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Sheriff debate held: Cross, Hodapp answer questions at forum

Bill Cross, left, and Phil Hodapp, right, answer questions from moderators Brad Swenson and John Parsons in a Tuesday evening debate between the two candidates for Beltrami County sheriff. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

The two Beltrami County sheriff candidates faced off in their final debate of the election season Tuesday night.

Challenger Bill Cross and incumbent Phil Hodapp drew a crowd of about 40 people to Bemidji City Hall for the debate sponsored by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate.

The 90-minute debate featured 29 questions from the audience.

The two continued to debate the differences between two radio systems.

Cross favors the use of an 800 megahertz system while Hodapp plans to implement a VHF system.

The 800 MHz system - called ARMER: Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response - is used throughout two-thirds of the state and is already used by state agencies, Cross said.

"The system, ARMER, is the most widely used and is going to be the most widely used in Minnesota," he said.

Hodapp, though, said 14 counties in northwest Minnesota have examined the issue for three years and have supported a VHF system due the cost of 800 MHz.

Beltrami County would face a cost of $3.6 million, according to the latest report, he said, which doesn't include $1.6 million that would be required for extra towers.

"We haven't been working in a black hole on this," Hodapp said. "We can't afford it."

Cross said the federal grants available greatly decrease the cost of the system. In Wadena County, where he serves as chief deputy, he said the county paid $10,000 to implement the 800 MHz system.

Further, Cross said, the benefit of switching to 800 MHz is that state agencies, such as the Minnesota State Patrol, and two-thirds of Minnesota counties are already using the system.

Counties on a VHF system will need a "patch" to communicate with those on 800 MHz, he said, noting that it would be like using a cell phone to call a land line in a home.

"You would have to have an operator in between to complete that call," he said.

Hodapp said the 14 northwestern counties have agreed to remain on VHF due to the cost of the 800 MHz system.

"Taxpayers can't afford to spend millions of dollars just to be able to talk to each other on the radio," he said, noting that the VHF system will allow for communication between all agencies.

In other areas, both men detailed their law enforcement histories.

Hodapp served 21 years with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, nine years in Texas with a city force as a state trooper/investigator.

Cross served 33 years with the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, having served in every position other than sheriff. He started in 1971 in water patrol and progressed upward, he said.

They were also asked a couple of times about their views on drunken or impaired drivers.

One question was: Shouldn't impaired drivers be given a "fair chance" to navigate their way home from the bars?

"I don't think so," Hodapp said, to a smattering of laughter.

He said his deputies are trained to protect lives immediately by stopping impaired drivers. They are trained based on guidelines that study the probability that a driver might be impaired based on driving behaviors.

Cross agreed that impaired drivers must be stopped because they can kill or injure other drivers on the road ways.

"This is what we do to protect you," he said. "It's part of that oath."

Racial profiling again was discussed as well.

Hodapp said that the Sheriff's Office had 72,000 contacts with the public in the last four years and 68 complaints have been received, of which 12 were internal. Of the remaining 56 complaints, just five had racial implications.

Cross said he has heard the complaint repeatedly that the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office has profiled people.

He noted that Wadena County has not received any racial complaints.

Related to that issue was discussion about the cameras that are in squad cars. The question-writer (questions were submitted anonymously) said he or she believed the cameras were turned on by hand, so they could be manipulated to hide racial profiling.

Hodapp said that was true with the old style of cameras, which were VHS systems. But now with the digital system, they are programmed to come on instantly when emergency equipment is activated.

"It's a great system to be able to protect the public," he said.

Cross said in Wadena County, their cameras immediately turn or when the red lights are activated.

Some questions were obviously posed from supporters of one candidate or another.

For instance, they were asked whether they had ever been accused of sexual harassment. Hodapp said no and Cross said yes, about 15 years ago, he had been, but the complaint was overturned.

They also were asked whether they had relatives employed with their departments and how they handle disciplinary action, if needed. Cross does not, but Hodapp's son, Jake Hodapp, is a deputy with the department. Hodapp said he and the county administrator discussed the issue before he took office. There now is a plan in place where the chief deputy handles any potential investigations involving Jake Hodapp. Those investigations would then be turned over to the county administrators.

Twenty-nine questions were asked during the debate itself; more than 30 questions were not asked. The moderators, Brad Swenson and John Parsons, read the questions at the end, but candidates did not have to address them.