Sheriff’s candidates talk drugs, jail

HANCOCK – Questions about drugs and the Houghton County Jail dominated the sheriff portion of Thursday’s Copper Country League of Women Voters forum for candidates in contested countywide seats.

Republican Sheriff Brian McLean, who has held the post since 1996, is running for re-election against Democratic challenger Derek Poyhonen, who has been a corrections officer with the county for the past 15 years.

McLean said his biggest priority for the next term would be reducing the drug problem, which he said has become “a tidal wave.” After law enforcement and the medical community clamped down on opiates, illegal drugs, particularly heroin, rushed in to fill the void.

“When we start to see people losing their lives because of this terrible addiction, that is one of our biggest looming problems right now,” he said.

Poyhonen said he would like to address the area’s drug problem through educating local children. Reducing drugs could also reduce violent crime and help ease the strain on the jail, he said.

“I would like to get into schools, 2 through 6, build a relationship with the kids, get a junior deputy program going,” he said. “That will carry on in the upper grades. That is where I would like to get into drug and alcohol awareness. It might not pay off right away, but it will pay off in the long run.”

Poyhonen said his other main goal was returning “integrity, accountability and transparency” to the sheriff’s department. He pointed to the department’s rehiring of Jeffrey Stromer, a former deputy who was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault charge against his ex-wife after first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges were dropped.

“I will never question my opponent’s heart,” Poyhonen said. “I will never question his compassion for the voters. But mistakes are being made within the department.”

McLean said Stromer had been rehired after his sentence and probation was completed.

“He tried to change his life around,” he said. “We gave him an opportunity to work at a time where a couple of our corrections officers left their job early and we needed some immediate help. He worked for a couple months and then resigned.”

McLean said he had worked closely with community groups and maintained an open-door policy, something which Poyhonen said he would also follow.

McLean keeps him home number listed in the phone book, though he said he doesn’t get many work calls at home.

“People will call at the office, stop by, come in,” he said. “They want to see sometime, hear about something, we’re always very accountable.”

The most audience questions came on the subject of the aging jail. Voters most recently voted down a proposal for a combined jail, sheriff’s department and district court in 2010.

Poyhonen said he would like to see a bigger police presence for higher-profile cases, particularly in district court. With the jail, he said, the county needs to respect the voters’ judgment.

“We’re overcrowded,” he said. “It’s a juggling act every day, and we did it today. We’re not going to get a new one. It’s a dead issue. So we have to find an alternative way to work with what we have.”

McLean said the county has the fewest beds of any in the Upper Peninsula. However, he said, they’ve been able to work with the courts and prosecutor’s office to keep some offenders out of jail through means such as community service sentences.

“We always have to ask ourselves: Who do you want in jail? Do you want people in jail that you’re just temporarily mad at, or do you want people in jail that you’re afraid of?” he said.

Both candidates feared the potential for a lawsuit against the county. McLean brought up Genesee County, where a federal judge decreed the county’s jail didn’t have enough room, leaving the county to foot the bill for a new jail.

Four jail studies have been done since 1985, McLean said. The public is past the first hurdle of recognizing the problem, he said, but haven’t settled on a solution.

“For years people were saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the old jail, it’s good enough,'” he said. “Now, I think the majority of people have said ‘There is a problem there, and something needs to be done. I just don’t know what that is.'”

In the meantime, Poyhonen said, some fixes need to be put in place. He called for what he said would be a “simple fix” to part of the recreation area where a prisoner escaped 10 years ago that has yet to be addressed.

As a corrections officer, he said, the back of the jail staff has been frustrated with the remodeling in the front offices, including a new kitchen put in this year. He acknowledged the obstacles in doing so – namely, a Department of Corrections requirement that changing any part of the secure area requires bringing the jail up to code.

“If we start tearing into it, we’ve got to redo the whole thing, but we’ve got to watch where we’re spending our money,” he said.

McLean said the corrections officers have the worst jobs of the staff, working “essentially out of what is a broom closet.” But bringing the entire jail up to code will cost millions of dollars, he said.

“We constantly work with the board, with the citizens’ group, educating, hoping to come across with the legislators – we’re looking for money,” he said.