Packed house hears county candidates' forum
A standing room only crowd packed the Hubbard County boardroom Tuesday to better acquaint themselves with candidates running for key county offices.
As the race for sheriff and county attorney heat up, incumbents and challengers are working hard to distinguish themselves from each other - and their predecessors.
And as it did in the first League of Women Voters forum last week, it essentially boils down to youthful energy versus experience.
n County Attorney candidate Nathaniel Welte hammered hard on incumbent Don Dearstyne's record, claiming the office is pleading down or dismissing too many serious cases. According to Welte's estimation, 42 percent of felony cases charged out last year did not result in felony convictions.
"I am concerned about the felonies," Welte said.
Welte, who has been in practice six years, admitted he has never tried a felony case or participated in a grand jury.
But he said he has extensive trial experience in civil cases, bench trials before a judge only and lesser criminal cases.
"That's why I'm looking forward to getting into office," he said.
Plea deals "are a viable tool for resolving cases quickly," he said. "But it doesn't mean you plead down serious felony cases. Negotiating away serious felony cases to move the calendar along, I have a problem with that."
He said better time management skills would allow the office's heavy caseload to flow more efficiently.
Welte expressed concern about the rising number of domestic violence cases and said he would "prosecute cases irregardless of what the victim wants."
He advocates breaking the cycle of violence that affects one-third of all women through community education, safe houses, victims' rights counselors and halfway homes for offenders.
He said as chief prosecutor, he would be a "vanguard protecting the citizens of Hubbard County."
Drug cases, especially at the street level, would be a priority to get a grip on the county's drug problem, Welte said.
n Dearstyne, seeking a second term as county attorney, stressed his experience as a police officer, public defender and prosecutor as someone who has experienced all facets of the criminal justice system.
Dearstyne listed his community, school and church involvement as his commitment to the area and people.
"Even before I ran for this office I chose to be involved," he said.
He also listed his extensive trial and grand jury experience as reason to keep him in office.
He explained reasons for some of the dismissals: a pot manufacturing case, a bank robbery case and others were dismissed to allow for federal prosecution and tougher penalties, he said.
And sometimes cases just have to involve plea offers, he said. In the case of a domestic violence victim that defied a subpoena and refused to testify, he said he refused to prosecute the women for contempt because she'd already been victimized enough.
"It's a difficult issue," he said of domestic violence. "Our office takes a hard stance."
He also praised victims rights advocate Jill Christianson for the work she does on behalf of injured parties. He said her services are invaluable to his office, especially since Minnesota law mandates consulting victims on dispositions in criminal cases.
He also said his office would prosecute "street level dealers and drug manufacturers" and pay particular attention to drug and alcohol abuse, which has risen in the past two years.
"It won't go away with the current economy," he said, indicating more families are stuck at home together and getting on each other's nerves.
n Sgt. Cory Aukes, who stressed his lifelong ties to the Park Rapids community and his 20 years of service on the Sheriff's Department, was asked whether he would find those connections a liability if he was elected sheriff.
Candidates fielded written questions from the audience.
Aukes was asked if it would be difficult to crack down on friends and family if necessary.
"You treat everybody the same," he insisted. "We haven't all been held equally accountable in the past. If discipline needs to happen it should be consistent with all employees."
Aukes also clarified his position on being a "working sheriff."
He said he realized that "90 percent of the job is desk work."
But he said an occasional night patrol to fill in a shift or boost the morale of the troops was necessary.
"Getting out with the guys and dealing with personnel issues at night" would raise morale, he said.
And he also said paperwork burdens on officers who are asked to write their reports in their squad cars simply doesn't free them up to be on the roads more, he said. It's impossible to write up reports when the radio is busy and it's inefficient for the department to pay a secretary to type up those reports later, he maintains.
He said he has no immediate plans to increase personnel because of budget constraints.
"We'll just delegate duties a little bit different," he said. "Increasing staff is a long-term goal."
When asked if it would make sense to police the cities and combine forces, he said although it might make sense on a fiscal level to eliminate some positions and duplication, "businesses might be resistant losing local officers. There's still some ownership there."
Aukes said he would work to recruit inmates to fill the vacant jail space, but said the building's third floor needs to be utilized as well.
"I would explore all options, state and federal inmates," he said. "Somebody needs to use it (the third floor.) There's been a tug of war for that space."
Lastly, Aukes stressed accountability, "from the dispatcher that takes the call to the deputy that shows up at your door. They're all accountable to me and I'm accountable to you," he said.
n Sheriff Frank Homer, who was appointed to fill out his predecessor's unexpired term 18 months ago, also stressed his ties to the community as an active member of the Lions and Rotary clubs.
The former Cass Lake police officer and Cass County deputy also said his lengthy career in law enforcement is an asset to the county.
"The jail is a sore subject," he admitted. "That first year we were spoiled. We generated revenues of $250,000, $275,000."
Jail populations throughout the state are down, he said, so it's difficult to get prisoners from other counties.
Hubbard County houses Wadena County's inmates when that facility overflows and may get 20 inmates from a portion of the Clay County jail that is being forced to close this fall by the state.
He said the facility is state-of-the-art, with "optimal security, cameras and a computer system."
Homer said the sheriff's office has "obligations to the citizens of Hubbard County. You are the taxpayers paying for this department. We want to give you the best service."
And he praised his staff for being hard working and industrious, responsive to the public even in tough times "when 90 percent of our contacts are negative."
He said his wish list includes "in-car computers. It would be a great asset to the guys and gals that work on the road."
He stressed the necessity of police procedures and policies that could minimize an officer's liability for misconduct on the job. Last year the county's insurer paid an Akeley woman $640,000 when she alleged she'd been sexually assaulted by a deputy on duty.
Homer, like Aukes, said he cannot control salaries and raises given to departmental personnel, who are mostly unionized.
Homer likewise said the department's budget reins are tightly held by the county board so he has to do the best with what he's allocated.
"We're under budget so far in 2010," he said. He replaced a drug officer with a night patrol deputy to give the county round-the-clock coverage four to five days a week.
"I don't see a downfall" to policing the communities, he said. "It's a benefit to the sheriff's office and the city."
He said community activities such as getting kids fingerprinted, doing seat belt campaigns and educating seniors to scams demonstrates to the public that "we're on your side, members of your community."
n Dist. 3 challenger and former county commissioner Floyd Frank, a Third Crow Wing resort owner, fielded questions on his own.
Incumbent Greg Larson was out of town and unable to attend the forum. He defeated Frank for the seat four years ago.
At one point, Frank prompted laughter from the audience when he said he'd defer a particularly tough question to his opponent, looking at the empty chair.
Running a family business has made him fiscally responsible, he said.
Frank has served on various boards including the Nevis School Board, the HRA board and the Heritage nursing home board.
He said, "lack of money means working together as a team" between agencies, cities and other counties.
"We need to be working with (other) units of government to stretch" limited resources, he said.
"The county is pretty bare bones," he acknowledged. "We're pretty limited on what we can do."
He said the solution is to "fine tune a little more and make cuts on non-mandated programs."
State aid dollars for road projects are dwindling, he said.
"We're all in it together."
In response to a question as to why the county board has canceled 75 percent of the "work sessions" it scheduled this year, Frank said those are invaluable opportunities to meet one-on-one with department heads to get a better idea of how things are going.
"I'm not one to like having meetings for the sake of having meetings," he said, but touching base with department heads seemed a good reason to meet.
When asked whether the board should meet three times a month, he said only "if it meets the needs of our constituency. If they'd want it we'd push for it."
Jobs and economic development are worth pursuing, he said, although he did not say if he would vote to give the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission additional funds, which it has requested.
He praised the county's Environmental Services Office for doing a good job even when "the state throws a curveball."
He said he generally felt both the county Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment members are well trained.
And he said the issue of granting variances has become more difficult and controversial without state guidance as to what constitutes a hardship.
He said in hindsight, there are decisions he made as a commissioner he'd do over, but he said board members do the best they can with the information available to them at the time.