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Hjorth looks back on 36 years in position as retirement looms

January 3, 2019

MADISON — For the Madison County sheriff, coming into work every day is kind of like going to breakfast.

That’s how Vern Hjorth described his relationship with his staff, which is not something a lot of people can say.

“Even this morning when I came to work, I enjoyed coming in. You know, the whole 36 years as sheriff has been a highlight. Out there in the office, I have people that have worked here for a combination of over 100 years, and it’s been a kind of a family atmosphere, like just coming to breakfast,” Hjorth said.

Hjorth, who has spent the better part of his 47 years in law enforcement as sheriff, is retiring this month and handing the reins over to Todd Volk.

But before he goes, the outgoing sheriff had a few things to say about the “family” he’d be leaving at the office.

One of the main reasons Hjorth has had such a positive experience as sheriff is the support of his right-hand man, Chief Deputy Mike Prather, who has served Madison County for 38 years.

Both military veterans — Hjorth was in the Navy and Prather in the Army — the pair have a significant amount of public service to their credit. Prather has been at the sheriff’s office the entire time Hjorth has, plus two years, and he is retiring this year as well.

“Mike and I, we’ve encountered quite a lot of things. We certainly had some interesting happenings over the 36 years. We had the first ultra-light crash fatalities in the United States. We had a midair collision out here south and east of Norfolk, which was one of the first in the country,” Hjorth said.

The Madison County Sheriff’s Office was highly involved in the aftermath of the 2002 U.S. Bank murders in Norfolk.

“It happened that we had an investigator, Rich Drummond, that was just going by the bank about the time it happened. He provided a tremendous amount of testimony at the trials of all of those people. And then our deputy, Jon Downey, he did a lot of IT work for the video and audio that went to the courts,” Hjorth said.

The sheriff’s office also serves as the county coroner in a lot of cases, Hjorth said, and that responsibility alone can take quite a toll.

“I think after you see a few hundred of those, it has an impact on your life. I think that probably affects all of the people in law enforcement. Mike and I have seen some really (difficult) things, things that you’re bound to have in your memory,” Hjorth said.

That’s not to say Hjorth has had a difficult time as sheriff. Hjorth said he doesn’t consider his job stressful.

“I really have not had that issue, and I’ve been able to cope without too much stress. I think people that enjoy their jobs don’t have much stress,” he said.

Part of that is due to having little controversy during his tenure, Hjorth said.

“Somebody who sits in an office for a very long time can be subject to criticism. There has been some, but nothing has been really dramatic. Having the opportunity to have an office with the staff we have that makes it run so smoothly for so long is something that I really consider myself fortunate,” Hjorth said.

Prather said the community at large has been very supportive of the sheriff’s office, which has been a huge benefit.

“The overall cooperation that we’ve had with folks from other agencies — and citizens —has been tremendous, along with the support from the community we serve,” Prather said.

Technology, especially in relation to communication, has helped to foster some of those working relationships, Prather said.

Hjorth said one of the biggest changes he’s seen during his tenure has been the increases at the jail and within the budget.

“When I came into office, we had a jail with 32 beds and an average daily population of about 13 people in jail. Now we have 122 beds and an average population of around 90-100 people a day,” Hjorth said.

The annual budget for the jail was about $200,000 when Hjorth first started but is now $1.9 million, he said. And the office budget increased from around $220,000 to around $1.6 million today.

“Everything has grown so much that it’s just hard to believe. But all the years I’ve been here, I’ve had a good working relationship with every county board member. It’s been incredible, and I’m really happy about that,” Hjorth said.

He’s also confident that Volk, a current deputy, will do an excellent job as the new sheriff.

“I think the office is a little bit more comfortable with the sheriff-elect than they would have been with somebody from the outside. I don’t have any concerns about the office at all. After holding the office for such a long time, I would be worried for some people, but with Volk, that’s just not the case.”

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