Three of the six candidates for Winona County Sheriff were present Wednesday night to answer voter-submitted questions at the sheriff forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters–Winona and the Women’s Resource Center. Candidates Rodney Hansen, Gary Hoeppner and Bill Spitzer engaged in an hourlong debate. Meanwhile, three of the candidates — Ron Ganrude, Kraig Glover and Rob Averbeck — were unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances related to their jobs within the department. “[They] are out serving the public this evening,” explained forum moderator Brein Maki.
After a brief introduction, Hoeppner, Hansen and Spitzer stated their views on a range of topics, including drug use within the county, the support of progressive law enforcement programs, and what they would consider as top priorities for the Winona County Sheriff.
“[Priority] number one is crime prevention — how we can prevent these crimes from happening,” Spitzer said, starting off the forum. He also noted the importance of both drug abuse prevention and the use of the emergency management department.
Hansen said his top priority would be “[establishing] night supervisors, because we have no supervision at night." Hoeppner agreed, stating evening supervision would be one of his top priorities as well. Hansen went on to say that he would establish a more “open door policy” between him and the public, which he believed would encourage the community to help solve crimes. When it was his turn to list his top priorities, Hoeppner said that along with night shift supervision, he would make technology updates a priority as well as community policing, noting that he wanted the public to view law enforcement as more than “just people coming to arrest [someone].”
The three candidates agreed on a variety of topics, including the support of progressive law enforcement programs such as Blueprint for Safety (a domestic violence response improvement program) and the Winona Drug Court. Hoeppner, Hansen and Spitzer all responded by saying that they would support progressive tactics to combat issues such as domestic violence and drug use. “I believe that we need to keep programs and [be progressive with new] programs,” Hansen said. “We have to keep progressing as the world is changing.”
Hoeppner agreed with Hansen and added that the department should also keep up with current technology as well. Spitzer also agreed with the two other candidates and noted that while programs like Blueprint for Safety and the Winona Drug Court are still quite new, the county needs to explore as many options as possible to helping stop crime.
Another topic that was explored during the forum related to the controversial Castle Doctrine, which essentially gives homeowners the right to protect their home with lethal force. Minnesota’s "duty to retreat" laws recently gained national attention during the trial over the Thanksgiving killing of two teenagers in Little Falls by homeowner Byron Smith, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder with premeditation and two counts of second-degree murder after he shot and killed two teens who had broken into his home. The Winona County sheriff candidates were asked if they would support such a bill. Both Hansen and Hoeppner acknowledged that the question was tough, and said that while homeowners have the right to protect their property, there is a fine line between protecting and going too far. Spitzer, however, said that if legislators agreed to enact the law, he would have no choice but to enforce it, even if he disagreed. “My job is to enforce the law as sheriff, not to interpret what I believe that law is,” he explained.
Candidates were asked if they felt the position of sheriff should be elected rather than appointed. “I waiver a lot, and sometimes I think it comes down to a popularity contest,” Hansen said. “It should be on the qualifications of the job.” Hoeppner agreed, adding, “I’ve also wondered why. You hope you get the person who is best qualified, or that you feel is best qualified. The bottom line is to get the right person in there who can do the job.”
"Somewhere along the line, someone much smarter than I decided it to be an elected position," said Spitzer. "I have no idea why, except for one [reason] — accountability. [The sheriff is accountable for the] 52,000 people in Winona County, and if you don’t like how business is handled, you have the chance every four years to change that leadership.”
The next sheriff’s forum will be at the Saint Charles Community Center on Tuesday, August 5, at 7 p.m.