Houghton County sheriff candidates debate
HANCOCK — The two candidates for Houghton County sheriff faced off in a debate at the Hancock Beach Tuesday hosted by the Houghton County Republican Party.
Sheriff Brian McLean is running against Steve Laux, a recently retired Michigan State Police trooper, in the Aug. 4 Republican primary. There is no Democratic candidate in the race.
McLean, who has served as sheriff since 1996, pointed to his experience. He has worked in law enforcement locally since 1978, spending four years with the Houghton Police Department before moving to the sheriff’s office, starting as a field service deputy.
Over that time, he said, he has successfully presented balanced budgets to the county board, kept his staff on top of the latest training, and secured more than $1 million in grants for the department. At 19 officers, the staff is the largest in the western Upper Peninsula.
At a training session through the National Sheriffs Association, McLean said, they once advised that the longer a sheriff stays in office, the better service they can provide for their community.
“Of course, this is all predicated on the fact that the sheriff serves honorably and continues the zeal and the lifelong learning aspects of the job,” he said. “And I feel that as the candidate with the most training and experience I have a complete understanding of how the sheriff’s office runs from year to year.”
Laux retired from the Michigan State Police in May. After working for Ishpeming Police Department in 1994, Laux joined the MSP, first serving in Sault Ste. Marie before returning home to work at the Calumet post in 1997. In that time, he has served as road trooper, criminal investigator and canine handler, among other roles. Since 1996, he said, he has had the goal of running for Houghton County sheriff in 2020.
Laux said he would make several changes if elected. To streamline operations, officers would drive their own vehicles to and from work. A new detective deputy position would assist in investigating several longstanding missing-persons cases in the area. He would also create a K-9 unit in the department, and add another animal expert for the spate of abandoned livestock let loose in March and April.
“If God shines down upon me, and it’s his will that I become the sheriff, I’d probably do it in another four years and do eight,” he said. “But I can tell you this. I’m going to be a steward, not only of your trust, of your funds, but my integrity is going to be your integrity.”
Perhaps the starkest difference came on the issue of replacing the Houghton County Jail. Voters have rejected several attempts at financing a new facility, most recently a 2018 millage for an addition behind the courthouse.
Concerns about overcrowding at the jail date back to at least 1985, McLean said. The county’s first attempt at passing a bond for a jail came in 2000, a year after a federal National Institute of Corrections group recommended the county build a new jail.
McLean endorsed the idea of a new jail, which he said should be as close to the courthouse as possible to cut back on transportation costs. While jail millages are renowned for being unpopular, McLean said he did not want to be testifying in a civil court someday that he knew about the inadequacy of the jail and did nothing to draw attention to it.
“We’ve overcome the argument that no, the jail doesn’t need to be replaced,” he said. “I think pretty much we’re in 100% agreement … It’s just a matter of how to pay for it.”
McLean is hopeful state and federal monies could be found to help defray the costs, though he acknowledged the financial crunch of the COVID-19 response could make that wait longer.
Laux said he is against a new jail, which he said is infeasible in the current economic climate. He supported less costly improvements, such as converting the locking mechanisms to digital and building an underground walkway between the jail and the courthouse to transport prisoners.
Jails have been releasing lower-level inmates due to concerns about COVID-19, resulting in less overcrowding. There’s no reason that could not continue after the pandemic ends, Laux said. Instead, he said, low-level offenders could continue to work during the week and come to the jail work camp on weekends for community service.
“There’s not a big spike in crime — not locally, not statewide. I haven’t heard even nationwide,” he said. “…Why have these people housed under the county’s roof, when they’re low, low security risks?”
If there is overcrowding at the jail, Laux said, the county should focus on housing its own inmates first, pointing out that at any given time the county may also house inmates from Keweenaw County and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
On the issue of the recent executive order requiring masks in enclosed public spaces, both candidates agreed the sheriff’s department would not be writing tickets solely for not wearing masks.
McLean said the department would spread the message from the governor and health department about the importance of wearing a mask. However, he said, the department is not issuing the $500 citations laid out in the governor’s executive order solely for mask-wearing, although they will respond if someone is exhibiting unruly behavior.
McLean said several civil attorneys had advised him a punitive measure under executive order could open the department up to civil liabilities.
“We’re going to encourage people to comply and do our best to get them to comply,” he said. “But we have people here that are suffering not only due to the coronavirus, but because of all the downturn in the economy … We’re certainly not gonna be the ones to hand over $500 or something like that.”
Laux said he does not think the department should even be engaged in educating the public, as he does not have any more knowledge on the subject than anyone else. He wears a mask himself at the store or hospital, he doesn’t think citations should be issued unless it’s in combination with another issue.
“I think we’re all responsible enough adults and children and anybody else to be able to control our own destiny,” he said.
Asked what they would do to combat drug and alcohol abuse in the area, McLean pointed to the full-time deputy devoted to the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team (UPSET) West, which conducts drug investigations in the region. The office is also engaged in prevention efforts to teach children about the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol.
Laux said he plans to donate two of his German shepherds to the department for a K-9 enforcement unit, for which he would help train officers. That would force distributors to move away from FedExing or mailing product back to driving it up from downstate, which is more cumbersome and more likely to be uncovered, he said.
Asked to define their leadership styles, McLean relayed a George Maxquell quote: “The purpose of leadership isn’t to create more followers, it’s to create more leaders.” Rather than micromanaging, he said, he empowers his staff to make their own decisions. He also gives them a clear vision, he said: treating the public as though they were family members.
“It’s a very busy, brusque world that we live in,” he said. “But it’s very clear within our office that if you don’t answer a call properly, you’ll be hearing about it.”
Laux said he would lead by example, working extra hours and filling shifts for deputies who get sick or have family issues. That includes road patrol, he said.
He would also be open to suggestions from the staff on how to change the office. He complemented Mclean on his hiring practices, and said he didn’t think the department would have any of the issues seen in departments being protested for excessive force.
“At the end of the day, I want them to stand up for themselves, make their own decisions,” he said. “And if things are being done wrong by myself, by another officer, or even if they made a mistake, come to me.”