Saaranen appointed Houghton County sheriff
HOUGHTON — By a 2-1 vote, Houghton County’s Appointment Committee appointed Josh Saaranen the new county sheriff.
Saaranen, who now works as detective lieutenant for the department, said becoming sheriff had been a longtime goal.
“Ultimately I want to be the sheriff of the people and for the people, and be elected,” he said. “I accept this appointment and the responsibility of running the department over the course of the next year, and I’m excited to work with all the local departments in the community and work together to make Houghton County a safer place.”
Saaranen said his short-term goal is making sure the department can come together and move forward.
“The best enforcement we can have for the county is to have a good department, which we already have, and make sure we’re efficiently serving everybody,” he said.
Long-term, Saaranen would like to help address mental health problems in the area.
“The Keweenaw County sheriff and Baraga County sheriff have started a dialogue,” he said. “I’m excited to start to be a part of that. I’m very passionate about working with the mental health system.”
Saaranen also plans to work with the board on finding a replacement for the current county jail. As a member of the South Range Village Council, Saaranen served on the county’s Jail Task Force Committee in 2019.
“It was really refreshing to see all the communities come together and start working on one goal,” he said. “I really want to encourage that in the future with this issue.”
Prosecutor Brittany Bulleit and Clerk Jennifer Kelly voted for Saaranen. Probate Court Judge Fraser Strome voted for Brian Cadwell, director and chief of Michigan Technological University Public Safety and Police Services.
The three-person committee interviewed seven candidates last week. Members initially cast a secret ballot in writing to avoid influencing each the others’ votes.
Each person initially chose a separate candidate. Bulleit, who cast the vote for Saaranen, said she viewed the choice as a transition until voters can decide in 2022. She said she had factored in the interview, resume and recommendations from local agencies such as Dial Help and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I felt like there needed to be an easy transition for someone who understood how the sheriff’s department ran,” she said. “And I don’t think that Brian or Tami (Sleeman) aren’t qualified, but part of the reason I chose Detective Saaranen was because I felt that he could step in and easily move forward with the running of the whole of the sheriff’s department, having been there for so many years.”
Saaranen and Cadwell both made Bulleit and Strome’s top three. Kelly’s choice had been Sleeman, senior special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Bulleit and Strome agreed her resume was impressive, but were concerned with how long she had been away from the community.
After each discussed their choice, Kelly deliberated at the table for about three minutes. She changed her vote to Saaranen, citing his cover letter, which she said had touched her.
Saaranen said he had described some of his personal qualities, such as his empathy.
“A lot of people see law enforcement as very hard-nosed,” he said. “That’s not the type of person that I want. I worked as a narcotics officer, but another important goal of mine is rehabilitation. In that capacity, we were trying to go after the drug dealers, not the users. I’d really like to work with the treatment court, other entities to make sure some of these people can get help for themselves and that option is available.”
After the vote, Cadwell said he thinks Saaranen will make a good sheriff.
“I was hoping to gain the position and have him as part of the team to move the sheriff’s department forward, but I’ll support him in his efforts right now,” he told the committee. “Thank you very much. You had a difficult job and you did it well.”
A South Range native, Saaranen is a 2004 graduate of Northern Michigan University’s police academy. He started out at the Forsyth Township Police Department in Gwinn before moving back to the area in 2007. He began working part-time at the Houghton Police Department and Houghton County Sheriff’s Office before joining the sheriff’s office full-time. He’s held several positions, including working in the jail and road patrol.
Saaranen replaces the late Sheriff Brian McLean, who died in July. He will serve a partial term through 2022. He has said he will run for election that year.
There was no public comment at the meeting. Former 97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti submitted a letter asking the board to consider whether the candidate understands that COVID-19 emergency orders are laws, and that the candidate pledges to personally abide by the orders and follow the COVID laws and rules governing the sheriff’s department and general public.
Kelly also referenced comments made at Tuesday’s county board meeting by 2020 sheriff’s candidate Roger Sullivan, who said he had not been allowed into the application process. She said she had not received an application from him before he presented his resume Tuesday night.