The 2018 Otter Tail County (OTC) Sheriff Debate, sponsored by The Fergus Falls Daily Journal and PEG Access, began promptly at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday evening in the City Council chambers at the Fergus Falls City Hall. Candidates for sheriff are Fergus Falls Chief of Public Safety Kile Bergren, Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Barry Fitzgibbons, and Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby. The room filled quickly with around 100 people in the audience.
The debate began with the Pledge of Allegiance. To keep the conversation orderly, the crowd was asked to limit their applause to only the introductions and closing statements. Candidates were instructed that they would be allowed three minutes for introductions and concluding statements, two minutes for questions. Rebuttals were allowed under the discretion of the moderator, R.C. Drews, but no rebuttals were made throughout the debate. Notably, no candidate went over more than a few seconds of their time limit and the conversation flowed smoothly.
Fitzgibbons began the debate with a review of his experience in the OTC Sheriff's Office, having worked there for the past 18 years. He furthered that his extensive experience with this area, as well as past experience, "really gave me a better understanding of the department as a whole." He continued,"I want to be a part of the conversations for our drug problem. I want to be a part of the conversation for our mental health problem... I'd also like to work on school safety. Those are going to be my priorities as your next sheriff."
Next was Hoaby, the youngest candidate on the ballot. Hoaby emphasized his experience in Perham as the current police chief. Hoaby grew up in Perham, receiving a degree in law enforcement. Additionally, he cited his experience as former police chief in New York Mills for being quite transformative in development of his leadership style, a style that emphasizes building relationships. "I want to build relationships throughout the county. I want to work with the community and I want to push on accountability as well," Hoaby said.
To round off introductions, Bergren addressed the crowd with a reminder that he grew up in Detroit Lakes. Bergren graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in criminology and furthered his education at NDSU with a graduate degree in behavioral science. He emphasized the importance of learning as he cited various training programs he has gone through, including the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. "What you learn not only in a classroom but out in the field is things you need to bring back to your agency and share." Bergren began working with the Fergus Falls Police Department in 1995 and has been the police chief for eight years. Bergren said, "We have to be very progressive and proactive," regarding what he would do if elected sheriff.
To start the questions off, moderator Drews asked the candidates, "If elected sheriff, what is, in your opinion, the most important policy change you would enact?"
Fitzgibbons began and did not regard any major policies that he is looking to change, "just continue the great service that I think we provide now." Hoaby responded to the question with a more analytical take, "Are we providing the best service we can with what we are doing currently?" Bergren looks to enact much change to the organization, in regards to delivery of service, officer safety and sufficient resources for jail staff. "I truly believe there needs to be quite a few changes within the organizations."
Candidates responded to the issue of increased traffic accidents involving alcohol, each addressing the need to work on prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation.
Questions to follow included what the three candidates each plan to do in regards to communication with the public and media. All three said that they would look to always improve on communication and emphasized the importance of good relationships between local news agencies. Additionally, the CodeRED, an emergency notification system utilized by the current sheriff's office, was regarded as highly important to the success of communication.
Each of the candidates was asked an individual question by moderator Drews to respond to alleged weaknesses in their campaign.
Bergren addressed his ability to understand the needs of a small community after working many years in the metropolitan area with the St. Paul Police Department and Secret Service. "Having been raised in these communities, I think I understand what is going on. I think the strength of going out and experiencing things in the metropolitan area is that you see what happens in these major metro areas and eventually it's going to make it's way up here. And I think that's what we are experiencing now."
Moderator Drews questioned Fitzgibbons on his history of only working for one agency, as opposed to his opponents. Fitzgibbons began by listing his outside training, including BCA management course and the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He also regarded his long experience with the OTC Sheriff's Office as a strength, "I have had the opportunity to build relationships throughout the county... I know what assets we have now and what assets we may need."
Finally, Hoaby addressed the fact that he is the youngest and therefore, the least experienced candidate. "I'm not a person that sits there and says I know everything about this job, but I do know who to go to, to ask the question to who would know the answer. I'm a person who is continually learning and looking for the wisdom of others."
Conversations then moved on to questions submitted by community members to The Fergus Falls Daily Journal. Accountability was addressed by each candidate as they responded to the need to make sure that anyone interacting with the sheriff's office is treated fairly and equally. Fitzgibbons specifically pointed out that he reminds his team, "to treat that person like your mother." Hoaby stressed the importance of not "sweep[ing] something under the rug just because it might be ugly." While Bergren brought up the point that much of the success of the organization begins at the hiring process.
Candidates were in relative agreement the work need as the "war on drugs" wages on. Prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation were again at the forefront of the conversations with an emphasis on needing to work with other agencies to provide the best service to the community.
Rounding off the debate, the candidates each reiterated their goals and vision for the sheriff's office.
"I look at this opportunity to better serve the public. I'd like to see not only the sheriff's office improve but also would like to see us improve, service our relationships with the local police departments." Bergren said, "I think that with my 25 years of experience and my knowledge of the area, I think I would be the best candidate to offer a smooth transition."
"I would continue to work hard, provide the service that you expect with our professional and highly trained staff. I will continue to be progressive and proactive in providing that service," Fitzgibbons said."
Finishing the debate, Hoaby said, "I can use what I've learned from working in a smaller town to try and bring a little more of a personal law enforcement to each one of those communities. As sheriff, I want to set some goals and I have some already - being accountable, building relationships, working together, law enforcement agencies working together."
A reminder to the community that primary elections are Aug. 14.