Oneida County Sheriff election: The breakdown
Primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 14
BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
Four candidates for the office of Oneida County Sheriff gathered for a WXPR forum last week to elaborate on their platforms and the issues they believe are facing the sheriff’s office. The three candidates who will face off in the Republican primary also sat down for interviews with the Star Journal to provide additional insight into their platforms and goals for the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office.
Incumbent Sheriff Grady Hartman has led the department since his early 2013 appointment by Gov. Scott Walker and a nearly unopposed election win in 2014. Larry Mathein, also on the Republican ticket, is currently the medical examiner for Oneida and Vilas counties, and is a former business owner, pastor and fire chief. The final Republican candidate, Greg Gardner, has served with the OCSO for 24 years and is currently the school resource officer. Finally, Tom Wakely will represent the Constitutional Party on the ballot.
OCSO work culture
While Mathein acknowledged most sheriffs have law enforcement experience, he said he believed that experience could actually be a detriment. “To come and make any significant change is virtually impossible, because that wheel’s already rolling.” By coming from the outside, Mathein maintains that he has not been indoctrinated in the culture and can bring the change he believes is needed at the OCSO.
Gardner pointed out specific practices he wants to see changed within the department, and wants to broaden the ways in which deputies are evaluated. He cited an OCSO practice of posting monthly statistics within the department of the number of tickets that each officer writes as an example of an evaluation metric he disagreed with.
“There’s nothing posted on how many papers they served, how many crimes they solved, how many complaints they took,” he said. “They don’t take into account that they might be a trainer and are working on that stuff…deputies know that the way to get ahead in this department is to write a lot of tickets, not to solve property crimes.”
“I think the workplace atmosphere at the sheriff’s office is a good one,” Hartman noted. “I think the vast majority of people are happy, and I think they have confidence in me and my administrative team.” Hartman, during his time as sheriff, changed the way deputies were hired in order to allow the OCSO to have “the first crack” at candidates they previously would not have access to, due to the way the Civil Service Commission had organized the hiring process.
Gardner wants to bring mental healthcare directly to the jail facilities. “The opioid problem is a local problem that the state has passed on,” he said. He wants to work with the Human Service Center to bring professionals into the jail on a regular weekly basis to work with the inmates; a program he says has been utilized in other counties around the state.
Hartman currently sits on a joint committee that is discussing various alternatives to addressing the drug issue, including finding a special prosecutor dedicated to opioid cases in Vilas, Oneida, and Iron Counties. “If we can stop the dealers, cut the supply off, that’s potentially saving future users, victims of those drugs,” Hartman noted.
“I believe this problem goes up to the federal government,” Wakely said at the forum. “Does anybody really believe there is no way they can stop opioids from coming into our country? Somebody’s making some big money.”
Mathein noted that he believes the public isn’t fully aware of the depth of the issue, and that the need is to be more public about how close to home the issue can be. “Healthcare on its own is a tough thing to handle,” he concluded.
Candidate partisan issues
All four candidates contributed ideas toward the enhancement of security in local schools. Hartman described a future moving towards threat assessments as an offering to the community. Gardner, currently the school liaison officer, believes that school districts themselves need to be more proactive about increasing safety in day-to-day measures. Mathein referred to a “collaborative effort for community safety,” while Wakely cited the theory of utilizing volunteer retired veterans to protect schools.
Although the county sheriff election is a partisan race, Gardner and Mathein were united in their view of the sheriff’s role being largely non-partisan. While both acknowledged their “leanings” toward Republican political positions, Hartman cited a lengthy list of Republican endorsements as support for the political component of his campaign.
“I’m running for sheriff because I think one of the biggest issues that I see is that our sheriff’s department has lost contact with the community,” Mathein explained. He believes the current administration has developed an “us against them” attitude, which has resulted in soured relationships with other agencies and a lack of overall organization.
Gardner also indicated that Hartman has displayed a lack of respect for other agencies, and believes he has a better relationship with other offices. “I don’t think he has a respect for other police departments, police chiefs, social service agencies. I’ve heard him say these things.”
Hartman, however, has maintained in interviews and across his campaign’s social media that the sheriff’s office atmosphere is a positive one. “Due to their lack of qualifications, my opponents have chosen to run a negative campaign. They are insinuating there are problems and low morale at the Sheriff’s Office by using the political standby words of ‘transparency,’ and ‘integrity’ but they have nothing of substance to offer.”
Mathein describes the sheriff’s position as primarily administrative; Hartman and Gardner were in agreement that a sheriff needed qualifications and hands-on experience to do the job well and retain the trust of the deputies. When Walker appointed Hartman, “he did not look in the medical examiner’s office for a replacement for sheriff,” Gardner observed.
“The sheriff is not the guy that’s out on the street writing tickets and busting heads,” Mathein said. “The sheriff is primarily an administrative position. It’s for budgeting, it’s for making sure the manpower is in the right places.”
“When I hear him say things like… ‘he’s just an administrator,’ …that scares me, as an employee. I think it would scare other deputies too,” Gardner explained in an interview. He used the example of incidents in which a sheriff has to make a judgment call on a deputy’s use of force, a scenario in which training and experience are crucial.
“Contrary to my opponent’s opinion, it takes more than management skills to be the sheriff,” Hartman wrote on Facebook Monday. “As the sheriff, I make determinations about use of force issues, write citations, work community events (like Country Fest) and I have made arrests while doing so. My presence as a law enforcement officer at events and meetings has ended issues before they arise. If Larry Mathein is elected sheriff he would not be able to carry a gun as the sheriff, he would not be able to make an arrest, he would not be able to write a citation or do any of the other duties a deputy sheriff does.”
The Wisconsin partisan primary will take place Tuesday, Aug.14. Other primary races on the ballot include Wisconsin Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, and State Assembly. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find out where to vote and who will be on the ballot, visit myvotewi.gov.