Debating the issues

Published 9:20 am Thursday, July 29, 2010

About 60 people attended the debate forum at Albert Lea City Hall Wednesday evening to hear the candidates for Freeborn County sheriff speak. From left is Mark Harig, Marc Johnson, Randy Kehr, Bob Kindler, Ryan Merkouris and Scott Schmeltzer. Schmeltzer was the moderator for the forum and Kehr helped host the event Wednesday evening. -- Kelli Lageson

Leadership, ICE contract among hot topics at the Wednesday forum

Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office candidates debated their positions on issues like leadership in the Sheriff’s Office and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract Wednesday night at a forum sponsored by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce.
The four candidates at the debate were incumbent sheriff Mark Harig, Ryan Merkouris, Bob Kindler and Marc Johnson. All the candidates have worked at the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office at some point in their career, though only three of the candidates currently work there.
Tribune Publisher Scott Schmeltzer moderated the forum and read questions submitted via e-mail and from the audience at the Council Chambers in City Hall.
About 60 people were at the forum. Candidates were allowed three minutes for opening statements, one-minute answers to each question and a two-minute closing statement.
Each candidates’ opening statement said a little about them as a person, where they grew up and some of their job experience. Most also gave a couple of goals they would like to achieve if elected sheriff. Johnson said in his opening statement that he has seen problems in the Sheriff’s Office in the past four years. He also said loyalty has been demanded of him and he thinks it should be earned.

Sheriff candidates talk to area residents after the forum Wednesday evening. -- Kelli Lageson

Sheriff candidates talk to area residents after the forum Wednesday evening. -- Kelli Lageson

Merkouris also used part of his opening statement to say that he doesn’t “agree with things that are taking place within the Sheriff’s Office.” Kindler said in his opening statement that he would like to eliminate wasteful spending and prepare for the future through training. Harig was the last to give an opening statement, which were assigned through a random drawing.
“I applaud these gentlemen,” Harig said. “I’m not so naive as to believe that other people don’t have goals, too.”
He ended his statement saying that he knows change is a part of the elected position and that his platform is honesty and consistency. After opening statements, submitted questions from the public were read and each candidate was allowed to speak for one minute on the question.
Schmeltzer said that there were numerous questions about the ICE contract, so he tried to consolidate those questions to save time. Each candidate voiced opinions and thoughts about the contract.
“We’re not making money from this, but we’re using revenue to help reduce other costs,” Kindler said.
He also said he would not plan to cancel the contract if elected. Johnson also said he would not try to cancel the contract if elected. Merkouris said he was worried that when the contract ends eventually that those people will get unemployment benefits, which he thinks would be a large cost to the county. He also said he doesn’t agree with the contract because he doesn’t know correct figures for it. Harig voiced his support of the contract and said that while it was developed in the Sheriff’s Office, it had oversight and approval from county financial personnel, the county administrator and county commissioners.
Another concern at the debate was leadership. Merkouris said he knew that people would think he’s too young but he believes he has the leadership abilities to lead the Sheriff’s Office.
“You need to lead by example,” Merkouris said. “We need to be able to work together.”
Harig mentioned some incidents where he believes he led by example, including the June 17 tornado events. Kindler said he thinks it’s important to be a good leader and to recognize the abilities of those underneath the sheriff. Johnson echoed statements of the importance of leadership.
“I have no problem leading by example,” Johnson said.
Another question asked the candidates their thoughts on the Second Amendment, which is the right to bear arms. Every candidate said they support the Second Amendment, but that they also support gun safety.
The three candidates running against incumbent Harig were asked what they would address that the current sheriff is not addressing. The question was changed for Harig and asked for specific goals for his next term if re-elected.
“Restructuring is probably the top thing I would change,” Johnson said. “Morale is important.”
Merkouris mentioned needing better working relationships and more respect in the office. Kindler said he would like to get rid of double standards that he believes exist in the office and would also like to boost morale and address training needs. Harig said that when people in the office bring up problems that he tries to consider and address them.
A question about the biggest challenge facing the Sheriff’s Office had similar answers from all candidates. All four believed that the budget was one of the most significant challenges for the county.
Another question asked the candidates why they thought four people were running for sheriff. Johnson said he’s seen problems in the last four years, including losing valuable staff members. Merkouris said he’d like to see honesty and integrity in the Sheriff’s Office. Kindler said he has a different point of view because he doesn’t claim to be a disgruntled employee. He said he simply wants to make some changes that he currently can’t do at his position. Harig said he thought it was unfortunate when staff members leave but he said many of those who left did so for better pay and benefits, and he wished none had left.
Questions about gang activity and human trafficking in Freeborn County prompted most candidates to say that while it’s a concern, it’s not an out of control problem in the county. Another question asked the candidates whether they thought domestic violence prevention and enforcement was a priority. The candidates agreed that it’s less reported in the county because in the city of Albert Lea many neighbors call in when they hear issues, which is not possible in the county. They all agreed that it’s an issue in the county and something they deal with frequently.
After questions were asked, each candidate was allowed to make a two-minute closing statement.
Harig said he has been progressive and proactive in his last two terms and that in the future he wants to do a lot of training because someday the county may have any of his competitors as sheriff.
“I look forward to a third term,” Harig said.
Merkouris said in his closing statement that he thinks it’s time for change and well-informed decisions. He said he is looking to make changes and collaborate with other agencies and town governments in the county.
“Go with what you know is right for Freeborn County,” Merkouris said.
Johnson finished by saying he’d never had any disciplinarian action against him in his time at the Sheriff’s Office and that it was time for change in the office.
“I want everybody to make a change and vote on Aug. 10,” Johnson said.
Kindler said he recognizes there are many issues facing the Sheriff’s Office, and he would like to make changes. He said the office needs a leader and needs someone who can encourage employees to do better with less in regard to budgetary concerns.
“We need someone who can step forward and empower the employees that we have,” Kindler said.
All of the candidates will have booths at the Freeborn County Fair and encouraged those with questions and concerns to contact them. They also emphasized that residents take the time to vote on Aug. 10 in the primary, which will decide which two candidates will compete for the sheriff position in the November election.

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