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Last forum in heated county races: 'Say something nice'

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The increasingly negative campaigns for Hubbard County attorney and sheriff were forced into a temporary cease-fire Monday night in a candidates forum in Nary by an innocent request from the audience: Say one nice thing about your opponent.

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Awkward.

Four sheepish men grimaced, laughed uncomfortably and squirmed.

The youngest candidate led the way, bringing levity to an evening of tense but polite exchanges among the four candidates.

"He made a huge commitment to the country serving in Vietnam," attorney Nathaniel Welte said of county attorney Don Dearstyne.

"It takes extreme courage and all of our service men and women need to be commended," Welte said, pointing out he doubts he'll see military service.

"I admire his youth and energy," Dearstyne responded. "He seems driven to be in this position."

Dearstyne related an anecdote about the time he pulled up to a home, not seeing any campaign posters on cars nearby, only to discover Welte at the door.

Oops.

The audience laughed.

But Dearstyne said the two men's dedication to their campaigns "is good for Hubbard County.

"I commend him for filing for public office," Dearstyne continued. "I'd prefer he'd done it in Ottertail County."

More laughter.

Welte works in the New York Mills branch of a Perham firm that also has a branch office in Park Rapids.

"There's so much negativity in campaigning," Frank Homer agreed. He said, "life is like a triangle" based on an officer's "family structure, career, and education. He has all three," he said of opponent Cory Aukes.

"I respect anyone who has been able to put that type of life together."

Homer mentioned that frequently officers are victims of drug or alcohol abuse, divorce or suicide because of the job stress.

Aukes' family, job training and education keep him grounded, the acting sheriff said.

"Frank was the first officer (in Cass County) I worked with," recalled Aukes of his 20-year career at the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office. "I liked him then and I like him now. What he's done with the budget, he's done very well with that. I'm jealous of that but I credit him."

Among the sheriff's candidates, there are some scheduling differences about how best to use manpower, which narrowband radio system will serve the county best and how to boost flagging morale.

• Aukes wants to increase the quality of officers field training, particularly for firearms.

Every year, he said, some officers fail their weapons training.

"It's too important an issue to forget about," he said.

Putting young officers out into the public who carry weapons all the time is a situation calling for more training, he insisted.

He wants to free officers up from their paperwork burdens to mold the force into a "more proactive one, not one that just reacts."

He wants to apply for more grant monies to combat drunken driving and speeding, such as the Safe & Sober campaign the department no longer participates in.

With respect to the radios, he said in-car mobile radios are generally reliable. But in the northern reaches of the county, especially using hand-held portable radios to communicate with fire and emergency personnel, the coverage drops significantly.

The county attempts to keep three to four officers on patrol in the evenings when they're most needed, but sometimes run short if someone calls in sick

He doesn't worry about his lack of budget experience. Past sheriffs have served without such experience, he maintains.

And Aukes said it was important to maintain a relationship with Leech Lake tribal officers to patrol the Nary region.

Aukes said he doesn't agree with providing vending machines to inmates, even if the county profits off the sales.

"They're in jail," he said.

He also stressed the importance of ATV patrols since the county has seen five deaths in the last three years. Currently the ATV officer fills a coverage gap and is not out on patrol when most riders are out, he said.

And he said again Hubbard County should have its own drug officer, not simply rely on two task forces that operate in each end of the county.

• Homer wants to continue the "good service" he thinks the department has provided under his leadership. He said he's learned on the campaign trail the citizens have appreciated the department's hard work.

He said training is standard throughout the state, 48 hours each three years. Hubbard County officers have gone well beyond those standards, he said.

Internally, Hubbard County officers have qualified to be instructors so they can train each other, he said.

Federal Communications Commission mandates to convert to narrowband radios by 2013 will eventually double the number of channels emergency responders can access, he said. Building on to the county's VHF radios will eventually enhance the quality of communications for all radios without spending a fortune, he maintains.

The county gets 24-hour coverage several days a week, he said, by reassigning the position that used to be a drug officer to an overnight patrol.

Before, officers were called out numerous times during the night, costing the department "an automatic three hours of overtime."

He said he doesn't want the department to go back to the days where "we had to rely on our neighboring counties up north" for coverage.

Summers, due to grants, boat and water patrols and an additional ATV officer help cover the areas summer residents frequent, he said.

And his budget experience is invaluable to the county, Homer said.

"Sure it's an advantage if you've worked with them," he said. "You understand where and why cuts are made."

And Homer said he got a handle on overtime that was running rampant during 2008 and early 2009, costing taxpayers thousands.

He said the department has a "fantastic relationship" with Leech Lake officers to maintain coverage in the remote northeast area of the county and reservation. Hubbard County and three others, along with some municipalities, have a longstanding agreement to assist each other in coverage, he said,

Inmate vending machines "won't offset the cost of jail operations" but will pick up other expenditures, he said.

Welte and Dearstyne sparred once again over caseloads and plea agreements.

But both men said they would push to get a special drug and alcohol court, which many counties have implemented to siphon those cases off the heavy court dockets.

• Welte said he was concerned about the number of serious felony cases charged, but that were resolved without a felony conviction, 42 percent last year by his calculation.

Charging cases appropriately will reduce the need for such negotiations, he added. And making appropriate sentencing recommendations will ensure more fairness in punishment, he said.

He said the county needs to break the cycle of domestic violence that seems to permeate new generations by working with families and Social Services to keep families together.

"Our approach needs to be strict and stern," he said of domestic violence and child protection cases

Although Welte admitted he doesn't have as much felony jury trial experience as his opponent or grand jury experience, he said he is not a neophyte in the courtroom.

He stressed his experience in a variety of civil and criminal cases, particularly those involving land use and zoning,

Welte said as manager of his law office branch, he is cognizant of billing and budget issues, scheduling personnel and the stress of having employees rely on him for their jobs.

He said he has had to discipline and promote employees and would be qualified to run the county attorney's office if elected.

He questioned the need for a third attorney in the office when caseloads are declining, saying he would not let anyone go until he gauged the office's staffing needs.

He said community service is essential for a county attorney to know "what is going on in the schools, what's happening in the community. You can reach out to the disenfranchised," he said. "Community service humanizes us."

Welte emphasized his experience with zoning and shoreland issues, saying the county's lakes "are an important natural resource we need to protect."

He said he would ensure the county's shoreland ordinances were enforced. Otherwise, he said, they're useless.

• Dearstyne emphasized his lengthy experience as a former police officer and longtime attorney.

"It's important to keep this experience in office," he told the voters gathered in the Helga Township Hall.

"I have the support of law enforcement past and present," he said.

Dearstyne also stressed his heavy involvement in community and church activities that contribute to his experience and allow him to touch base with many communities, not just Park Rapids.

He and his wife Marie attend fundraisers and events in all the Hubbard County communities, he said.

"We did that long before we were campaigning," he added. It allows him to hear the concerns of county residents and assess their needs.

He said his managerial and budget experience have served the county well.

"In the three years I've managed my budget we've come in under by 10 percent each year," he said.

He expects to come in next year "even lower."

He said his office has been prosecuting shoreland violations, taking violators to court in civil proceedings to force compliance from property owners.

As far as having three attorneys in the office, Dearstyne said he inherited the positions from his predecessor and recently filled the third spot after a year's vacancy.

And, he increased the department's revenue by $40,000 taking on the contract to prosecute city cases, thus defraying more than half the cost of the position, he said.

He wants to combat drug use in the county "to give children a safe and secure home... drug abuse is an illness. They need treatment."

And in child protective services, the immediate goal is to place children with a relative until they can be returned to the home, he said.

Drug and alcohol courts take a tremendous commitment, he said, but said he would seek federal funds to pursue such a program locally.

All four candidates thanked the League of Women Voters, which put on three separate forums this fall to educate residents.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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