County candidates face off at Spring Valley forum

County office candidates take turns answering questions at a forum in Spring Valley Thursday. Candidates at the table, from left, are Tom Kaase, John DeGoerge, Heidi “Bly” Jones and Brian Hoff. Speaking is moderator Nathan Pike. Behind him are representatives from the sponors — VFW Commander Steve O’Connor, left, and Spring Valley Tribune Publisher David Phillips.
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Democracy on a local level was alive and in action as residents of the area attended a candidates’ forum hosted by the Spring Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 4114 and Bluff Country News Group last Thursday evening, Oct. 4, to introduce candidates running for the county’s sheriff and auditor-treasurer offices. 

VFW member Nate Pike timed and moderated the forum, introducing sheriff’s candidates — incumbent Fillmore County Sheriff Tom Kaase and investigator John DeGeorge — and auditor-treasurer candidates Heidi Bly Jones and Brian Hoff.  Pike outlined the rules of the evening’s proceedings, advising everyone that civility was the order of the hour and that each candidate could introduce himself or herself, then answer written questions submitted by the gallery within a specific amount of time. Candidates took turns going first with a drawing held beforehand.

Sheriff candidates

DeGeorge was the first to speak, sharing that he has been a lifelong Rushford resident and graduated from Rushford-Peterson High School in 1995, as did his wife.  They live near Bratsberg with their daughter and son.  He has been a deputy since 1997, in 2000 was promoted to working as an undercover narcotics investigator, and in 2008 was given the position of patrol sergeant and captain.  He stated that his role would be to structure plans for the issues the county currently faces and to plan for the future. 

“I’m the lead investigator, and I carry my own caseload of investigations.  To answer the question ‘Why should we vote for you?,’ my background in the last 20 years provides me with the experience,” he told the more than 40 people present.

Kaase informed the gallery that he has been in law enforcement and married 34 years, has a son, Kaine, who is a police officer, and a grandson. 

“Looking back, I’ve been a resident of Fillmore County for over 55 years, and I spent 29 years in the general area of Spring Valley,” he said. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 34 years, with 12 of those in our sheriff’s office.  I went to Rochester for 18 years, but we chose to stay here to live because Fillmore County is our home.” 

He was a member of the Kingsland School Board for nine years, served as a Fillmore County commissioner for six years and has also been a business owner. He told about the improvements he feels he’s helped make possible in the sheriff’s department, such as upgrading radios, adding technology to squad cars and obtaining grants for training and programming.

DeGeorge first answered a question regarding how informational updates should be shared with staff and whether deputies, jailers and dispatchers should have separate meetings.  “It’s 2018, so we email everything — it’s a great way to share everything, but it’s a rigid way to communicate,” he said.  “When I started, we didn’t have email or so many ways to communicate, and I think we’ve got to communicate in person.  To me, that’s what leadership is.  To communicate in person is paramount.

“We call a deputies’ meeting quarterly, and I do think that we need to meet separately between the deputies, dispatchers and jailers because they are very different offices, so keeping them separate is a good idea.  You’ve always got to come back to meeting in person.  I hope that people would look at me as a resource, not just as a disciplinarian.” 

Kaase answered, “Our investigators meet more daily.  From a supervisory level, they take a look at what the vision is, what we need to share and the direction we need to take…if it’s a topic that we should go over, we bring it to attention.  Over the last four years, I’ve asked, ‘Can we improve upon it?’  Yes.”      

Another question asked how they would engage with teenagers, beyond the usual implementation of the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education (DARE) program brought to schools for sixth graders.  Kaase said that he has been proud to be part of the DARE program, but that he also felt that it’s important for deputies to engage in community service projects, “talking to younger kids, getting to know them. The advantage we have is the contracts in each community where the deputies who live in the area are more involved.  It’s a team effort.” 

DeGeorge took up the question, replying, “I think we see that our deputies see kids and stop to talk with them on the streets, stop in at the schools to have lunch with the kids, and we’ve got deputies in contracts who know who the kids are.  When we need information about a crime that might involve one of the kids, we call one of the deputies.” 

The investigator also noted that the sheriff’s office has developed a program based on the issues in each community and that efforts have been made to help the school districts take ownership of the program.  DeGeorge finished his answer, “I think you’ve got to start with leadership.”

Another question, among the written ones submitted before the forum, asked about the most important things each felt would be to prepare schools in the district for emergencies, such as an active shooter.  DeGeorge acknowledged that having grown up attending Rushford’s old school building, he was only familiar with the new building because he’d purposely taken a tour offered by the district to better acquaint himself with it. 

“We need to bring all the people — deputies, local police departments, fire departments — to tour the school building, and also have access to the blueprints and the utilities.  We need to know what’s in the school’s plan,” he said. “Most of the buildings in Fillmore County have been here a long time, so we should go through them, tour them, have a file of the blueprints and electrical services, have access to those files in our computers in our cars.”

Kaase agreed that law enforcement and emergency responders should have access to blueprints and other information, and he relayed to the gallery that he had participated in community training programs that are meant to prepare districts for emergencies, such as Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) training for deputies and then to forward those deputies to the county’s school districts to work with students and staff as to how to respond well. 

“We expanded and did a training in Preston with ambulances, police departments, fire departments working together on scenarios to get a hands-on feel for what they may have to do,” he said.

A member of the gallery wanted to know in a submitted question how each would mitigate differences of opinion, and Kaase replied, “I would take a look at the community and what would be best for the office and what the sheriff’s office does for the community.  Ultimately, the decision falls to the sheriff — whoever sits in that office has to be able to justify and stand by a decision.  I want people to be able to buy into a decision and to empower them.  Having the final decision can be very trying, and when the day is done, I hope I’ve done my best.”

DeGeorge said, “By listening.  I think that’s the best.  Everything changes as time goes on.  When I need to make a decision at the investigative level, I sit down with other investigators and hash things out.  I may not always agree with them, but I listen.  Chief deputy Tony Webber was never an investigator, but I would always talk with him if I needed help.  He’d point out that I could get a search warrant for something, ask me, ‘Why don’t you do it that way?’  I went to someone who wasn’t really trained to do investigations, but he had a great piece of advice that was helpful in making decisions.”

 The candidates were given an opportunity to close on their campaign introductions after answering several other questions, and DeGeorge said, “I’ve answered a lot of questions in the last nine months.  I’m not a politician, but I am somebody who will give you a direct answer.  You will never have me leave the room with you wondering what I’m up to.”

Kaase’s closing remarks were, “You’ve gotten just a snippet of our answers.  For John and I, there are a lot of differences, but also a lot of similarities.  When I was elected four years ago, my hope was not to do one term, because there’s a lot you can’t get done in just one term.”

He added that he had learned quite a bit during his tenure.  “I hope in seeking reelection, we can continue to work toward those things,” he said. 

Auditor-treasurer candidates

Auditor-treasurer candidate Jones introduced herself first, saying that she’s a lifelong Fillmore County resident and that she comes from a large family.  She has two children — a son and a daughter, and one grandchild. 

“We all have made a personal investment with our tax dollars…my goal is to educate the public on how that works,” she said. “I have a background in the banking industry, and I’ve worked directly in the auditor-treasurer’s office for the past 11 years.  I’ve had all the training and worked closely with the (auditor-treasurer).  I do distributions, which means that I have to go through them very carefully, and I’m very passionate about doing it the right way, even if it’s the long way.”

Hoff conveyed that he has lived between Preston and Wykoff for 21 years, has been married for 38 years and has three grown children. 

“I’ve been in the Fillmore County assessors’ office for the last 11 years and worked with the auditor-treasurer’s office, so I have some experience,” he said. “I have 35 years’ experience with banking, appraisals and assessors…have worked with different agencies.  Outside of that, I’m coaching and officiating, so some characteristics will transfer well to the auditor-treasurer’s office.”

One of the first questions Jones and Hoff answered involved why they are seeking the auditor-treasurer’s position.  Hoff remarked that he filed for the office because he’d ben working between the assessor’s office and the auditor-treasurer’s office and had felt that there is need for change, particularly in relation to real estate, and that changes made in the auditor-treasurer’s office will improve operations in other offices, such as the county recorder’s office. 

“We’ve tried to get things fixed over the years, but a lot of it has failed…it’s getting the office to work together more smoothly in a teamwork environment,” he said.

Jones reiterated that she has been a financial officer there for over a decade and that she has worked to her current position from the bottom. 

“I’ve obtained a lot of certifications and experience prior to coming to the county, and right now, I’m the financial officer.  I bring to the table all my experience,” she said. “The majority of things are mandated by the state, so I have to make sure I’m on the ball.  I think we have a great team, and the elections are running smoothly.  We do a lot in public, but more behind the scenes.  The auditor-treasurer’s office is the central bank for the entire county.  I want to educate people and make it more transparent.  Tax payments are on the county webpage, you can get tax statements emailed as well, and we can put more on the county webpage because sometimes there’s information we need to provide.  Customer service — if you have any questions, feel free to give us a call.” 

The candidates’ vision for the future of the auditor-treasurer’s position was the next query. 

“We have to provide education to taxpayers but also to employees,” said Jones. “They need to be confident…where I want to be in five years…I want employees to be able to calculate taxes, do some cross-training in our department.” 

Hoff answered,  “Interdepartmentally — cross-training within the department in case someone is gone, and they need to be able to work across department lines to see how one office affects the other offices.  I’d like to streamline things so that they’re more efficient with taxpayer dollars.”

A question about differences in opinion within their prospective department interested the gallery after that. 

Hoff related, “I would listen open-mindedly to what someone has to say, listen and work together to resolve the issue.” 

Jones said,  “I work with people who have a different opinion than me every single day.  It’s important that things are openly discussed.  That can change a lot and bring a totally different perspective.  Another resource is other counties, because they’re all working with the same statutes that they have to follow to do their jobs.” 

Closing statements put Hoff first: “Thanks everybody for coming.  I am very interested in the auditor-treasurer’s office.  I will do my best job for you there, but if you choose Heidi Jones, I will continue in the assessor’s office and provide stability there.” 

Jones rounded out her contributions: “I’ve worked a long time, and I’m certified, trustworthy, have principles, and I am very much looking forward to working as the next auditor-treasurer.”

Pike thanked everyone for attending the evening’s discussion, then invited them to return this Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m. for the Spring Valley City Council candidates’ forum.