Summit County Sheriff candidates square off at election forum
Opponents in the Summit County Sheriff’s race clashed head-to-head at the Summit Daily News’ election forum at the Summit County Community and Senior Center on Wednesday evening. Incumbent Jaime FitzSimons and challenger Derek Woodman faced off in front of a rowdy crowd of hundreds, debating mental health, staffing and their plans for office if elected.
In their opening statements, each listed a series of accolades from their time with the sheriff’s office and outlined their priorities for the job. Derek Woodman was the first to speak, reflecting on his 35 years with the sheriff’s office, including almost 22 years spent as undersheriff. He spoke about his participation in the amplification of regular mental health counseling for inmates more than a decade ago, his mandate that supervisors in the office become certified in crisis intervention and the creation of the school resource officer program.
“Many of the programs already in place I created or implemented,” said Woodman. “Apparently those programs are valuable assets to the community because they still exist today.”
In his counter, FitzSimons asserted that he had fulfilled his promise to “work tirelessly on the important issues facing our community” that he made prior to the last election. He cited his work to help bring the Treetop Child Advocacy Center to Breckenridge, the expansion of the household medication take back program, the resurgence of the Explorer program and the development of an acute treatment unit for mental health, among others.
“Through effective leadership, accountability and teamwork I’ll continue to grow upon the work I’ve already done to improve the quality of life by seeking new and better ways to serve,” said FitzSimons.
As the debate continued, the most important issues facing the sheriff’s office quickly rose to the surface. Both candidates agreed that the mental health of the people deputies come into contact with, along with the mental health of those incarcerated, was among their chief concerns.
Sheriff FitzSimons noted a number of steps he’s taken to address the mental health issues, such as requiring deputies to be trained in crisis intervention training, and voiced a strong desire to keep mentally ill individuals out of jail through programs similar to Summit County’s drug court. He also noted his desire to bring in a mental health “navigator” to the jail to help inmates with mental health issues find insurance, doctors and generally reintegrate back into the community.
Woodman reciprocated FitzSimons’ remarks on mental health for the most part, applauding the crisis stabilization unit and discussing the need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“This is a real situation that is not going to go away, but certainly can be helped,” said Woodman. “We see individuals with mental illness self-medicating. Whether it be prescription drugs or illicit substances. This happens every day right here in our community.”
Woodman continued to say that the county is in need of coordinated drug enforcement and promised to re-establish a drug task force if elected.
But the agreements largely ended with mental health. FitzSimons brought up the issue of a rapidly increasing call volume to the office, saying that the year-to-date volume is as much as 18 percent higher than previous years, with the same amount of resources to handle them. Meanwhile Woodman went on the attack, claiming unusually high staff turnover numbers over the last two years and blaming FitzSimons’ managerial style.
“Several individuals have left purely because of the current administration,” said Woodman. “I feel that to retain employees we must empower them. We must be compassionate and create an environment they want to be a part of. You cannot run an organization like a dictatorship.”
Video: Watch the full election forum here. Story continues under video.
This became a major talking point for Woodman throughout the debate, asserting that he could bring a “calming influence” to the office, cut down on turnover and create a more efficient law enforcement environment.
FitzSimons fired back, asking residents to look back on his record during his time in office of working with the public and his deputies to raise the level of professionalism and conduct in his office above past administrations.
“I stand by my record over the past 29 months of being engaged and having a seat at the table on these important issues that are facing our community,” said FitzSimons. “I placed a qualified leadership team in place, and together we employ a team that’s hard working and provides high quality public service to all of you. I’ve implemented policies that have set the expectation of quality and conduct previously absent.”
Perhaps the liveliest moment in the debate was when the candidates were asked to share their opponent’s greatest weaknesses. Neither candidate held back.
“In my opinion, Derek Woodman’s weakness is his lack of motivation, lack of integrity and lack of vision,” said FitzSimons, questioning Woodman’s motives in the race. “Most in public service have a servant’s heart, while some have a self-serving motivation.”
Woodman rebuked: “For (FitzSimons) this is a part-time job in which he lacks honesty, integrity and commitment to our community.”
The debate went a long way in identifying the issues important to each candidate, and though the debate will rage on in the coming weeks, the final decision of who will have the honor of being Summit County’s ranking law enforcement officer will be left to voters on Nov. 6. The Summit Daily News will continue coverage of the race, including in-depth profiles of the candidates and their policies ahead of Election Day.
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