The Monroe County Jail came up often during a Monroe County sheriff’s forum Tuesday at Tomah High School.
Five candidates − four Republicans and one Democrat − took questions for nearly 90 minutes during a forum held one week ahead of the Aug. 14 primary. The candidates are looking to succeed incumbent Republican Scott Perkins, who isn’t seeking re-election.
Even though there wasn’t a specific question pertaining to the jail, the subject was raised more than once by Democrat Jeff Schwanz and Republican Rick Dickenson.
“The biggest problem right now is the jail,” Dickenson said. “I know there are people in the sheriff’s department that are in the wrong positions.”
Schwanz works as a jailer in the sheriff’s office and returned to the subject numerous times during questions about the department’s budget priorities. He said there is high turnover and low morale among jail staff.
“For $21 an hour, we can’t keep (employees) at the Monroe County Jail,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on the jail. Funding must be put in other places than just road officers.”
Republican Wes Revels said it’s important for the sheriff to become involved in all phases of the office, including the jail. He pledged to create an “inclusive environment” for sheriff’s office employees.
“There isn’t any part of the department that’s more important than the others,” Revels said.
Republican Ron Waddell defended the sheriff’s office, which occupied the new jail in 2016 as part of the larger Justice Center project. He praised Perkins and his administration for a successful transition.
“The department is moving in a very positive direction,” Waddell said. “I’m exciting about the possibility about being the leader in this agency and continuing what sheriff Perkins has started.”
Republican Jeremy Likely, a former jail employee, said one of his top priorities is to “work to improve morale in the sheriff’s department.”
The drug issue was another topic that was raised more than once. All five said a combination of law enforcement, education and treatment is necessary.
Waddell endorsed the “three I’s” approach − “identify, investigate and incarcerate.”
“If we start taking these people off the street, we’re going to diminish some of the (drug) abuse,” he said.
Likely said treatment options must be available for inmates in the jail.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” he said.
Dickenson described the drug problem in the county as “huge” and stressed prevention.
“It starts with education,” he said. “Parents, teachers, church, whatever. We need to educate our children. The sheriff’s department will be a great resource to educate the young people in our community.”
Revels said it’s important to recognize the causes of drug abuse and stressed “prevention, enforcement and treatment.” He said addictions are often the result of people who are prescribed legal pain medications, including military veterans being treated for service-related injuries or PTSD. He it’s important to “keep our mind open to what the true problems are. It’s not just those individuals who are involved in the sale of opium and narcotics.”
Schwanz said, “it’s unbelievable the drugs that are out there ... it’s easy money until you get caught.”
The candidates said interaction with the public is important, and all promised to be visible members of the community.
Revels said “many of us were practicing community policing before there was a name for it.” He said police departments must make efforts to earn the trust of the citizens. He said respect for law enforcement is “offered up to us from the people we serve. If we do a quality job and build those relationships, they will look at us as a legitimate police agency they can trust.”
Likely said he would have an “open door” as sheriff.
“I plan on leading the sheriff’s department from in front, not behind, the desk,” he said.
Dickenson endorsed the idea of community policing and said, “We need to get the positive things we do out to the public.”
Waddell said events such as National Night Out, where police officers and other public safety personnel interact with the public, “puts a lot of goodwill in our piggy bank.”
“We have to do a better job of promoting ourselves and getting our message out,” he said.
Schwanz said it’s important that police officers reach out to children in positive ways so that “when they see a badge, it’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing.”
All except Schwanz were enthusiastic about the K9 program. Schwanz expressed concern that funding the program through the regular budget instead of donations would negatively impact other parts of the office. Revels said police dogs are necessary but likes the “buy in” aspect that public fund raising creates. Waddell said K9s “have played an important part of law enforcement for decades” and are no longer “a luxury item.” Likely said K9s are indispensable in searching vehicles of suspected drug users and dealers. Dickenson said K9s should at least be “partly funded” through the normal budget process.
All five said they would prefer that the sheriff be elected on a nonpartisan basis, and all five pledged their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, although Likely, Dickenson and Revels raised issues about the use of local manpower in immigration enforcement.
The forum was organized by the Greater Tomah Area Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Clary Harris of WCOW-FM.
Schwanz is unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face the winner of the Republican primary in the Nov. 6 general election.