Replacing retiring Hubbard County Sheriff was the subject of heated debate Wednesday, as Hubbard County commissioners disagreed on how to fill the vacancy - and how soon.
"I think we have to put friendships and everything aside," said commissioner Cal Johannsen. "We need to look outside. It's best for the county." Johannsen is a former chief deputy in the Sheriff's Department. He said the county really couldn't fill the position until Sheriff Gary Mills officially retires April 30, just in case Mills has second thoughts.
Mills had been sidelined by chronic hip problems all year and will undergo a second hip replacement surgery next month at the Mayo Clinic.
"We have to come up with qualifications, a set of standards," board chair Lyle Robinson said. "Right now you need to be board licensed, have $50 and get more votes than anybody else" to be sheriff.
Commissioner Greg Larson made a motion to advertise the position and take the most qualified candidate. The motion failed on a 4-1 vote.
"I'm not too excited about it," commissioner Dick Devine said. "The department's running fine as it is." Devine is a retired State Patrol officer.
Commissioners debated whether they need to fill the position quickly under state statute, or whether they could wait until the 2010 election 18 months away. They asked Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne for an opinion on that, and what type of salary ranges and qualifications they could include in a want ad.
"I don't think we can take a year and a half," Johannsen said about filling the position. "No matter who we appoint it could be the kiss of death."
County Coordinator Jack Paul said he wonders how many qualified applicants the county might get if the candidate would have to run for office a little more than a year after taking the job.
"I am totally against going outside the county," Devine insisted. "I want to vote for who I know and trust."
Commissioners debated whether to appoint from within temporarily or hire someone with sheriff experience. "How do we know if they'll make a good sheriff if they've never done it?" Robinson asked. "What do we expect from a sheriff as a county board?
"Being a sheriff is more of a popularity contest."
"We need an administrator," Johannsen replied.
The commission also debated whether any job qualifications would require, in addition to a Minnesota peace officers license, a college degree, whether an applicant would get a veteran's preference, and whether promising young officers with little experience would even be considered.
"It's a slippery slope," Devine said. "That's why I favor elections. I want somebody for sheriff we know and trust. I don't want to import somebody we don't know."
Mills has urged appointment of Chief Deputy Frank Homer as his replacement, but the board has not acted on that request.
The department also has a deputy vacancy the county won't fill due to a hiring freeze. Devine said by keeping Homer in place running the department, doing without a sheriff for the next 18 months, and not filling the deputy vacancy, the county stands to recoup $200,000.
"This is an opportunity for us in bad times to save money," he said.
Sgt. Cory Aukes has apparently voiced his intentions to run for the office in 2010, but would not return phone calls about the issue in late 2008 when it first arose. One supporter urged his appointment in a recent letter to the editor.
The county will take up the matter again at its April 1 meeting.