Houghton County holds interviews of sheriff candidates
HOUGHTON — One week before one of them will be chosen as Houghton County’s next sheriff, the seven applicants made their pitch for the job during public interviews Wednesday night.
Each person received six questions, chosen by the county’s Appointment Committee: Prosecutor Brittany Bulleit, Probate Court Judge Fraser Strome and Clerk Jennifer Kelly. The interview order was selected at random for fairness.
The committee will choose a sheriff at a special meeting 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15. Whoever it picks will serve through 2022, when voters will have the chance to decide on a sheriff.
The seven applicants landed on the same core issues facing the county — mental health, drugs like meth and heroin, alcohol and domestic abuse — though differing in their emphasis. They also said they did not envision drastic changes from how the department was run under Sheriff Brian McLean, who died in July.
They also tackled questions on topics such as their familiarity with the sheriff’s department operations and experience with running the fiscal aspects of an organization.
Brian Cadwell, director and chief of Michigan Technological University Public Safety & Police Services, has a 34-year law enforcement career, and has also served in elected positions as Torch Lake Township supervisor and on the Hancock City Council. He described his experience managing budgets in Torch Lake and with Tech, where the department comes in about 2% under its $1.5 million budget, he said.
Cadwell also discussed Torch Lake Township’s success in grants through spending $500 for a professional grant writer.
“A small up-front investment can really yield dividends in the long run,” he said.
He said he would reach out to community service organizations and groups to make sure the department’s operations meet their needs. He would also attend township board meetings, as the needs of the north and south ends of the county can differ.
Tami Sleeman, a Copper Country native, started her law enforcement career in Michigan before moving to Colorado and eventually becoming senior special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. That included eight years of working out of a sheriff’s department as a CDI agent, and she continues to work closely with the Wisconsin departments in her job, she said. She said she would be able to bring an outside perspective to the department.
Sleeman would sit down with each member of the department to learn what has been working or not working. She described being on a panel investigating overdoses that included 15 people including mental health workers, nurses and law enforcement.
“Those are issues I would like to address as sheriff by bringing more groups together and solving our problems,” she said.
Marc Geborkoff, lieutenant with Michigan Technological University Public Safety & Police Services, said he would add more community programs and get officers into schools.
“The more that we’re involved as officers, just as we serve in a law enforcement career, they better get to know us and see that we don’t only show up just because there’s something bad happening or someone’s going to be arrested,” he said.
Geborkoff said he would also continue to support the UPSET (Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team) program and would meet with local health agencies to see if more mental health resources could be brought to the area. He said he would be as transparent as possible with both the department staff and the community.
Josh Saaranen is detective lieutenant with the Houghton County Sheriff’s Office, and also served on the UPSET narcotics team. He had had a longtime goal of becoming sheriff, he said, making a point of learning everything he could about how the department runs.
He discussed the importance of programs such as the drug court in rehabilitating inmates and reducing recidivism. Another priority would be thinking of ways to increase the county’s patrols due to the increase in population and tourism. As a past member of the jail task force, he was also looking forward to working with the community on a replacement for the current jail.
“The biggest importance of the sheriff is to have public feedback,” he said. “With my personality, I’m a good communicator and an even better listener … I can also be decisive and take action if needed, which I think is an important part.”
Kevin Coppo, undersheriff and interim sheriff with the Houghton County Sheriff’s Office, has worked with the department for nine years. As undersheriff for the past five years, he has overseen the $2.2 million budget, coming in about $80,000 under budget for the year, he said.
He described the workings of the jail, with inmate safety the biggest priority he said.
McLean and former Undersheriff Roy Britz had been mentors, he said. He pledged to honor McLean’s memory, but also begin taking the department in a different direction.
“Every day, I’m trying to make the sheriff’s department a better place … I feel that as we go forward, we can make our department a little better with the use of technology, try to get up to speed a little bit more,” he said.
He said he would also work to expand the county’s road patrol. The top issue facing the community is mental health, he said. The department spends $76,000 to $100,000 on transfers to and from mental health facilities.
Adam Rajala, former detective sergeant with the Houghton County Sheriff’s Office, worked with the department for 14 years. He now owns several businesses. He recalled his first interview with McLean and Britz; when asked where he saw himself in the future, he said “Somebody I’d like to be siting in your seat when you’re done with it.”
Rajala stressed the importance of handling the public’s problems, however small. He said he would run a “safe and efficient” jail and have a thorough road patrol.
“I think being a business owner has given me a unique perspective in serving the public,” he said. “…There’s not money that’s given to you, so you have to be fiscally responsible all the time and do what it takes to get the job done.”
Steve Laux, former trooper with the Michigan State Police Calumet Post, said it had always been his intention to run for sheriff after retiring from the MSP. He talked about the need to streamline communications between local departments and UPSET.
He also has a long-term goal of providing more local care for mental health patients, who often have to be transported downstate. Like Geborkoff, he also discussed creating more contact between deputies and the schools, including stopping by to have lunch.
Laux would also like to set up a K-9 unit, which he had been part of at the MSP.
“People would think twice about coming up (U.S.) 41 or (M-)26 with a load of meth in the back seat or off the bus when they know that their buddy got busted last week,” he said.