Incumbent, challenger in Olmsted County attorney race exchange views

September 30, 2018
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Mark Ostrem

Both candidates seeking to lead the Olmsted County Attorney’s office in 2019 point to their experience.

For the incumbent, it’s 12 years of experience as the county’s top attorney.

“I know where this community needs to grow, and I know and work closely with the community partners that will help this community grow safely,” County Attorney Mark Ostrem said during a candidate forum Thursday, held by the Olmsted County Bar Association.

For his challenger, Geoff Hjerleid, it’s his 22 years in the office, where he currently serves as lead attorney in the criminal division.

“The one difference that I bring to the table is that I’ve done the work,” he said, noting he’s done a variety of civil and criminal work for the county.

Citing need for a wider range of training and communication among the attorneys working for the county, Hjerleid said his approach to managing the office and its duties would be more collaborative than the current seat holder.

“The Olmsted County Attorney’s office is not about one person,” he said “It is a public institution charged with promoting public safety and ensuring our quality of life. It is our public office.”

Ostrem, however, frequently pointed to the office’s efforts to collaborate with various agencies, from law enforcement to social service agencies, to ensure the needs of county residents are served in the most effective manner possible.

“Collaborations are some of the things I’ve done best,” he said, pointing to work with the child advocacy center, victims’ services and Rochester Public Schools. “Those are the collaborations that make us work; those are the collaborations that keep us safe.”

Drug court

The candidates drew distinctions in their approaches to the office, but perhaps the largest policy difference cited revolved around the drug court established two years ago.

As currently operated, the voluntary program targets people charged with or convicted of a felony-level drug offense, who have been determined to be “high-risk” by case-management standards.

Asked whether they would expand the focus of the program beyond “high-risk” offenders, the county attorney candidates clearly split.

Hjerleid said expanding the program could address problems before offenders reach the “high-risk” status.

“We are waiting until someone is on the verge of prison before we intervene in a more systematic way,” he said, noting low-level offenders are dealt with daily, which puts a strain on the current system.

While the expansion would take added resources, he said models exist to operate more efficiently with low-level offenders.

“We need to get those people addressed very quickly, get them into a program very quickly to address their chemical dependency and then get them on the rehabilitative process,” he said.

Ostrem said he wouldn’t expand the existing program, noting that doing so would create intense supervision for people who don’t need it.

“The drug court is designed for those high-risk, high-need offenders whose complete adult, and sometimes juvenile, lives have been consumed by drugs and other chemicals,” he said, noting that history has led to added criminal behaviors.

“When they have reached that point, where they are that high risk, that high need, that they need to go off to prison, we stop and say, ‘Let’s give them one last chance,’” he said, noting the process calls for participants to completely change their lives, which may not be appropriate for social drug users, who help populate the low-level offenders seen in the court system.

Priorities and plans

In closing remarks, the candidates listed their priorities, as well as plans for the future of the office.

In addition to a focus on low-level drug offenders, Hjerleid listed domestic violence and response to sexual assault.

“We can’t focus on those critical public safety concerns as it’s going now,” he said. “We need to change.”

Ostrem said he’s been an open book during his 12 years in office, citing his push for a drug court, as well as work toward a veterans court and ways to address mental health concerns in the community.

“My opponent says he’s going to make a change, but he’s not telling you what he’s going to do,” he said. “I have policies.”

Ostrem and Hjerleid will also face questions at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 during the League of Women Voters’ candidate forums.

The election is Nov. 6.

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