Crow Wing County sheriff candidates offer visions for office during forum
The sheriff candidates answered questions about their priorities, leadership styles and philosophies posed by Matt Kilian, moderator of the forum and president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce.
BRAINERD — Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard defended his record Tuesday, Sept. 13, as challenger Eric Klang sought to make the case for new leadership during a candidate forum.
The sheriff candidates answered questions about their priorities, leadership styles and philosophies posed by Matt Kilian, moderator of the forum and president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. The forum — sponsored by the chamber, Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters and the Brainerd Dispatch — drew an in-person audience of about 75 people at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building as well as online viewers of a Facebook livestream.
Goddard, a one-term sheriff with 28 years of law enforcement experience, said the office experienced and learned a lot during his tenure thus far in his opening statement. That time showed him how great the employees in the sheriff’s office are, he said. He pointed to expanded partnerships with county community services on mental health initiatives in the jail and the ongoing work of the Brainerd Lakes Area Drug Education group as successes.
“I’m very proud of the people that I represent, the people within our office and really the capabilities and the abilities that we have,” Goddard said. “We’re known as a professional organization. I would put us up against any office within the northern half of Minnesota and I mean, really across the board with any office in Minnesota — what we’re capable of.”
Goddard said he’s running for reelection because he loves being a cop and he’s lived in Crow Wing County his whole life. His top priority, he said, would be addressing workforce challenges that exist within law enforcement but also within the community as a whole.
“We need people that can make a living wage, that can work here and be the next generation of who’s gonna be providing goods and services that we need throughout our area,” Goddard said. “So it’s not just unique to us, it’s unique to all of us, and it’s a problem we’re all going to be facing now and in the very near future.”
Klang, who boasts similar longevity in his career in law enforcement as the current chief of the Pequot Lakes Police Department and previous service as sheriff from 2003-06, made clear from the beginning his comments throughout the forum would be directed at Goddard, not other employees in the sheriff’s office. Klang unsuccessfully made bids for the sheriff’s office three other times before this year — in 2006, 2010 and 2018.
“Like he said, we do have good people at the sheriff’s office, and consistent lack of leadership, actually,” Klang said. “The sheriff’s election is one of the most important positions our citizens will vote for. … So the next sheriff that leads this agency should have the qualities of being capable, competent, socially astute, emotionally stable, and the leadership ability to bridge partnerships both inside and outside of the county.”
Klang said he’s seeking to return to the role of sheriff because he believes the sheriff’s office is in critical condition and in need of a proven leader to fix it. He said his track record supports his ability to create a positive leadership environment and build relationships.
“People don’t care what you know, it’s that they know that you care. So you have to build those relationships and people are — they want to be respected and valued,” Klang said.
Kilian asked the candidates to explain what stands out to them about crime in Crow Wing County and what they would do to reduce it.
Klang fingered drug use as his top concern, naming opioid abuse in particular. Addressing the drug problem in the county means collaborating with agencies throughout the county and state, he said, because one agency alone cannot solve the issue.
“When I’m elected sheriff, you can count on the fact that we’ll be working together collaboratively with our law enforcement partners, which isn’t happening at this time,” Klang said.
Goddard said while crime rates in the county have remained steady, aside from an expected dip at the onset of the pandemic, the issue of mental illness is a major concern.
“What we need is more tools with our court system and with our mental health providers to provide options, because we can pound ourselves to death with the drug problems and the thefts that we have, but until we can work more on the root of the problem and the recidivism rates — we call them frequent flyers, it’s people we deal with all the time. … The tools that we need out there are much further than just law enforcement, it’s really encompassing all of Crow Wing County and all of us,” Goddard said.
Asked what the candidates wished the public knew about the sheriff’s office or law enforcement in general, Klang criticized the turnover rate under Goddard’s watch. He said 14 people left the office in the last year, despite the good pay and benefits offered.
“People don’t leave because of the pay and benefits, they leave because of poor leadership. And unfortunately, that’s the reality of it,” Klang said. “ … Recruitment is going to be a challenge — retaining and recruiting people. But I’m up for the challenge. And I will make those changes, because it’s about treating people right. It’s about being fair. It’s about respecting, it’s about valuing employees.”
Crow Wing County Human Resource Director Meliene Fontaine-Laska reported Friday a total of 28 employees left the sheriff’s office between January and August. Of those, three retired, six relocated, four part-time seasonal assignments ended, one part-time employee was not able to work the schedule and 14 employees resigned for various reasons. Fontaine-Laska noted the turnover rate among those resigning was 10% and in alignment with the overall county goal of 10%.
Goddard chose to use one of the two rebuttals allowed for each of the two candidates during the forum to extend his response time. He said Crow Wing County is not unique in its retention challenges and young professionals tend to seek new jobs at a high rate.
“When we look at where our staffing is going to be, we’re lucky to capture that person for a four- to six-year range. We’ve had a number of retirements the last few years, not just this last year, that hit us very hard,” Goddard said. “And getting good people is hard, but we will not lower our standards.”
He offered the example of a much larger police agency sending 2,000 invitations for testing, and 25 responded. Of those 25, just two made it through the first round of tests.
“This is a tough job to get into, this is a tough job to stay in, and I don’t blame anyone for getting out,” Goddard said. “It’s very tasking. It’s very rewarding, but it’s very tasking.”
Klang also chose to use a 30-second rebuttal for the question. He said the audience shouldn’t take his word on the problems in the sheriff’s office — they could refer to a recent engagement survey of county employees. The survey showed the sheriff’s office had a much lower response rate than other county departments. The response rate, according to a summary prepared by McLean & Co., was 56% among sheriff’s office employees compared to 85% overall.
“People had not very good things to say about the sheriff’s office,” Klang said. “As a matter of fact, they were disengaged. They were disgruntled. And so you know, when I say that there’s failed leadership, don’t listen to me. Let’s look at this.”
Kilian asked the candidates whether they support any changes to officer training, procedures or funding in light of calls for police reform.
Goddard said ongoing training for officers is important because the lessons learned are used daily. He said the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association has a strong voice at the state Capitol to lobby for changes to Peace Officer Standards and Training in the state. He noted he’d recently penned a letter voicing opposition to how some of the standards were approached, although he did not elaborate on the standards at issue.
“They are going to be revisited. Our lobbyist is going to be working towards them and we’re looking to have a stronger picture of what we look for,” Goddard said. “And key points are what we see in the news. That’s really what we’re dealing with in today’s world.”
Klang noted his service as a board member of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association involves developing improved policies to protect the community and law enforcement officers.
“I do support that and I always have … and I continue to look for ways that we can do better in our jobs and to protect our citizens from tyranny, if you will,” Klang said.
Partnering with public
Asked about the most effective ways the sheriff’s office can partner with the public, Klang said community partnerships need to be intentional and involve civic groups.
He offered TRIAD as an example of an effective law enforcement-community partnership, with one of its focuses to empower senior citizens against financial fraud attempts. Klang said as police chief, he’s visited banks to instruct tellers on the signs of scam victims, such as those taking out large sums of money to purchase gift cards.
“We’ve saved a lot of money from going out of our country overseas,” Klang said.
Goddard said outreach is important to help remove the fear some people have of interacting with law enforcement.
“Sometimes the biggest thing that a person has ever done is call 911, and a lot of people will not call 911 depending on, no matter what the emergency might be,” Goddard said. “So we need to really instill in them the ability and the responsibility to work with us, and we will partner back just as strong.”
Partnering with other agencies
A question submitted from the audience asked the candidates how they would work effectively with police chiefs across the county.
Goddard said the sheriff’s office responds to calls for service on behalf of some of the smaller agencies without 24/7 coverage and on bigger cases. He acknowledged difficulties, however.
“I guess in the law enforcement spectrum, there’s really no secret that after the last election, I think there’s been some really tough feelings that have never went away. But our job is to serve the people of Crow Wing County,” Goddard said. “ … I grew up in a small area. I grew up in Pequot Lakes. My first job was Breezy Point, my second job was Pequot Lakes. … So I see the value and the need for agencies and we’re always a strong partner.”
Klang said he already works effectively with other chiefs to bridge the gap between departments.
“We don’t look at police departments as one is better than another. And unfortunately, this current administration — or Scott specifically — has had some big challenges with other law enforcement agencies,” Klang said. “And we’re just one beggar telling another beggar where the food is. We want to work together, we want to — we want the same goal. But you know, some people are building silos and burning bridges, really. And that just can’t happen. That does a disservice to the community.”
Most significant difference
For the final prepared question, Kilian asked the candidates to expound on the most significant difference between them and their opponent.
Klang asked the audience to think about their own experiences in employment. He said everyone knows what it’s like to work for bosses who don’t inspire and bosses who do, and how that makes a difference in output.
“You don’t hire the best people and tell them what to do. You hire the best people and have them tell you what to do,” Klang said. “You hire the best people and you inspire them to be the best.”
Goddard said both he and Klang are good guys, but he doesn’t believe in Klang’s philosophies and the two have completely different approaches to how the office should be run.
“When people ask me, ‘How are things going?’ And the negative comments — I’ve heard them, the keyboard warriors, etc., that are out there — some of the negative comments that are out there, I say, ‘Talk to our people,’” Goddard said. “We’ve got some great people that are coming in our door from NYPD, … we’ve got one from L.A., we’ve got one from Minneapolis. And to hear them come back and say, ‘You know, I hear these negative comments — I love it here.’ And I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”
Watch the forum
To watch the forum and other candidate forums in their entirety, visit brainerdlakeschamber.com/forums for recordings.