Herald JournalHoward Lake-Waverly Herald, Oct. 7, 2002

Race for Wright County sheriff is a hot one

By Lynda Jensen

The race for Wright County sheriff is heating up with incumbent Gary Miller and challenger Lenny Walker steadily shifting gears.

The duo are closing in on the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election.

The race started with an early jump by Walker in September, who succeeded in planting yard signs across the county in short order.

Next, a fierce letter-writing campaign has been in full swing, with many different residents picking up their pens in favor of both candidates, including former deputies and other law enforcement.

A range of issues have been introduced, everything from turnover to union issues.

Most recently, Walker proponents claimed victory over a vote taken by the law enforcement union Local 172, which chose Walker as its endorsed candidate for Wright County sheriff.

Miller proponents are quick to point out that the union members who voted represent less than half of the total number of deputies on staff of 98 officers, with 45 voting for Walker.

"Miller chose not to participate in the process or seek the endorsement as he believed it would be too divisive," commented Don Lindell of the Wright County Sheriff's Office.

High turnover has also been brought forth, although it has been pointed out that the turnover rates are consistent with other agencies and existed before Miller became sheriff.

Low pay was also mentioned as an issue by letter writers, however, it was pointed out that this was another issue handled by the union, not the sheriff.

Yet another issue has been the promotion of Miller's brother, David, to captain.

The county has a policy against the promotion of relatives when there are other qualified candidates; however Miller pointed out that David's promotion is dictated by a union policy. No grievances were filed about the issue, Miller said.

The suspension of seven deputies from the Emergency Response Team (ERT) for writing a letter critical of Miller in relation to the lack of training since Sept. 11 is also another issue.

Miller has instructed his deputies that they can endorse whomever they wish, but must not damage the reputation of the sheriff's department at the expense of political ambitions.

Therefore, he plans to continue suspensions if the need be, he said.

Initially, Walker attempted to persuade the newspapers from referring to Miller as an "incumbent."

This is because incumbents have an unfair advantage in any race, Walker said, and this was one more advantage Miller had.

However, the secretary of state's office indicated that Miller is certainly an incumbent, regardless of whether he was appointed or elected, since the word simply means to hold the existing office.

Candidate interviews

Gary Miller

Why are you running for sheriff?

1. In July I began my 28th year of continuous service with your Sheriff's Office. During my career I have been blessed with opportunities to serve in many capacities in the department, most recently as your Sheriff. I have always given my utmost to the organization, and to it's mission of serving the citizens of Wright County. I would like to continue to use the skills and experience I have garnered through the years to direct this department for another four years.

What are two areas of concern and plans to address them?

The major issues are:

(1) dealing with the rapid growth in the county, and

(2) The drug problem, with a major focus on methamphetamine.

(1) I believe we have done a good job of keeping abreast of the growth in the county, adding enough resources to address the needs of the citizens.

We do a lot of statistical analysis and provide the county board and cities that contract for services with us enough information to enable them to make informed decision about how much coverage they need.

We have been able to grow enough to get the job done, while remaining one of the most cost efficient large departments in the state. Trying innovative methods, adopting proven new technological tools, attacking the problems at their source will continue to help deal with the growth issues.

(2) Methamphetamine is a beast we must conquer. It is having a major impact on our crime rate and is destroying many lives.

Our narcotics task force is doing a great job of identifying and busting those who manufacture and sell this drug, and this division has been given additional personnel, training and access to the latest technological assistance in attacking this scourge.

We also are taking our public awareness and education efforts to a new level to try to reduce demand for drugs. We will need to be focused and innovative in the future as we continue to fight this battle.

Why should you be elected sheriff?

I look at the election as a job evaluation process, and I think I've lived up to the challenges of the job.

The proof is in the product, and I am very proud of this department, it personnel, and the work that they do.

My extensive administrative experience with this large and complex department gives me the vision to prioritize and utilize resources and personnel in the most effective and efficient manner. I believe Wright County is one of the most peaceful, safe, and secure areas in the state in which to live.

I have worked hard for the last 12 years at the top level of our department to maintain that type of environment.

I ask that the voters renew my contract and allow me to work for them for the next four years.

Lenny Walker

Why are you running for sheriff?

I believe that I can make the Wright County sheriff's department one of the best and a leader in service to our citizens.

I have been honored to receive support from a large number of Wright County employees, as well as Wright County citizens. The Wright County sheriff's department not only fills the traditional roles of sheriff's department duties, but contracts with 13 cities in Wright County for their law enforcement services.

The Wright County sheriff's department is one of the largest in Minnesota and should be a leader. Cost effective methods of law enforcement, fitting the needs of each community, should be a priority.

Noting our last three sheriffs have been appointed prior to election, I think it is time for the voters to exercise their right to make their selection at the polls. The sheriff needs to be accountable to the voters.

Throughout my career at Wright County, I have always strived to be a leader in those areas that made the department better, not only for the citizens, but also the people working in the department.

It has always been my firm conviction that motivated, trained, and appreciated personnel provide the best service to the citizens of the county.

I have an appreciation for the past (what has happened in Wright County law enforcement), a clear understanding of the present (what assets and challenges we currently are presented with), and a vision for the future.

Comprehensive planning is a must to address where Wright County is going. We need to be proactive with innovative, progressive, and cost effective programs to address that plan and move forward in the 21st century

What are two areas of concern and plans to address them?

(1) Retention of staff: Wright County has become a training ground for personnel that only stay a few years and then go to other agencies for a variety of reasons.

Reasons stated for leaving are: a more progressive department, fairness in advancement, flexible working hours, training opportunities, benefits, a non-responsive administration on issues affecting personnel, lack of recognition, and low morale.

Since 1997, the Wright County sheriff's department has lost 49 sworn officers, or approximately 50 percent of sworn staff. Seventeen left for retirement (many of those taking early retirement), and the remaining 32 went to other departments or the private sector.

This does not include non-sworn personnel in clerical, communications, and corrections, who are also a vital part of our department.

The average cost of training a new officer is over $11,000 ­ thus we have spent $539,000.00 on basic training. Now include the nonsworn personnel, and this does not include any advanced training or training of the additional officers needed due to growth.

It is not a cost effective system. Valuable experience and commitment is lost, as it takes several years for an officer to become familiar with the communities and citizens of Wright County.

The sheriff must be a leader in identifying issues, bring them to the attention of the citizens and commissioners, and support ideas that will stop this exodus of qualified staff.

I would implement a standardized system for transfers, promotions, and discipline that would be fair and uniform, promote and offer training that would be then distributed throughout the department, building on the strengths of our staff, and use creative scheduling to enhance service to contract communities.

We need to bring the Wright County Sheriff's Department into the 21st Century as a department that others look up to, citizens are proud of, and officers want to come to and stay with.

(2) Drug abuse: As the supervisor of the Wright County Drug Task Force for 10 years, we consistently led the field in drug enforcement in Minnesota and were recognized for our progressive style of enforcement.

We were a leader in new technology and training. I personally conducted training sessions to all the officers in Wright County on drug enforcement issues, as well as provided seminars to schools, civic groups, local fire departments, and emergency responders.

While in narcotics, I implemented the "Drug Trak" computer system for collecting and utilizing information that greatly increased the efficiency of drug enforcement in Wright County.

I researched, implemented, and trained officers in some of the latest computerized property/evidence collection and processing methods.

Having written many grants, Wright County received over $500,000 to fight illegal drugs. Wright County is growing at a staggering pace in the last 10 years.

With this growth, we also see an escalation in drug abuse problems. My background in drug enforcement includes drug education, drug prevention, drug enforcement, community involvement, and law enforcement commitment.

I would have a strong impact on illegal use, sale, and production in Wright County.

Why should you be elected sheriff?

I will bring a broad background of leadership in law enforcement, business, and local government to the sheriff's position.

I have worked and have hands-on experience in many positions at Wright County, such as patrol division, accident reconstructionist, rescue diver, grant writing, training, narcotics, K-9 trainer/handler, and criminal investigation.

I was a supervisor/sergeant of the drug task force and lieutenant in charge of the criminal investigation division.

I was former president of the Minnesota State Association of Narcotics Investigators, special deputy U.S. marshall, provided public presentations on drug abuse issues, and published articles on drug abuse/prevention.

I was elected to two terms as mayor of Rockford, served as council member for six years, and owned two successful businesses in Rockford.

Wright County has become a training ground for personnel. Forty-nine deputies left Wright County since 1997.

Reasons stated: more progressive department, fairness in advancement, flexible working hours, training opportunities, benefits, a non responsive administration on issues affecting personnel, lack of recognition, and low moral.

I would implement a standardized system for transfers, promotions, and discipline that would be fair and uniform, promote and offer training that would be distributed throughout the department building on the strengths of our staff, and create scheduling to enhance service to contract communities.

As an effective sheriff, I will support programs that stop the exodus of qualified staff. The current administration has the "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" approach. This is a status quo theory, and if you're not moving forward in a positive direction, you will be overwhelmed.

I believe that we need to keep in front of the curve on law enforcement issues, with education and training that promotes positive behavior change of staff to best meet the needs of our residents.

An "open door policy" only allows for people to come to you with concerns that you can react to. My policy would be to go to the citizens, hoping they have an open door, so that I could see what the issues are and be proactive in addressing them.

I think the Wright County sheriff's department has many extremely qualified persons in its different divisions, some with sworn officers and others staffed by civilian personnel.

The most dramatic change in law enforcement in the last 20 years is that of technology. Wright County needs to be on the cutting edge of this, if a proactive form of enforcement is to be realized.

Wright County lags behind in many areas, such as computer crime investigation, citizen communication/notification, officer training, specialized investigation assignments, and emergency preparedness.

Scheduling, specialized assignments, and a five and 10 year comprehensive plan for the future of the department are what I would see as needing immediate attention.

Citizens and commissioners need to know what is in store for the future so they can make appropriate plans. My background provides the experience and training to be proactive with innovative, progressive, and cost effective programs to move forward in the 21st century.

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