Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Houghton County candidates in contested races present views at League of Women Voters Forum

By Michele Bourdieu

Candidates for Houghton County Commission contested races listen as Jill Berglund, right, of the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country asks them questions submitted by the League and by members of the audience at the Sept. 29, 2016, Houghton County Candidates Forum at Lake View Manor in Hancock. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

HANCOCK -- The League of Women Voters (LWV) of the Copper Country recently sponsored a well attended Candidates Forum, presenting the candidates in contested races in Houghton County. The candidates for the following positions spoke about issues they believe to be important: Prosecutor, Sheriff and County Commissioners.

Jill Burkland of LWV introduced the candidates for these major Houghton County contested races and asked them questions from the League and from audience members who submitted anonymous written questions. She began with the prosecutor race between incumbent Prosecutor Michael Makinen (D) and former Prosecutor Douglas Edwards (no party affiliation).

UPDATE: The Copper Country "LWV Voters Guide," published recently in The Daily Mining Gazette is now posted on the Copper Country LWV Web site. It includes answers to questions by those local candidates who sent replies by Sept. 23, 2016.* The questions for Houghton County candidates from LWV were these: 1) What issues facing your office are of most concern to you? 2) How are budget issues affecting your system? and 3) What would you like to accomplish in this position? These same questions were asked of candidates at the Sept. 29 Forum.

Candidates for Prosecutor

Here is a video excerpt from the two prosecutor candidates:

At the Sept. 29, 2016, League of Women Voters of the Copper Country Houghton County Candidates Forum, incumbent Prosecutor Michael Makinen (D) and challenger Douglas Edwards (no party affiliation) introduce themselves and answer a question on incarceration of drug offenders, one of several issues of concern in Houghton County. View larger screen by clicking on the YouTube icon. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

Edwards noted he had held this office for 20 years and he was always a victim's advocate as prosecutor. Makinen mentioned several times the need for funding programs such as those for mental health and troubled youth.

In the "Voters Guide" Makinen and Edwards differ in their written answers to the budget question.

Makinen notes, "Mental health cuts have caused increased interactions between the mentally ill and the criminal justice system. Inadequate staffing of crime labs delays processing of evidence, thereby delaying and sometime compromising prosecutions, particularly in drug and computer crimes."

In reply to the budget question, Edwards writes, "Every prosecutor must work within their budget. That is not a difficult task. I did so for 20 years without any problem, and will continue to do so."

Candidates for Houghton County Sheriff

Incumbent Sheriff Brian McLean (R) and challenger Derek Poykonen (D) introduced themselves and answered several questions. One important issue for both is that Houghton County's jail is overcrowded and inadequate and the County lacks funds for a new jail.

Sheriff candidates Brian McLean (R) (at right), incumbent Houghton County Sheriff, and challenger Derek Poyhonen (D) present their perspectives on county law enforcement issues such as the drug problem and the overcrowded jail. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

In their written responses for the "LWV Voters Guide," Sheriff McLean notes his efforts to balance a tight budget with grant funding: "I've managed to bring in over $1.25 million in grants over and above our budget ....We have always exercised collaboration with other agencies and service providers which has been one way to get more done with less."

Poyhonen writes that he sees little concern about budget issues in Houghton County: "The administrative offices have been in constant re-model for the past few years, while an extensive/expensive addition is nearing completion which addresses none of the ongoing problems within the facility."

Houghton County Commission candidates

The contested races for Houghton County commissioner seats are in three districts:

District 1 (Calumet Township and Hancock Township): Tom Tikkanen (R) and Rick Kasprzak (D)
District 2 (Franklin, Quincy, Osceola, Schoolcraft and Torch Lake townships): Albert Koskela (R) and Valorie Troesch (D)
District 5 (Chassell, Duncan, Elm River, Laird, Portage and Stanton townships): Tim Palosaari (R) and George Rajala (D)

During the forum five of the six candidates introduced themselves. Rick Kasprzak was present at the very beginning of the forum but did not have a chance to speak since he was called away because of a family emergency.

Candidates running in contested races for Houghton County Commissioner introduce themselves to the audience at the Sept. 29 League of Women Voters forum. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

Next Berglund asked the candidates to reply to this question: "What is the most important issue facing the Commission at present?"

The County Commission candidates mention issues ranging from elder care and the Houghton County Medical Care Facility to financing for the jail, recycling and better planning. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

Berglund also asked candidates to reply to this question on environment from the audience: "We've heard that we live in a beautiful place. What can we do to keep it this way -- environmental protection, protecting historic buildings, parks, etc.?"

Candidates' replies included working to save historic buildings, making use of the County Land Use Plan, recycling and zoning:

Houghton County candidates reply to an audience question on the environment. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

The County Commission candidates also gave their views in answer to questions on the County Jail problem, the feasibility of a county-wide transportation system, recycling, brownfields and old buildings, and health insurance for county commissioners.

Candidate Rick Kasprzak sends his comments

Since he was unable to comment at the forum because of a family emergency, Rick Kasprzak, Democratic candidate for District 1, sent Keweenaw Now a summary of his views on some of the issues facing Houghton County. At the heart of these issues, he writes, is the fact that state politicians cut the state budget and put the burden of much-needed services on local government.

" Criminals who normally would go to state prison are being kept in a county jail," Kasprzak writes. "Mandatory sentencing requires prosecution of cases which otherwise could be pled out, burdening the county court system. Dark stores now exist where the state gives a tax incentive to a big box store, blocking the collection of sometimes millions of dollars of tax revenue by the local government. Not only is this disastrous to the local economy, it is an unfair tax advantage given to the biggest corporations while a local mom and pop business is not afforded the same consideration."

Like George Rajala, Kasprzak is opposed to the effort of some present County Commissioners to privatize the Houghton County Medical Care Facility (HCMCF) in Hancock. He also expresses concern about the Houghton County Jail.

"The current county jail is rundown, unsafe and an unwelcome work environment for the sheriff’s deputies working there," Kasprzak says. "The problem is only going to get worse as the state continues to send more prisoners our way. Also, the liability the county could incur when someone gets hurt, whether a prisoner or a deputy, would be disastrous. And it’s a ticking time bomb. It’s not a question of if a crisis will happen; it’s a matter of when."

Kasprzak says he is running for county commissioner because Houghton County needs bold leadership and, as Valorie Troesch pointed out at the forum, transparency in its motives.

"I believe we need to continue to fund the HCMCF," Kasprzak says. "I believe we will need to raise a millage to build a new jail. I’m willing to make a sacrifice in order to help make that happen. I promise if I’m elected I will opt out of the health care plan the commissioners enjoy. I will take the payout and donate it back to the county in order to start a fund to build a new jail."
Inset photo: Rick Kasprzak. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

According to their replies in the "Voters Guide," Kasprzak and his opponent, Tikkanen, seem to agree on protecting the HCMCF from privatization and on supporting renewable energy efforts like the Houghton Energy Efficiency Team (HEET); but they seem to differ on taxes. While Kasprzak admits the need for a millage to build a new jail, Tikkanen mentions working with WUPPDR (Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region), state and federal agencies to access resources -- but without increasing local taxes.

More comments from concerned citizens

Krissy Sundstrom, a member of the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country, commented on the forum, which she attended as a concerned resident.

"I found the forum helpful in deciding who to vote for in the November election," Sundstrom told Keweenaw Now. "I was glad to see some of the county commissioner candidates talking about recycling and I hope they all consider a plan to prioritize the county's needs as Valerie Troesch suggested. I knew the jail was in bad shape but I didn't realize the extent of the issues our jail has. They are surprising and disconcerting all at the same time. I didn't realize it is so bad it affects the working conditions of the officers, safety of our community, and that the jail occupants could even sue the county because the conditions are so bad. That's quite shocking. I hope we can come together to correct this issue before it costs us even more money than it should."

Joan Chadde, a resident of District 2, one of the contested county commissioner races, said she learned a lot about the candidates at the forum. She also served as volunteer timekeeper for the forum.

"The candidate forum, coordinated by the LWV of the Copper Country, provides a valuable service to the residents of Houghton County," Chadde said.

Brian Rendel of the Houghton County Democratic Party noted the community participation in this forum was bigger than usual, which could be a hopeful sign of a good voter turnout on Nov. 8.

"A lot is on the line this year, including the next president's hundreds of judicial and government appointments and critical decisions to be made," Rendel said. "Also affecting our lives is local government leadership. We are proud of all our Democratic candidates appearing on the slate this election, and there are a few elections that can change the way Houghton County does business.

"Many voters are frustrated with the current Tea-party controlled Houghton County Board of Commissioners, who earlier this year threatened to end support for the Houghton County Medical Care Facility because they believe the facility should survive without help. This year voters have a unique opportunity to vote for many exciting candidates, including a chance to restore thoughtful, reasonable, and rational county stewardship to the county board of commissioners by voting to replace two anti-progress incumbent Tea Party commissioners with two outstanding Democratic candidates whose values include county-wide long-term planning, collaboration, and community representation -- Valorie Troesch in District 2, and George Pajala in District 5."

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Houghton County Democratic Party's Get Out the Vote efforts may email the party at houghtondems@gmail.com, or call or text 906-523-1233.

* Click here to access the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country Web site and links to both the State and the Copper Country Voters Guides.

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