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Hubbard County leaders at odds over sheriff

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PARK RAPIDS - Hubbard County will start its search for a new sheriff internally, but it could be a contentious process, for both the county board and the Sheriff's Department.

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Commissioners voted Wednesday to seek applicants from interested Hubbard County deputies, then publicly interview candidates at the next board meeting April 15, beginning at 2 p.m.

But whether the board will appointment Sheriff Gary Mills' replacement from the pool of applicants is an unknown question, as the commissioners seem deeply divided on the likely candidates.

"We want to do this with the least amount of disruption to the department," commission chair Lyle Robinson said.

"There's already two camps (interested in the job) so it's already disruptive," county coordinator Jack Paul responded.

One camp involves Chief Deputy Frank Homer, who has been filling in for the ailing Mills all year. Mills will be undergoing a second hip replacement surgery next week and has been sidelined and in a wheelchair much of the winter.

He will retire at the end of April and the board would like a new sheriff appointed effective May 1.

Commissioner Dick Devine wants Homer appointed to the post.

"To me it would be ludicrous to go down, grab a deputy and make him sheriff," Devine said in reference to suggestions to open up the application process. "We've got a chief deputy doing the job. Let the election decide who'll be sheriff" in 18 months.

Commissioner Cal Johannsen is just as adamant that others be included in the application process.

Johannsen isn't backing a particular candidate, but believes out of fairness, interested deputies should appear before the board and sell commissioners on their attributes.

Many backers have suggested Sgt. Cory Aukes should be appointed. Aukes has indicated he will run for the office in 2010. It is also anticipated that Homer will run.

Johannsen is a former chief deputy and unsuccessful candidate for sheriff two elections ago, when he lost to Mills. He's been retired for six years. He said he's been approached to step back into the department, but loves being a commissioner and doesn't want the job.

But he said he knows of other retired law enforcement officers who might take the job on a temporary basis if the commission can't agree on an appointment.

Johannsen and the other board members are worried that appointing within the department could give the successful applicant "the kiss of death" because voters may be unhappy with the commissioners' selection in the election and oust the person appointed. It could also cause a rift within the department, they agreed. Johannsen said retired Hubbard County Sheriff Larry Johnson is not interested in the post.

But Robinson said regardless of commission differences over who to appoint, "we have to have a plan."

He said the commissioners didn't have to feel obligated to appoint from the roster of internal candidates.

"Only a fool will change his mind and only a damned fool won't," Robinson said. "We could get half a dozen qualified applicants."

"I'm reluctant to appoint somebody who can't get elected and be out on the street in 18 months," Johannsen said. "They could get beat just because we appointed them."

"You shouldn't appoint someone without half a chance at winning," Robinson replied.

"You know how I feel," Devine said, declining to discuss the matter further.

Commissioner Don Carlson worried about "a personality contest" pitting one deputy against another.

The commissioners also were divided as to whether they will pay the new sheriff Mills' salary of $84,575. Some want to cut it by as much as $6,000, the amount the board added to the salary base several years ago to settle a lawsuit Mills filed against the county.

"It should be the same no matter who does it," Robinson said.

And divided as the commission is over an appointment, they are unanimous in their belief that the 2010 sheriff's race will be a spirited, and possibly nasty one.

They also agreed that Paul's office will take all written applications and resumes, to prevent them from public viewing and media scrutiny.

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