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Sauk County sheriff candidates look back, forward

Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister shakes hands during the 2018 Witwen Fourth of July Parade.

As they prepare to face off for the third time Nov. 6, two sheriff candidates have different takes on the past and future of Sauk County’s top law enforcement agency.

Incumbent Republican Sheriff Chip Meister, 55, spent more than 20 years climbing the ranks of the department before he was first elected in 2010.

He lists numerous new programs — including those designed to help inmates and combat drunken driving — as his greatest accomplishments. If re-elected, Meister wants to continue the fight against opioid addiction by keying in on drug enforcement and cooperating with sister agencies focused on treatment alternatives.

Meister’s opponent, 63-year-old Paul Hefty, a Democrat who worked for 24 years as a sheriff’s office detective, questions the sheriff’s veracity and says he has exacerbated a “good old boy” culture within the agency.

If elected, Hefty wants to focus on community policing, networking with community groups, and training deputies to de-escalate tense situations.

Looking back

In an interview, Meister listed a dozen programs that he implemented, or helped implement, as his greatest accomplishments over the last eight years.

When it comes to drunken driving enforcement, the sheriff touted his use of grants to put extra patrol deputies on the road during key times. He said that program received national recognition.

“In 34 years at the department, I don’t recall getting a national award,” Meister said.

In March 2016, the sheriff’s office announced the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Safety had awarded it the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Region 5 Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Holiday Crackdown Certificate of Appreciation. The agency reported it was the only one in the state to receive that certificate.

Meister also listed his — and his chief deputy’s — involvement in Bar Buddies, a nonprofit that provides free rides home for inebriated bar patrons. The sheriff sits on the Sauk Prairie chapter’s board.

“That has been a huge success,” Meister said. “We’ve seen our OWIs drop by about 50 percent.”

When it comes to drug use, Meister said, his addition of a second K-9 unit has had a positive impact, as well as new training that helps patrol officers recognize drugged drivers. He also said deputies are now equipped with Narcan, a nasal spray that is used to treat heroin overdoses.

Meister said morale in the department is good, in part because of a new two-year trial program that switched patrol deputies from eight to 12-hour shifts. This allows them to work no more than three days in a row, he said, and have extended off periods throughout the year.

Hefty questioned Miester’s explanation for that change, saying he worked 8½-hour shifts and no more than four days in a row when he was with the department.

“That puts a lot of stress on the individual,” Hefty said about 12-hour shifts, “especially if you’re toward the end of your shift and you have to make a snap decision.”

Also on the sheriff’s list are a chaplaincy program that provides support for officers who have experienced trauma, and a peer mentoring program intended to help new employees learn from the department’s veterans.

Technological improvements also have helped, Meister said, such as a tracking program that allows dispatchers to see where a deputy is at any given time so the closest one can be sent to an incident.

He said the purchase of new computer software will allow the sheriff’s office to track its data uniformly with other local agencies, if they use the same system.

Meister also touted his implementation of new jail programs that help inmates in the areas of fatherhood, anger management, finances and coping skills.

Hefty said his biggest issue with the sheriff’s leadership has been a lack of honesty, and suggested Meister has not been honest with Sauk County Board members about budget figures.

Year after year, Hefty said, the sheriff budgets for a major dropoff in jail bed rent revenue from outside agencies that never comes to fruition. He suggested the intentional under-projection of that revenue source pads the department’s budget and protects it from year-end shortfalls.

Hefty believes there are employees who are unhappy within the department, but won’t speak out due to fear of retaliation.

He also said the sheriff’s office has lost an unusually high number of employees to other agencies because of a poor work culture. However, he did not have evidence to support that claim.

Future vision

Meister said he wants to continue with the programs he started and the fight against opioid addiction. He said his department added two full-time drug detectives whose work has resulted in more search warrants and arrests.

If elected, Hefty said he would provide more cross-training for officers, allowing them to work a variety of cases. He said the sheriff’s description of the drug detectives is misleading.

“Saying we have two detectives now assigned to it — well, we had that before,” Hefty said. “He just manipulates personnel changes.”

Hefty and Meister both support the work of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a collaborative effort among numerous agencies intended to address the root causes of criminal behavior and reduce recidivism.

If elected, Hefty said he would focus more on community policing, a technique endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice in which law enforcement aggressively seeks to build ties with local organizations and the public. He said assigning deputies to specific areas and giving them more community face time — such as at local sporting events — can help build relationships and trust.

Hefty said he would make deputies responsible for more than just responding to incidents. They would proactively knock on doors, inquire about peoples’ needs, and try to connect them with available services.

The DOJ says community policing can help agencies “more effectively address underlying issues, change negative behavioral patterns, and allocate resources.”

Meister said the sheriff’s office already uses community policing, citing his visits to Gordon L. Wilson Elementary School in Baraboo and a sergeant’s visits to North Freedom Elementary School. Deputies also go on foot patrols and participate in community events, he said.

“What it does is it gives people someone to talk to,” Meister said. “It gives you that bridge between the public and the department.”

The two candidates have no plans to debate prior to the November election, but both said they would be willing to do so.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos or contact him at 608-745-3513.

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.