Three Kandiyohi County sheriff hopefuls share forum stage ahead of Tuesday's primary election

The three candidates for Kandiyohi County sheriff — incumbent Eric Holien and challengers Dan Burns and Eric Tollefson — took part in the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum Friday at the Willmar Conference Center. They shared their thoughts and vision on several topics including guns, drugs, mental health and the visibility of the sheriff in the community.

Special election
A candidate forum Friday featured three candidates for Kandiyohi County sheriff — incumbent Eric Holien and challengers Dan Burns and Eric Tollefson. Primary voters on Tuesday will decide which two advance to the general election i November.
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WILLMAR — All three candidates for Kandiyohi County sheriff agree it is important to have a strong relationship with the public the department serves. Challengers Dan Burns and Eric Tollefson believe more needs to be done to build that relationship, while incumbent Eric Holien said he has already started that process and is hoping to be re-elected so he can continue that work.

Candidates running for the top law enforcement job in the county took part in the forum on Friday put on by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Only two of the candidates will be able to continue proving their case following the Aug. 9 primary, when voters in the county will decide the top two finishers who move on to the general election Nov. 8.

Who they are

Each of the men running for sheriff have long histories with the county and the Sheriff's Office.

Holien, who was elected to his first term as sheriff in 2018, was first hired by the county in 2002. He has served as a patrol deputy, patrol deputy corporal, SWAT Team assistant leader and leader, field training officer, defensive tactics instructor, Taser instructor, active shooter instructor and firearms instructor. He also owns and operates Great Lakes Training Group, which teaches judo and jujitsu and offers firearms training.

Kandiyohi Sheriff Forum 002.jpg
Incumbent Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien speaks during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, August 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Burns started working for the county sheriff in 1985. For the last 22 years, he has been assigned to court security after having worked as a dispatcher, patrol deputy and investigator. In his free time, Burns enjoys sharing his love of music with the singing group Jukebox Live.


Kandiyohi County Sheriff candidate  Daniel Burns answers a question while participating in Friday's candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on August 5, 2022.
Kandiyohi County Sheriff candidate Daniel Burns answers a question while participating in Friday's candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on August 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Tollefson has held a variety of positions with the Sheriff's Office since he was hired in 1996. The jobs include patrol deputy, detective, patrol sergeant, field training officer, water patrol officer, snowmobile and ATV patrol officer, cold water rescue team member, drug recognition evaluator and a member of the SWAT team. He also served 12 years of the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School Board.

Candidate for Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson answers a question while taking part in Friday's candidate forum at at the Willmar Convention Center.
Candidate for Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson answers a question while taking part in the candidate forum Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, at the Willmar Convention Center.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Meeting with the community

The perception of the Sheriff's Office and how involved the sheriff is in the community were top issues for both Tollefson and Burns. They both feel that, over the years, the Sheriff's Office has become more and more detached from the people it serves.

"We are not as approachable as we used to be," Burns said. "We've lost touch with the people we are serving. And I am looking to change that."

Tollefson wants the sheriff and deputies to not just be out in the public more, but also act in a way to which people can relate. He said bringing the humanity back to those in uniform could go a long way in repairing the damaged relationships between the public and law enforcement.

"Folks have got to start seeing us as people again," Tollefson said.

Since his election in 2018, Holien said he has started putting more public engagement programs and activities in place, such as the Minnesota Triad program which brings law enforcement and senior citizens together, or meeting with kids to teach them law enforcement officers aren't people they need to fear. The coronavirus pandemic stopped much of the community outreach he had started and Holien said the plan is to get back out there now.

"I'm going to to keep doing what we are doing now," Holien said.


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Tackling drugs

The use and sale of illegal narcotics is an ongoing issue for Kandiyohi County and its cities. All three candidates are behind the CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force and making sure it has the officers and resources it needs to seek out the drugs and bring offenders to court. However, there are areas for improvement.

"We have to take into account more than just enforcement," though that remains the No. 1 priority for Holien in regard to drugs. He also believes the court system need to be improved, so offenders are brought into the court system and possibly convicted and sentenced before they have the chance to re-offend.

As sheriff, Holien has been working toward getting a second K-9 unit and is planning for how the department will respond to the sudden legalization of some THC edibles and the possible legalization of marijuana in Minnesota.

Burns said if you want to solve the problem of drug abuse in the county, you are going to have to address the addiction from which many offenders are suffering. Those people will need support to remain clean after their time in jail or prison.

"Without that support system, they are right back to selling drugs and using drugs," Burns said. "If you are going to solve it, you are going to have to deal with addiction."

Already having a strong community relationship and educating the public about drugs helps when trying to respond and clean up drug issues, Tollefson said.

"A lot of our drug enforcement that tends to be successful is when information or tips comes from our community. A lot of cases are built upon that," Tollefson said, but the public has to feel comfortable with the deputies to do that. "Maintaining those relationships are huge."


Employer of choice

Over the last few years, the law enforcement career path has took a bit of a beating due to highly publicized incidents between officers and minority communities. Because of this, employee recruitment and retention has become an issue, even at the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office.

"If you don't have people putting on the uniform, none of the other things are really going to matter," Tollefson said. He wants the office to do a better job at marketing not only the agency but the county as a whole. He also wants to have younger deputies talk at the county's schools and at colleges.

Burns said the issue is people are either choosing not to get into this line of work or not stay in it. He believes having a sheriff who is out and about in the community could help bring people in.

"As a sheriff, if you are highly visible and plugged in and have a good working relationship with the public, it is going to help people see this is still a viable career," Burns said. "You can still be a decent human being and do this job."

Employee support and retention has been a priority of Holien in his first term as sheriff. He has started employee wellness programs that include both physical fitness and mental wellness.

"When you take care of your staff, you get good results from them as well," Holien said. "As long as we take care of them, they will take care of us."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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