Candidates for two county positions field questions during forum in Mabel

By : 
CHARLIE WARNER
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

A crowd of around 100 people turned out for the Fillmore County candidates’ forum co-sponsored by the Fillmore County League of Women Voters and the Bluff Country Newspaper Group. The two-hour event was held Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Mabel Community Center and focused on the two upcoming contested county races.

Candidates for the county auditor/treasure position are Heidi Bly Jones, who works in the auditor/treasurer’s office, and Brian Hoff, who works in the assessor’s office. Candidates for county sheriff are incumbent Sheriff Tom Kaase and challenger Captain John DeGeorge. The four candidates were introduced and then responded to nearly 40 questions posed by those attending the event.

Lynn Theurer of the Winona League of Women Voters served as the moderator for the event.

Auditor/treasure questions

Questions for Bly Jones and Hoff were addressed first. The two candidates alternated between who had the first opportunity to answer the questions. A few of their questions and each candidate’s responses are included.

If elected, what are the major challenges you would face and what are the opportunities for changes?

Hoff said computer software changes are coming very soon for many of the county departments, including the auditor/treasure office. Implementing the new system will be a huge undertaking. He added that he would work to improve the efficiency of the department and strive to eliminate mistakes.

Jones echoed Hoff’s comments as far as the new computer software system and added that because she is currently working with the software vendor, she has some insight into the transition and implementation of it. She also noted the upcoming elections are a very busy time in the auditor/treasurer office.

Explain how you would work with people in your department who have differing opinions than yours on how issues should be handled?

Jones replied that everyone has different backgrounds and ideas on how things should be handled. These differing opinions must be respected and staff needs to work together.

Hoff said he’s learned the best way to get along with others is to be a good listener. When staff comes with different viewpoints, listen to them and then work together as a team.

If elected, what activities would you review and what changes would you make?

Hoff said he would sit back and see how things are currently handled and not make any major changes right away.

Jones said she would continue employee education and work to improve the technical aspects of the department.

How would you better educate the public about the tax system when some aspects are hard to understand?

Jones said she would work on better communication by utilizing the county’s website to educate the public.

Hoff agreed with Jones on using the county website to better educate the public on the very complicated tax system. He also suggested the county use the local newspapers to publish an informational column on the tax system.

What is the first thing you would do if elected?

Hoff said he would work to get to know the staff, find out what each person’s responsibilities are and start working on crossover training.

Jones said she would begin crossover training, especially with the tax system and then set both short-term and long-term education goals.

How do you create respect in the workplace?

Jones said it takes a team to be successful. She would be open to new ideas that could make the department more efficient and save the county money.

Hoff said he would review the job duties of the staff, cross train so everyone could perform other duties during vacations or leaves and try to foster a team focus within the department.

How would you balance long-term needs of the county while facing budget shortfalls?

Hoff said he would work with the commissioners to find ways to alleviate budget shortfalls.

Jones said she is a planner and would work to address the long-term needs of the county. Looking for other revenue resources and working with other counties are ideas she suggested.

How do you make decisions?

Jones replied, “Very carefully.” She added if she feels very positively about something, she would go with her instincts.

Hoff said he would look at the big picture and gather as much information as possible, do research and discuss the issues with his co-workers.

How are you more qualified than your opponent?

Jones said she has worked in the auditor/treasure office for the past 12 years, has served on the Ostrander City Council, has worked in the banking industry and has earned many required certifications to do work in the auditor/treasure office.

Hoff said he has been a county appraiser for the past 11 years, has worked closely with the auditor/treasure staff, which has helped him gain knowledge of that department. He was a school board member when the Wykoff and Spring Valley districts consolidated, and has spent 34 years in the banking, insurance and appraisal businesses.

Sheriff questions

Is the current Fillmore County jail adequate?

Kaase feels it is and they are currently meeting all the government guidelines. He was quick to add there will be challenges in the future. Winona County is currently considering changes in its jail and what it does may influence what this county does.

DeGeorge feels the jail is not adequate. It is a 90-day facility and has been reduced to a 20-bed jail. The sunset date on the current jail is in the future. He wants to host a number of meetings with the public to see what the county can do.

What would your spending priorities be for the next four years?

DeGeorge said a lot of what the sheriff’s department must do is dictated by the state and federal governments. Continued training in all aspects of police work is a top priority.

Kaase said the biggest resource the sheriff’s department has is the staff. Continued training and retention of this staff would be his top priority. He noted the department has a budget of approximately $3 million, which is one of the largest budgets in the county.

How would you handle the school violence issue?

DeGeorge said he would hold training sessions with local law, fire and ambulance units at each school and develop contingency plans. By holding these sessions in the individual schools, the various rescue units would get to know the school buildings and plans could be developed so everyone would be on the same page.

Kaase agreed with DeGeorge and added his department has worked with the schools in the county with the ALICE Training Program, which is a nation-wide program created to help curb school violence. Kaase also said he has been working on grants to do more to fight school violence.

School liaison officers are used to build positive relationships with kids. What would you do to foster this?

Kaase said the DARE Program has been valuable in fostering good relationships between officers and students. He noted that he has worked to get a grant for a full-time officer just for this.

DeGeorge agreed with the DARE Program and its success, but added that he wants to get his officers out of their cars and meet the people. He noted personal contact with the public is a must.

So many of our tragedies are the result of mental illness. How would you handle this issue?

DeGeorge said this all goes back to training. Officers need to be better trained to cope with persons suffering from mental health. He stated that jail is not the place for people with mental health issues. He added that many of the people they deal with on a regular basis are mentally ill. Training in de-escalation techniques is vital.

Kaase said he was very involved with mental health issues when he worked for the Rochester Police Department. When he was elected Fillmore County Sheriff four years ago, he advocated for increased training for dealing with mental illness. He noted that many of the persons in the county jail are suffering from mental illness and/or drug abuse.

Is the current sheriff’s department understaffed?

Kaase said it is. He feels the officers are spread too thin with the limited staff trying to cover the entire county. He said they are working with the local police departments in the county to help relieve this problem.

DeGeorge doesn’t feel they are understaffed. He said the department needs to have a number of positions filled and added that they don’t have a lot of staff but the staff they have can be more efficient.

How would you improve the morale of the sheriff’s department?

DeGeorge said by being elected sheriff. He pointed out that he has worked for the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Department for 21 years and 92 percent of the staff has gone on record as supporting him in this election.

Kaase admitted that his opponent did receive 92 percent of the staff support. He noted that sometimes being the boss and the decisions the boss has to make can be unpopular.

Should members of the department be able to use county equipment for personal gain or interest?

DeGeorge said they should not and he said he has not seen any examples of this.

Kaase agreed with DeGeorge and added that the county has policies and procedures addressing this issue.

The sheriff’s department currently has only one female, how would you promote more diversity?

Kaase said the hiring of a female deputy came under his watch and he is very proud of this. He said it is hard to improve the situation when they only had two persons apply for the last opening they had.

DeGeorge said they have to change the way they go about recruiting for officers. They need to reach out to colleges and speak with prospective recruits.

Do you support Minnesota’s conceal and carry law and reciprocity with other states?

DeGeorge said he supports the conceal and carry law in Minnesota and also reciprocity with other states. He added that Minnesota has had conceal and carry for 15 years and he has not had any issues with it.

Kaase also supports the conceal and carry law in Minnesota and the reciprocity with other states. He noted that he wished all the states would have the same conceal and carry law so that it would be consistent throughout the entire country.

Wrapping up

Following the final questions for the sheriff candidates, all four candidates had an opportunity to provide a closing statement.

County commissioners Randy Dahl and Duane Bakke, who are both running unopposed for re-election then gave brief statements.

That followed with Theurer thanking the candidates and those attending for helping to make the forum an informative and thought-provoking event.