Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Democrats talk in Havre candidate forum


April 25, 2018

Havre Daily/News Ryan Welch

Havre attorney Randy Randolph listens as Hill County Deputy Attorney Karen Alley speaks during a forum Tuesday in Montana State University-Northern's Hensler Auditorium. The two are facing off in the Democratic primary for Hill County attorney. They face no general election opponents.

Three Democrats in contested primaries and two others with no opponents until November's general election took part in a candidate forum Tuesday in Hensler Auditorium at Montana State University-Northern's Applied Technology Center where they pitched themselves to voters and answered a few questions.

The forum was hosted by the Young Democrats of MSU-Northern, a campus chapter of the Democratic Party that was started last fall.

Democratic primary candidates for Hill County attorney Karen Alley and Randy Randolph took part in the forum as did Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson, Montana State Senate District 14 candidate Paul Tuss and Montana Public Service Commission District 1 candidate Doug Kaercher. Dana Kjersem, Peterson's primary challenger was set to attend but did not show up. Kaercher and Tuss do not have primary challengers

All candidates were allotted three minutes to introduce themselves. Hill County Democratic Central Committee Chair and state Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, who is also up for re-election in House District 28 but does not face a primary opponent, was the master of ceremonies at the forum and asked each of the candidates several questions.

Catherine Huston asked Peterson if he would admit a problem exists in the staff and management in the Hill County Attorney's office.

Since Hill County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson took over in November 2016, multiple criminal cases have been dismissed due to lack of preparation by the prosecution - the county attorney's office - and the office also has seen a high turnover in its staff.

Peterson said he regrets how he made the decision to hire Cole-Hodgkinson, and that is the problem with the county attorney's office.

"Biggest mistake of my life, I highly regret it," Peterson said.

Peterson said he and the other Hill County commissioners called and interviewed every contact they were provided and did not hear anything negative about any of the applicants.

He added that he was worried some of the other applicants would have to step aside in a number of cases due to conflicts of interest.

He said a call from a retired county attorney who gave Cole-Hodgkinson "a glowing review" was what caused Peterson to vote to hire her.

"There isn't anything I can do there about the appointment of the county attorney that was made. That is my biggest regret and that is what the problem is," he said.

When asked about the commissioner's communication with the public, Peterson said it goes both ways.

Peterson said people are always welcome to come to the commissioner's office to raise a concern or issue.

Peterson said people have complained about the commission not listing a vote about restructuring the county attorney's office on the agenda for a business meeting in which the commissioners voted 2 to 1 to eliminate the office's manager and the county personnel manager and hire a fourth attorney instead.

The commission also failed to list a vote on eliminating or furloughing the manager of the Great Northen Fairgrounds, saying after the meeting that it was included in the generic "personnel" listing on the agenda.

All votes are always done on Thursday morning, Peterson said.

"It is an announced meeting, it is a public meeting and anybody can walk in that door, sit down during that meeting and express themselves," he said,

In his time as commissioner, Peterson said he probably had eight instances where people came into the office angry, six of which were probably by the same person.

Peterson said he often gets phone calls from people in the county at 4 a.m, and he is always willing to talk.

"Anytime you want to call, call me," he said.

Alley and Randolph also commented on the reorganization and had different views on the subject.

Randolph, a fifth-generation Hill County resident, said he has practiced criminal and civil law for clients throughout Montana and was court administrator for the Chippewa Cree tribal court.

He said he thinks there needs to be a change to address problems, such as high turnover in the attorney's office, that have developed over time.

The office is also not as accessible or approachable as it once was, he said.

"I want people to be able to come into this office and say, 'Hey, I have this issue.' That is how it used to be," Randolph said.

Alley said she has learned first-hand how the office works during the 10 months she has been a deputy county attorney. In addition to handling criminal cases, she also advised the county on issues like title opinions and construction contracts.

Alley, who grew up in Townsend, said that she moved to Havre in 2011 where she worked for Lorang Law, including as a public defender.

"I have dedicated by and large my legal career to public service," she said.

Randolph said the current county attorney's office does seem to be in disarray. He said there has been high turnover which he finds troubling. That was not always the case.

Randolph said that he is concerned about the recent decision to replace the office manager and personnel manager with a fourth county attorney.

"I think that support staff is a very important part of that office, " he said.

Randolph said he would like to get more support staff in the office who will stay in there long term.

Alley said she also thinks the office is in disarray and is disorganized.

She said the disorganization goes back to August 2016 when both deputy county attorneys resigned. That damaged the office, she said, and it has not recovered since then. Alley said that in the last 20 months the office has only been fully staffed for 10 of those.

The reorganization of the office approved last month will go a long way toward resolving the situation, she said.

"I think once we get the kinks worked out in the system, that for Hill County it will actually expand what the office is able to do and how the office is able to advise the county and actually responds to public concerns," she said.

Bachmeier asked Alley and Randolph how they would approach cases where people were charged with possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana.

Randolph said it would be on a case-by-case basis and would depend on a host of factors including an individual's background and whether they sold and or possessed marijuana in or near a school.

He said, though, that the legal system is overburdened by people who face drug charges and he wants to focus the office on being accountable to victims of violent crime and less on what he said are victimless crimes like possession of a small amount of marijuana.

"Those are much more serious cases in my mind than somebody who is caught with a small amount of marijuana," he said.

Alley said Montana law still dictates that marijuana is a dangerous drug, and she doesn't get to pick and choose the drug cases that come before her office. She said she hasn't filed a charge for a sale of marijuana during her time working for the county attorney's office.

She said in possession cases, how she moves forward depends on the amount of marijuana involved. Cases of possession with the intent to sell depend on how much marijuana is involved and what the police reports say and the evidence she has.

Many people are in the criminal justice system face drug charges, and as a former defense attorney she said she knows that it is devastating for people to have criminal charges that follow them forever.

"So that is something that goes into consideration," she said, "It really does depend on the evidence you have presented and what you have to work with," she said.

Both candidates were asked if they think there is an opioid crisis and the debate on whether they should be given rehabilitation or face incarceration.

Alley said Montana does have a crisis and it has affected Hill County, especially in the form of prescription drugs. She said the situation impacts both the criminal justice system and the children's protective service system.

"That is an absolute, I would say, crisis within the child protective service system that our county has to work with," she said, adding that methamphetamine is also a problem.

Rehabilitation is important, Alley said and she believes the drug court has been successful in reducing rates of recidivism. However, for people who do reoffend there has to be incarceration, she said.

Randolph said he thinks it is less of a crisis and more of a trend, where people hop from one drug to the next based on what is popular at the time.

He said that there is a problem with meth use and that when he first started practicing law there was a lot of meth use and that went down.

As it relates to incarceration and rehabilitation, he said he strongly advises rehabilitation, listing as an example programs on reservations that incorporate parts of American Indian culture that are more successful for them.

He added that he does have a problem that in order to be in the county treatment court that a person has to live in Havre and is therefore neglecting people from Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation who might need it the most.

Kaercher, speaking about the Public Service Commission race, said he recently read that one of his opponents said the race for the open seat would be decided in the Republican primary.

"I want to tell you that there is a reasonable and responsible voice besides these Republicans that are running for this board. That somebody is here and he is standing right here and that is me," Kaercher said.

State Rep. Rob Cook, R-Shelby, former state Rep. Randy Pinocci, R-Sun River, former Libertarian U.S House candidate Mark Wicks of Inverness and Cory McKinney of Great Falls are running in the Republican primary.

Havre Daily/News Ryan Welch

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson speaks during a Democratic candidate forum Tuesday in Havre in Montana State University-Northern's Hensler Auditorium.

Paul Tuss is the lone Democrat in the race for Montana Senate District 14, which extends from the Canadian border in Liberty and most of Hill counties to just outside of Great Falls.

Incumbent Russ Tempel, R-Chester, and Havre business owner and Hill County Republican Central Committee Finance Director Brad Lotton are running in the June 5 Republican primary in the district.

Tuss said work in the Montana Senate, seems like it would be an extension of the community and economic development he has helped facilitate as executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp.

"I want to take the work I have done in this area and do it for all of Montana as your next state senator," Tuss said.

He also said that he wants to be an antidote to the hyperpartisanship that has trickled down from Washington, D.C., to Helena.

"I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said.


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