Sheriff candidates square off at forum
Voters didn’t see sharp exchanges in the Douglas County sheriff’s race at a Thursday forum but they did learn more about the candidates.
Incumbent Sheriff Troy Wolbersen touted his experience and past positions within the sheriff’s office, all the way from jailer/dispatcher to chief deputy to his last eight years as sheriff.
Challenger Rich Homan, a state trooper, traced his 28 years of experience in law enforcement and said he would bring “open communication” to the sheriff’s office.
His comment triggered the only rebuttal of the hour-long forum. Wolbersen said that the public can contact him or the sheriff’s office at any time. He said there is “very good communication” within the department and he has weekly meetings with his deputies.
“There is not a communication issue,” Wolbersen said.
Sponsored by the Alexandria League of Women Voters and the Echo Press, the forum filled the Alexandria City Hall chambers with about 50 attendees.
The candidates answered a variety of questions from the audience about their leadership and management skills, the sheriff’s office budget, marijuana laws, the relationship between the sheriff’s office and police, using military vehicles and gear, reducing drunk driving, sex trafficking and more.
Homan said he would lead by example, surround himself with good people and work as a team. He added that although he has not been a supervisor “per se,” he has learned a lot about budgeting and supervising from his superiors over the years.
Wolbersen said he’s learned about all aspects of the department through his past positions. He said he wouldn’t ask employees to do something he wouldn’t do. He added that one of the toughest things about being sheriff is to ask others to put themselves in harm’s way in dangerous situations such as armed stand-offs.
When asked how the county’s sheriff budget compares with other counties, both candidates said they hadn’t compared the numbers.
Wolbersen said that expenditures total about $8 million or about $7.3 million after revenue. He said his goal is to be as cost efficient as possible.
A couple of questions focused on marijuana – how much of a priority it should be and the impact of legalizing it.
Wolbersen noted that marijuana is not a low priority item for his department. Deputies issue tickets for those found having a small amount of marijuana and paraphernalia items.
Wolbersen said that Colorado, in approving recreational use of the drug, is facing all kinds of problems. Sellers are targeting young people by putting marijuana in cookies and suckers, he said.
Homan said that “drugs are drugs” and needed to be treated the same. He said that the transporting of illegal drugs along Interstate 94 is a definite problem in the area. He added that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs.
When asked to describe the sheriff office’s relationships with the police department and the community, Homan said it was important for the sheriff to be out in the public and to keep communications open. He said the sheriff, police and state patrol should work together smoothly by sharing information.
Wolbersen said that the sheriff’s office has maintained good working relationships with other agencies, so much so that offices in other counties are envious. He said his office works with police in Osakis, Brandon, Carlos and Alexandria on a regular basis. The sheriff’s office also cooperates with conservation officers, the state patrol and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
When asked what changes he’d make if he’s re-elected, Wolbersen said he didn’t see a need for anything dramatic. He said he plans to focus more on cyber crimes and criminal activity on the Internet. He said that changes are being made to the drug task force to make sure local investigators are on the same page.
Mental health issues are also becoming a bigger issue, Wolbersen said. Too many people with mental illness are ending up in jail instead of getting the treatment they need.
Homan said that law enforcement needs to become proactive in fighting illegal drugs, especially along the I-94 corridor. He said that drugs, weapons and other illegal trafficking is taking place off the freeway exits. “We need to hit this stuff before it gets here,” Homan said.
One person from the audience, noting that both candidates looked serious while addressing the questions, asked what they did for fun.
They both talked about their passion for hunting, fishing and the outdoors.
Homan added that he considers himself very approachable and easy to talk to one-on-one. He added he’s a good listener and a pleasant person.
Wolbersen said he’s comfortable sitting down and talking to anyone and is thankful to live in a county that offers so many outdoor opportunities.
When asked for their thoughts on using military vehicles, tanks and gear against the public, both candidates said they want people to identify the sheriff’s office as civilian law enforcement, not as a military presence.
Wolbersen said the sheriff’s office does have an armored vehicle and military-level vests but the equipment is used for the safety of officers, not to intimidate the public.
Homan agreed, saying there is a time and place for armored vehicles to be used.
Both candidates shared similar views on reducing drunk driving incidents.
Homan said that law enforcement needs to be proactive and have a zero-tolerance approach to dealing with impaired drivers. He said that alcohol-related crashes have taken too many lives.
Wolbersen said his office is actively patrolling for drunk drivers. He said the old days of giving a drunk driver a ride home instead of making an arrest are long gone. He added that a minor found with even a tiny fraction of alcohol in his or her system will still be ticketed.
Sex trafficking has become a larger problem statewide in the past couple of years, Wolbersen said. Locally, prostitution is not that prevalent but can be arranged via the Internet, he said. That’s why he plans to expand investigations into those kinds of crimes.
Homan noted that he attended a recent forum at the Alexandria Technical and Community College about sex trafficking. He said that the Mall of America ranks 11th in the nation for the problem. He said that law enforcement needs to be proactive and watch for this kind of activity to stop young kids from being exploited.
A question asked what more can be done to protect law enforcement officers.
Homan said training is key. Officers need to be on their guard at all times. He added that it’s not as easy to read people as well these days. He said that the signs that a suspect could turn violent aren’t as obvious.
Wolbersen agreed that training is a big part of keeping officers safe, along with having safety equipment such as bullet-proof vests.
WHY ELECT A SHERIFF?
A question asked why the sheriff’s office is an elected position.
Wolbersen said that making it an elected position holds the sheriff more accountable to the public. He noted it’s the only elected law enforcement position and dates back as one of the practices U.S. settlers brought over from England. Homan agreed that the position should remain elected