Sheriff Candidates Square of in Wyoming County
Only two of the four candidates for Wyoming County Sheriff participated in a forum sponsored by the Wyoming County Concerned Taxpayers Political Action Committee (PAC) on Tuesday evening and moderated by Vito Barziloski, Jr. The forum was held at the Lackawanna Trail High School Auditorium and also included a forum for four of the six candidates running for the Magisterial District Judge office in that part of the county.
Michelle Hillard of Meshoppen Borough and Jeff Helwig of Forkston Township, both Republicans, accepted the PAC’s invitation to the forum; Duane Marbaker (D) and Edward Sherman (R) did not. The candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves then the questions began.
Hillard told the audience of about 50 people that she had lived in Wyoming County for ten years and presently lives with her husband and son in Meshoppen Borough. She is active in the Meshoppen Fire Department and the EMS and works at present full-time in the Susquehanna County Sheriff’s Department as a Deputy Sheriff. Her father, she said, was a police officer and it was from him that she inherited her passion for that profession. She is a graduate of Lackawanna Community College and the PA Police Academy. Prior to her work as Deputy Sheriff in Susquehanna County, Hillard was a police officer in various area municipalities. She is trained for work with a canine unit and is on the District Attorney’s DUI Drug Task Force in Susquehanna County.
Helwig told the audience that “as Americans it is time to exercise our right and duty to vote,” and urged those present to vote for him. He cited his years as a Deputy Sheriff in Wyoming County and mentioned that he is now an instructor at the Police Academy. After quoting the Gettysburg Address, Helwig concluded that he would work “to do what’s best for all, and to make the community better and safer.” He said he would be a “servant of the people.”
The first question asked if each candidate had read the Constitution of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Helwig, first to answer in rotation, said yes to both articles and said he’d read them about a year ago. He said as an instructor in law enforcement, constitutional issues arose and he needed to know the answers.
Hillard also answered that she had read both, although she was unsure precisely when. She said as a Deputy Sheriff she did refer to both documents in her job, but also followed the regulations and rules of the sheriff’s office.
Question two asked each candidate why they wanted to be Wyoming County Sheriff and what they felt the most important duty of that position was.
Hillard answered that the most important duty of the sheriff was to serve the people and that was why she wished to do the job. She said the sheriff should carry out service to the people by ensuring that state and county laws are followed.
Helwig’s answer was not dissimilar. He too said the job’s most important duty was to serve the people. He added that he wanted to be sheriff in order to “get things for this community” and stressed the importance of teamwork.
The third question asked if the candidates thought there was a drug problem in Wyoming County and asked what each felt could be done to address the problem.
Helwig answered that there was a “huge” drug problem and said he had been campaigning door to door and seen about 100 people that day and everyone had talked about how drugs were ruining their children’s lives and the community. He said working with agencies and with people would make a difference and help curb the drug problem.
Hillard agreed that there was a drug problem in the county and said she had seen it firsthand when she worked in cooperation with Wyoming County law enforcement. She said she thought the county would benefit from obtaining a drug dog trained to locate contraband. She also urged the formation of a DUI and Drug Task Force in the county. Both of these initiatives, she said, were in place in Susquehanna County and had done much good in combating the drug problem. She also said she felt that education and communication were key in battling drug and alcohol addiction and said she felt Drug Treatment Court was a very good program to address the issue as well.
Question four asked each candidate how they would control costs and generate revenue.
Hillard said she would update the sheriff’s office. “There are enormous grants out there,” she said and spoke of how grants had been obtained in Susquehanna County to fund the Canine Drug Dog Program and to purchase the trained dog as well, for example. She said that by interacting and exchanging ideas with the community to identify needs, and by actively seeking grants to fund them, the Sheriff's Department could be modern, effective and of great service to the community.
Helwig answered that his first order of business would be to spend only what was necessary for things that would directly benefit the people of the county. He agreed that going after grants was key and he pledged to go after all the grants he could. He also mentioned that he would re-organize the prison budget, adding that he had gone through the current budget line by line and noted a lot of areas that could be cut or reorganized.
Question five asked specifically how the candidate would upgrade the Sheriff’s Department to meet the needs of the county.
Helwig began by saying that the commissioners needed to give him as many deputies as he needed to make the department work. He then said again that he had several ideas about restructuring the prison budget so that the money the county had could be used differently and, in his estimation, in a way which would better serve the community.
Hillard answered by once again referring to the grant opportunities available and saying that she would aggressively seek these grants out. She also said she would work with young people more, perhaps instituting programs that would involve them somehow in the department. She added that she would work with sheriffs from other counties in the commonwealth to restore police powers to the sheriff’s office. This, she said, would allow sheriffs and their deputies to patrol and gain revenue for the county, something they cannot do now.
Question six asked if the candidates thought Wyoming County needed a new jail.
Hillard answered that she knew the Wyoming County Jail well, having gone there frequently in the course of her job. She said she favored upgrading the jail so that it could handle the number and type of prisoners it received, but did not say she thought a new facility was warranted. “Crime is on the rise,” she said, but stressed that she wanted to keep Wyoming County prisoners in the county, and not board them out, which costs the county money.
Helwig agreed and said he felt no new jail was needed. He said that the cost of a new jail would be $50 million and the taxpayers would have to pay for it. He said a restructuring of the jail and better organization would be enough, as well as some institutional upgrades. He said the answer was not to build a bigger jail, but to keep crime down.
The last question asked if the sheriff had investigative authority, and if so, how the candidates would use this.
Helwig answered that no, not at this time did the sheriff have these powers. They have arrest powers and “can do traffic,” he said. Helwig said that Gov. Tom Corbett had told him personally that he would “fix” this situation and see that sheriffs got investigative powers returned to them.
Hillard’s answer was similar in that she agreed that the sheriff does not currently have investigative powers. However, she reiterated earlier statements of hers, which said she favored returning police powers to the office. “I will fight hard to get [those] powers back.” This would save the county money, she said, because then sheriffs and their deputies could act on the law, not just assist as they do now. “I want to make Wyoming County the way it used to be,” she said, adding that a House Bill to restore those powers to the sheriff was in Harrisburg now.
During the candidates’ final two minutes, Hillard reiterated her strong law enforcement experience and her family’s tradition of service through law enforcement. She said she was experienced through her full-time work with the Susquehanna County Sheriff’s Office as a Deputy Sheriff and concluded by saying that she looked forward to working with other law enforcement entities, the judicial system and the governing bodies in the county to serve its residents.
Helwig told the audience, “I will work for you as a public servant. I will never quit. I will do what’s best for you,” and urged them to vote for him next week.
Four of the six candidates for Magisterial District Judge in the eastern part of Wyoming County attended the forum on Tuesday. The office is the one previously held by Russell Shurtleff, who is now the county’s President Judge. Since his departure, the office has been vacant with duties handled by other judges on an as-needed basis.
David Plummer, Lisa Koval, Martin Reynolds and Roger Mattes attended; Mark Johnson and Brian Petula did not. After brief introductions by each candidate, moderator Vito Barziloski, Jr. began the questions.
The first asked about the candidates’ familiarity with both the U.S. and the PA Constitutions.
Reynolds answered that he had first read both documents when a student in high school—Lackawanna Trail. He said he had loved American History since he’d been a boy and was familiar with both constitutions.
Koval answered that she last read the articles when she was in the District Judge School’s month-long course in 2008. She said her background as a teacher also allowed her to interpret and understand these documents and told the audience they were the cornerstones of a judge’s job.
Plummer agreed that he'd last read these documents at District Judge School. He said both were very important to him, particularly the right to free speech and the right to bear arms.
Mattes noted that, of course, he was familiar with both documents since he is a practicing attorney. He said that the constitutions were important in daily life, although he thought few people actually realized this.
The second question asked why each candidate wanted to be the District Judge and what they felt was the most important duty of the judge.
Koval said she wanted to do the job, which is why she decided to become a candidate. “Instead of waiting on the sidelines to see who would run, I decided to,” she said. She told the audience that she was qualified and had what it took to do the job, adding that both her job as a teacher and her role as a mother drew her to the position. The most important duty was to keep the community safe. “I can bring to the office what the community deserves,” she said.
Plummer said he had been interested in the position for a long time, having been a candidate for the job 12 years before, and having lost to Shurtleff. He said the job was important because it gave one a chance to touch people in the community. He said it was also important to protect the community and its children.
Mattes commended Shurtleff and said that because he was an attorney, he thought he could bring the same knowledge of law and graceful and fair application of it to the job that Shurtleff had during his tenure.
Reynolds said he had always loved the application of law and dreamt as a boy of being able to work in that field. He said the District Judge could positively affect the community by steering offenders onto a better course and correcting their mistakes, thus bettering the community.
The third question asked how each candidate felt they could curb the drug problem in the county through their role as a District Judge.
Plummer said he didn’t feel the problem could be curbed but felt that addicts could be rehabilitated through programs like Drug Court. Mattes said that the “scourge of drugs and alcohol is devastating.” He cited 95 percent of the crimes in the area were somehow connected to drugs or alcohol.
Unlike Plummer, Mattes said he felt the addiction could be curbed through communication, education and programs like the Drug Treatment Court.
Reynolds said he felt education, as well as programs like Drug Court, were the way to begin to eliminate the drug problem.
Koval said as a parent and a teacher she was very concerned and felt that prevention was key. She said that she was used to being a positive role model and would continue to be one as a Judge. She also said that education and programs like Drug Court were key.
The next question asked how the candidates saw their role in a Common Pleas Civil Court Trial.
Mattes explained that the judicial system is a hierarchy and that the Magisterial Court was the lowest rung on that ladder. He called it “ground zero.” He explained that civil cases involving claims of less than $12,000 were tried in Magisterial Court.
Reynolds’s answer, in large part, reiterated Mattes’s response while Koval took her answer a bit further. She said she saw her role as listening to both sides in the case and basing her judgment on the facts and evidence presented. She said she would not play favorites but be fair.
Plummer’s response was similar, noting that he would hear both sides and make an informed decision.
The next question asked where the District Judge’s Office got its funding and asked how the candidates would save money. All of the candidates seemed to know that the county funds the court.
Reynolds said his experience in the family business—Brick's Market in Tunkhannock—would stand him in good stead when it came to keeping costs low. “No money will be misspent,” he said, and added that those who owed the county money would be made to pay.
Koval added that she found the current office efficient and didn’t plan any big changes. She also joked that she had a reputation as being ‘frugal.’ “My husband says I’m cheap,” she joked.
Plummer merely said he would keep an eye on the budget and cut any waste but that the office seemed to run well.
Mattes said that he had seen dozens of district judges’ offices in his years as a practicing attorney and felt the current office was running well.
The last question asked if each candidate was prepared to work full-time as a District Judge.
Koval said yes and that she would resign her teaching position if elected. She added that she was used to 60-hour weeks.
Plummer also said yes, adding that his son could run the family trucking business now leaving him free to be a full-time judge.
Mattes said he would be a full-time magistrate and a part-time attorney.
Reynolds also said that, of course, he would work full-time. Like Plummer, he said other family members could run the business and that he had always intended to be a full-time magistrate.
In their closing remarks, each candidate noted their strengths.
When Plummer cited the fact that only 27 percent of the 541 district judges were attorneys and deducted that the position is “not a job for an attorney,” Mattes responded by noting that although there were many good people running for the job, it took more than just a good person to be a good judge. He cited his extensive knowledge of the law and his 19 years at the bar, which enabled him, he said, to put that knowledge to work.
Reynolds told the audience that he entered the race because he had always wanted to do it to serve the community at a significant level.
Koval concluded the forum by noting that she had been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Police and reminding people that the Magisterial Judge system had been started as a way to bridge the gap between the community and the judicial system. “I fit that bill,” she said.