Sheriff candidates face public

Five hopefuls state their case during forum

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Sheriff candidates face public

COEUR d'ALENE - Kootenai County has a high turnover of deputies, noted Keith Hutcheson on Wednesday night, and he believes it's clear why.

"Where they're going is Spokane County," said Hutcheson, Coeur d'Alene Tribe police chief and candidate for Kootenai County sheriff. "They're making 22 percent more by crossing the state line."

Deputy retention, as well as jail overcrowding and officer prioritization were among the issues analyzed on Wednesday at a forum of sheriff candidates, held by the Coeur d'Alene Police Officers Association.

The approaching retirement of longtime Sheriff Rocky Watson has garnered five candidates campaigning to win the county's highest law enforcement position in the May 15 primary.

More than 100 members of the public turned out to hear the proposals and backgrounds of all the candidates, who include Hutcheson, Ben Wolfinger, John Green, Bob Foster and Adam Johnson.

Questions were posed by the Coeur Group, with the audience only observing.

Hutcheson said he would pursue deputy pay raises by reorganizing department positions.

He criticized the department's creation of five new administrative positions when more deputies are needed.

"Those dollars are out there, they just have to be allocated in the right direction," he said.

Adam Johnson, a former businessman, said he would free up dollars for pay increases - and also hopefully budget reductions - by cross training employees to fill multiple roles.

"The bottom line is we need to live within our means," Johnson said.

Ben Wolfinger said the sheriff needs to advocate to the county commissioners about improving the situations of department employees.

Wolfinger, a major with the sheriff's department who has worked for the agency since 1983, was the only candidate who said he would pursue building a new jail.

He noted that excess inmates are being housed in other jails both in and out of state, which is only a short-term solution.

"Those jails are going to fill up with their own prisoners, and we'll have to house further and further away," Wolfinger said, noting that 77 percent of the county jail's inmates are felons.

When Green, a Rathdrum attorney, was asked if he had said overcrowding could be solved by housing inmates in tents, he said that would be an illogical idea.

The former Texas deputy said the county must better classify its inmates, so fewer need to be housed elsewhere for a certain level of segregation.

"Maybe we're just arresting too many people. That's something we need to consider," Green said.

Ben Foster, a code enforcement officer with the Coeur d'Alene Police Department, said it's premature to offer solutions before understanding the problem firsthand.

Johnson and Hutcheson both spoke of housing inmates in the county's work-release building.

Wolfinger dubbed that impractical, as the structure isn't built to contain full-time inmates.

"Hardening such a facility would take an exorbitant amount of money to make it feasible," he said.

Hutcheson also said he would have the department use more technology, like creating a Twitter account giving updates on accidents, fires and amber alerts.

He would also try to cut costs, he said, like doing away with ballistic panels for sheriff's vehicles.

"That's $29,000. Boom, I could do that in the first day, getting rid of that," Hutcheson said.

Green censured the idea, arguing the doors are necessary protection during a shoot-out.

He added he has heard there is tension among employees in the sheriff's department, and would aim to provide a better working environment.

"I've heard a lot of qualified people left because they didn't feel they got a full shake when it came to promotions," he said.

Foster, who previously worked for law enforcement agencies in California, said he would budget by assessing and prioritizing everything the agency does.

That may or may not be lower than the department's $24 million budget, he said.

"Once we prioritize, we can turn to the cost of doing that business, and come up with the cost I believe is a logical requirement for that budget," he said.

Most candidates spoke of the need for more deputies on the streets, and pursuing a cooperative relationship with the county commissioners.

When candidates were invited to ask each other questions, Wolfinger questioned the credibility of Johnson's candidacy, considering the latter has no law enforcement background but does have a criminal record, including a guilty plea for heroin possession last year.

Johnson explained to the audience that he had nothing to hide, and that everyone has had challenges.

He plans to pursue programs addressing the sale and distribution of drugs in the area, he said. And though he has no law enforcement background, Johnson added, he will communicate with every employee to understand their roles and needs.

"Experience isn't a requisite to bring about positive change," Johnson said.

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