Allegations roil contest for Kandiyohi County sheriff
WILLMAR -- With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, allegations of administrative ineptitude, mismanagement at the jail and a toxic work environment are roiling the contest for Kandiyohi County sheriff. Eric Holien, a former Kandiyohi C...
WILLMAR - With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, allegations of administrative ineptitude, mismanagement at the jail and a toxic work environment are roiling the contest for Kandiyohi County sheriff.
Eric Holien, a former Kandiyohi County deputy who's now with the Meeker County Sheriff's Office and Lower Sioux Tribal Police, and Greg Stehn, current chief deputy for Kandiyohi County, are vying for election Nov. 6 to become the next sheriff.
With issues such as drug use, mental health, correctional officer safety and law enforcement accountability garnering national headlines, the contest is resonating with voters.
Attention has been further stoked by the allegations from Holien and his supporters, making the contest one of the most watched at the local level.
Holien talks openly about alleged shortcomings in current leadership - problems he said have been mostly hidden from the public until he spoke up - and promises to be an agent of change who brings a fresh approach.
"I have said some things and I'll continue to say things," he said. "I jumped on the proverbial grenade to help everybody else."
Stehn, meanwhile, is campaigning on his experience as a former road deputy and patrol sergeant who rose through the ranks to become the current chief deputy.
His background has given him the leadership skills necessary to run the Sheriff's Office, he said. "I think I bring a really strong sense of dedication and commitment to the employees and the people in our communities. ... I do the work I do because that's what I believe in."
Both candidates have long experience in law enforcement and are versed in the operations of the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office.
Holien spent 15 years with the department, during which he led the SWAT team and served as a field training officer and instructor in firearms and the use of force. He also owns a private investigation service and a training business that provides martial arts training, firearms training and law enforcement continuing education.
Stehn was with the Stevens County Sheriff's Office before joining the Kandiyohi County force in 1996. Over the years he has held positions as a patrol sergeant, jail administrator and supervisor of the dispatch center. As chief deputy, he's now second in command of the department.
At candidate forums and in interviews, Holien and Stehn have outlined their priorities.
Both candidates have said they will focus on prevention and community outreach. They have talked about the need to be fiscally responsible while ensuring safety and service to the public. Stehn has emphasized technology use and fraud prevention as initiatives he wants to promote, while Holien lists jail safety and proactive community policing among his priorities.
But the race has been contentious almost from the start.
Holien has blasted current leadership at the Sheriff's Office, calling a vote for Stehn a vote for the status quo.
Holien said morale within the department is low and distrust is rampant. "We used to be the agency that people wanted to come to. Sadly, I'm afraid we're not that agency anymore."
He has called out the ability of the current administration to safely manage the jail, alleging that it's understaffed and not meeting regulatory standards, although he has offered no documentation to back this up. At a Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce forum this week, he accused the department of selling out employee safety "to make a dollar."
"We're cooking the books to make it look good," he said.
Holien pledges to turn things around by listening to the employees and implementing a team leadership model that gives them more ownership.
"There are some huge drastic changes we need to make immediately," he said.
The ongoing allegations - some of which remain hearsay - spilled over Tuesday night into a League of Women Voters forum for the Kandiyohi County Board, when the four candidates were asked what they would do to address the issues within the Sheriff's Office.
Stehn, who has the endorsement of current Sheriff Dan Hartog, has stayed away from direct confrontation with his opponent, saying he's committed to campaigning with integrity.
But in a recent interview, he said the allegation of low morale was overstated.
"That statement, I believe, upset quite a few people," he said. "We have people who work hard every day. We do have people, I acknowledge, who aren't happy. I would be open to listening to them and hearing their concerns."
The reputation of the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office remains good, he said. "Every single day we're out in the public, people come up and say thanks. People in our community care about our law enforcement. I think it's important for people to understand what we do and not jump to conclusions."
Finding enough people to meet minimum staffing requirements for the jail is a challenge that's complicated by the demographics of the working-age population, he said. "The workforce is depleting."
Shortages of qualified personnel to work in jails and prisons, in fact, are occurring across Minnesota as well as nationally, leaving many facilities struggling with understaffing and overtime issues.
Stehn noted that three new correctional officers were recently hired at the jail and a fourth is coming on board soon.
"There's a shortage from the standpoint of overall employees," he said. But minimum staffing levels have always been met, he said. "Very rarely do we have to order someone in."
Despite wide differences in their assessment of the current state of the Sheriff's Office, both candidates say they will map out a good future for the department.
Culture change is paramount, Holien said. He said he will lead with honesty and integrity and work to restore trust within the Sheriff's Office.
"I'm young. I've got a lot of energy," he said. "When you look at my leadership style, I listen. I will always listen to you if you've got an idea."
Stehn promised integrity and professionalism, saying he is prepared to lead the department on day one and will remain calm under pressure.
"I will continue to move the Sheriff's Office forward in a positive and ethical manner," he said.