main input to the sheriff's office is solely budgetary."
"The only thing we can do is affect their budget financially and of course under statute he gets paid whether he comes to work or not," he said. "He really doesn't have to be at work to get paid. It's kind of a weird thing."
And Robinson sees no reason to penalize the Aukes administration by cutting its budget.
Robinson said throughout Minnesota and county history there have been problems with elected officials 'in absentia' from work. He cited the case of a former Minnesota state treasurer who lived in Florida and rarely came back to the state for business.
"It's disappointing because there's so much that has to get done as far as the transformation from one regime to the next," Robinson said of the Hubbard County situation.
"Over the years we've sort of had some of the same concerns with (a former sheriff.) We heard that he wasn't at work. Calvin (Johannsen) done 99 percent of the work. It was really unfair," Robinson said.
"I remember days when (former commissioner) Larry Burgoon and I were the new guys on the board we drove through eight-nine inches of snow to get to a county board meeting and yet the sheriff had the county four-wheel drive and he couldn't get to the board meetings. He lived in Park Rapids."
Aukes said he has not spoken to Homer since the election.
"He was certainly more than welcome to stay on but if he doesn't communicate with me I can't read his mind," Aukes said.
"We've got plenty of people backing us up, we have people in place taking over and we're doing fine," Eischens reiterated.
Both Aukes and Parks have praised Tatro for helping with the transition.
"We really need a leader," one deputy said last week.
Homer was gone much of October campaigning, which prompted some calls and e-mails to the Enterprise, including some from his own staff.
Robinson acknowledged he's heard from taxpayers.
"He's missing in action," Robinson agreed.
"I tell them (taxpayers) it's a separate branch of government from the county board. We get one vote on Election Day just like they do," Robinson said.
But several commissioners voiced their concern last week at the board meeting and openly wondered where the sheriff was.
Homer also was the only candidate who failed to file an end of campaign finance report as required under Minnesota's election law. Heeren said she is not inclined to institute a complaint for prosecution, although she did send out a reminder letter.