Race for sheriff hits home
MANISTIQUE – The position of Schoolcraft County Sheriff is up for grabs, and incumbent Grant Harris and newcomer W. John Norrington used Friday’s Schoolcraft County Candidate Forum to establish their platforms.
According to Harris, the biggest issues and challenges facing the Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department include the jail. He noted the structure itself is deteriorating and that the cost of operating and maintaining is steadily increasing.
Another problem, explained Harris, is the sheer size of the county.
“What we have are large tracks of land that are vacant and we have great distances between the little communities in the county,” he said. “How to best serve those communities and how to best deliver law enforcement services to them has always been a challenge.”
He noted that everything within the office is budget-driven, but that he has been trying to do the best he can to provide services with the allocated funds.
“John comes with a corrections background, which, he can run a jail,” he said. “He doesn’t have a law enforcement background; he’s never been to a police academy.”
Harris, on the other hand, explained he had four years experience working as sheriff and 40 years experience in law enforcement, including corrections.
The county budget’s current role in his duties is “huge”, Harris said.
“Everything is dollar-driven; we have to work with what money we’re given, yet, typically, we’re underfunded,” he said. “We have a 24 hour day, 365 day operation that’s much broader than just the jail.”
In addition to operating the jail, Harris said he and his deputies are responsible for answering citizen complaints, conducting search and rescues, transporting inmates – each task having a negative impact on the budget.
“There’s no way, honestly, that they (county commissioners) can fully fund a sheriff’s department, because there’s too much variance,” he said. “We have to try to work, the best we can, with what we’re given, but what we’re given, typically, isn’t enough.”
In the audience question portion of the forum, Harris was asked why the jail currently employs deputies from out of county.
“There were no qualified candidates from in-county,” he explained, noting he would have hired from in-county had someone qualified applied.
To improve the healthcare and safety of prisoners, Harris said currently has plans in place.
“Since I took office, we did contract with a healthcare provider, we get a nurse 10 hours per week and a doctor … to see the inmates at the jail,” he said. “We are currently charging the inmates for that.”
He noted the move to privatize health care relieved some of the financial burden on the county and also made inmates safer by putting someone qualified to make health decisions available at the jail.
To further ensure the health and safety of inmates, Harris said the county should look to provided programming in-house.
“Just about everybody that comes into the jail’s got some kind of an alcohol or drug dependence or problem that, if we had a place where we could run programming, we would be able to offer services so that, maybe, they’d get some help while they’re in there,” he said. “To have people locked up in a jail, in a detox situation, and not be able to effectively help them, is painful for us to watch.”
For Norrington, the biggest challenges and issues for the Schoolcraft County Sheriff include the jail and budget. He noted it is important for the sheriff to work within the budget handed down by county commissioners.
“The sheriff’s job is very complex, they are mandated to do many things to maintain the jail,” he said.
Despite this fact, Norrington explained the sheriff was not the only law enforcement agency in the county, and that municipal law enforcement, as well as state police were available to fill gaps.
Another issue for the sheriff is road patrol, he added, as well as the condition of the jail and overtime issues with staff.
“There’s a lot of things to cover, but there’s also ways to control it,” he said.
Norrington explained he ran Camp Manistique for 15 and a half years, and that it was often the most efficiently-run facility in the state.
Taking a different approach than his opponent, Norrington said he would be more focused on communication as sheriff.
“I would have standard, open communication working with the county board and the commissioners,” he said. “If I find that there’s problems within the budget, we would try to sit down together and work out a solution to that problem, which I’m sure Grant has tried to do.”
He added that Harris had placed a burden on the county by filing a lawsuit to attempt to force the county to fund his mandated services.
“He has his concern why he filed the lawsuit; it was not accepted by the court,” Norrington said. “I’m concerned about the money that was spent to fight a lawsuit, my tax dollars and your tax dollars, in this county. That should have been there for our budget use in this county.”
As for the county budget, Norrington said it plays a major role in the sheriff’s duties.
“The sheriff’s most important function, as part of the county government, is to be part of the county government team,” he said.
While the sheriff has the responsibility to serve the citizens, the office is also responsible for functioning within their budget, he added.
In answering the question about Harris hiring out-of-county deputies, Norrington said he would like to see hires from in-county.
“I would prefer to hire within the county. Qualified individuals or at least see them get qualified,” he said. “The more money that is earned in this county and stays in this county helps this county.”
He noted that people who live within the county would be more inclined to use county health services, grocery stores, etc. – helping the local economy.
In his plans to improve the healthcare and safety of inmates, Norrington said he would like to look into contracting with Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital to provide healthcare for the prisoners. He noted that healthcare issues would be dealt with based on the severity of the injury, and that, as currently is practice, inmates should be charged for healthcare services received.
As for safety of jail inmates, Norrington noted that Harris already has two officers on duty 24/7, cameras set up, and that a former problem with suicides has been resolved.