GRAND RAPIDS — The four candidates running for election to Itasca County Sheriff had the opportunity to voice their platforms before a crowd last week.
Advocates for Family Peace and ElderCircle hosted a forum at the Robert J. Elkington Middle School. This was the second public forum for the sheriff candidates held so far.
A large audience gathered in the gymnasium to hear what the four candidates had to say about a number of issues.
Despite some sound mishaps, the candidates, Jeff Carlson, Bryan Johnson, Ken Weis and incumbent Victor Williams spoke loudly regarding issues of drugs, crimes against children and the elderly, fiscal responsibility, jail overcrowding, domestic violence and more.
All questions directed to the candidates were submitted prior to the forum. Moderator was Brad Gallop. Seated alphabetically, the candidates first gave opening statements.
Carlson said he has been a peace officer for 19 years, most recently with the Grand Rapids Police Department since 2007. The Grand Rapids native believes he is poised to build more collaboration between the sheriff’s office and community groups.
Johnson said he is a lifelong resident of Itasca County, a nine year veteran of the Bovey City Council, former sheriff’s deputy and graduate of Greenway High School. Currently working as a truck driver, Johnson said he believes it is important that a sheriff be well-rounded and have friends outside the law enforcement community.
Weis said he has lived in Itasca County since 2010, currently residing in Cohasset. He has 25 years of law enforcement experience after serving with the Keewatin and Hibbing police departments and currently with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department. The main reason he is running is because he said he wants to make Itasca County a safe place to raise a family.
Sheriff Williams said he has been a peace officer for 28 years, eight as Itasca County Sheriff. He said leading the 76-member sheriff’s office is a challenge as the changes in today’s social norms have also changed the responsibilities of law enforcement. He said the sheriff must be careful not to make decisions that benefit only one person.
The first question posed to the candidates was, “If elected, what vision do you have for the role of sheriff and how would you get buy-in from existing staff for that vision?”
Johnson started this question. He said he believes the sheriff’s office needs to have a representative on the regional drug task force which would provide the department with additional resources such as undercover agents for investigative work.
“I also plan on being a very visual sheriff,” said Johnson. “I want to get out and meet people.”
Johnson would also like deputies to step up their patrol areas.
“We’ve gone from five patrol routes to two,” he said.
Weis was next to introduce his goals. He said the first thing he would do is “meet with staff to get on the same page - to hear their needs and wants.”
“I want to be fiscally responsible,” said Weis who also would like to have one deputy solely committed to narcotic enforcement. “I want to boost morale at the sheriff’s office. With open communication, you can hear what’s working and what’s not.”
Williams explained that the sheriff’s department has been restructuring with lines of command. He said his deputies are “running their shoes off” trying to cover all of Itasca County and he can’t afford to lose “even one deputy” to special duties. He praised those who are working special units such as child protection and sex trafficking
Carlson said he has four goals, if elected. These are fiscal responsibility, positive leadership, collaboration with service providers and accountability. He would also like deputies to have designated communities where they have regular communication with township boards and committees.
“With collaboration efforts, we have to work with these agencies to make victim safety enhanced,” said Carlson.
Other questions were regarding the county’s poverty level, child protection, drug convictions, and more.
One question that drew attention from the crowd especially was one about children’s mental health. It was stated that just a little under 50 percent of Itasca County’s children live in poverty, making them a higher percentage of at risk youth than the average Minnesota child.
Carlson started this question, he noted the collaborations with community groups and efforts of the Grand Rapids Police Department such as the Shop With A Cop program. He also touted the community efforts such as the Boys & Girls Club for their efforts to reach out to kids in need of mentoring and support.
Johnson followed and said he believes “we are moving forward in a good direction with the Boys & Girls Club that helps underprivileged kids mentoring their lives,” and he believes we need to continue to build and develop these types of programs.
Johnson continued, “I think it’s a pride issue, kids don’t want to tell the kid next to them that they don’t have money for lunch.”
He said, as a D.A.R.E. Officer accompanying kids on the annual Twins game outing, he would be mindful to take $200-300 with him because he knew there were many kids that would not have the funds to pay for a pop or snack.
“I think we can all give back,” said Johnson. “To turn an eye, that’s not my way train of thought.”
Weis said “early prevention is key. The sooner we can get to them help the more success we can have. Poverty leads to malnutrition.”
Weis gave light to the many families and children who live in tents, sheds because they are homeless. He praised the school resource officers for their work in helping to eliminate juvenile delinquency.
“This is a very large issue,” said Williams who explained that the issue is more a social issue, in that it stems with the “decay of the family structure.”
“So many people look to law enforcement to be parents. We’re not.”
Williams asked about the accountability of those who are responsible for their children. He referenced children who are not nurtured, who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
“As police, do you want us coming to your house to be the parent with social services?” Williams asked, pointing out that these family issues can lead to mental health issues in the future.
As for the biggest threat to Itasca County, in the eyes of the four candidates for Itasca County Sheriff, it was a toss up.
Weis believes it is drugs. He said it’s splitting families.
Williams said “how do you choose?” But, in the end he said it comes down to crimes against children and parental responsibilities. He said police are often put in the position to be parents, responding to complaints of belligerent children.
Carlson said the greatest threat to community safety is broken collaborations.
“If you elect me as sheriff, I am your sheriff, I work for you. It can’t be ‘I’ anymore, it’s got to be a ‘we’.”
Johnson said he also believes the biggest threat is drugs as it “causes a ripple down effect.”