In nine days, voters will cut the number of Morrison County sheriff candidates in half.
Other contests are on the primary ballot ranging from the county auditor-treasurer to the Republican governor and senator and the DFL auditor races. However, as former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local,” and the race drawing the most attention here is the sheriff’s race where incumbent Michel Wetzel is retiring.
I’ve long admired Wetzel, and think he is one of the sharper sheriffs I’ve known over the years. He presents himself well, is articulate and has handled some very difficult cases.
That doesn’t mean he is a good sheriff; it just means that I like him and believe he has been conscientious in his duties.
I’m sure some people disagree with that, maybe even some of the people who have worked with him, but I have never heard any rumblings from inside the law enforcement community.
Regardless, Wetzel will not be on the ballot, and that means that changes — maybe significant, maybe small — will be coming to the sheriff’s department. Each sheriff has his own way of doing things, different priorities, different perspective.
Although I’ve talked to the four candidates seeking to replace Wetzel, I can’t say that I know any of them well. The most interesting thing about them as a group is that each has a significant following. It’s rare when four candidates in any election can make a viable case for winning. In a low-turnout primary, the race may well turn on who can get their supporters to the polls.
Tom Justin is a former president of the Royalton School Board. Charles Strack a Randall native, has been a Little Falls police sergeant for nine years and is also Randall police chief. Dan “Scoop” Rocheleau is a deputy sheriff and has also been a Pierz firefighter for 12 years and a first responder for 21 years. Shawn Larsen is an Upsala native and now supervises all the other deputies in Morrison County.
I asked each of them the same questions, and got mostly the same answers. The differences weren’t enough to sway my opinion that the county will probably be fine regardless of who wins. I came away thinking Justin was the one most likely to shake things up in the department, being the only one working outside the county, but as I said, there will be changes regardless of who wins.
Three of them said they thought the department was adequately staffed.
Justin who is a police lieutenant with the St. Cloud Police, said the call volume load appears adequate at first glance, but after talking to people on the campaign trail, he can see asking for more deputies. He is also concerned that at times only one dispatcher is on duty, and he would make it a priority to have two dispatchers around the clock.
The others offered different wrinkles as well. Rocheleau said that he would increase the number of people assigned to the Drug Task Force from one to two, pulling someone off of patrol if necessary. Eventually, he thinks, the department will need another person to fight illegal drug use and the crime that comes with it.
Strack said the county has done a good job in getting grants that focus on preventing underage drinking, and now wants to also focus on drugs in a similar way.
Larsen also said that he would put more emphasis on fighting illegal drug use, but came at it differently. He would revamp the evaluation process of department employees. He wants to use that process to identify those officers who are good at drug interdiction so they focus more of their time on what they are good at.
Larsen also sees a need to split the emergency management and communications supervisor into two positions. Emergency management has become almost a full-time duty in itself, he said. That officer has to update repeatedly all of the county’s emergency operations plans, has extensive educational responsibilities and also applies for grants to get the training and equipment necessary to carry out the plans.
All of the candidates plan renewed emphasis on outreach and educating children and the community on the dangers of drugs. Strack, for example, wants to restart a program similar to DARE for junior high schoolers. Justin wouldn’t add to the Drug Task Force, but instead would allocate the equivalent of one full-time position to educating children and young parents.
Justin was the only one who volunteered that he supports the county’s new drug court. He said 66 percent of those who go through drug court are non-recidivist.
On another topic, I asked the candidates for their views on the position of Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole, who said in 2012 that he would refuse to enforce any federal mandate, regulation or rule that he believes violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms and is not approved through the legislative process.
Gun owners have little to worry about in Morrison County. All claim to be strong supporters of the Second Amendment, at least for law-abiding citizens. Strack wants gun owners to be adequately trained and qualified; Larsen said his department wouldn’t enforce federal law, that’s up to the feds. Justin and Rocheleau agreed with Cole. Rocheleau said, “We are really the last stand for the people.”
Theses days, being sheriff is not only a difficult but a dangerous job. We’ve got four good candidates. Vote for one Aug. 12.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected].