The two men competing to be Lewis and Clark County’s sheriff-coroner faced off Tuesday night at a candidate forum in Helena.
Incumbent Sheriff Leo Dutton, a Democrat, and Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson, a Republican, met for the event, sponsored by the Helena Independent Record. About 100 people were in the audience.
Dutton pointed to his ten years of experience as sheriff and his office’s work on dealing with issues like mental health and domestic violence. He said, if reelected, he wants to prioritize both responding to crime and diverting people who don’t need to be in jail.
“I spend every waking moment, sometimes at night, thinking about how we can improve, because ‘Safety, service and trust,’ is not just a saying: It’s what we live by,” he said.
Nelson said he believes the office needs a different kind of leadership, from the top down. He said more steps need to be taken to address crime around Lewis and Clark County. He wants to improve cooperation between the sheriff’s office and other agencies.
“We have to think outside of the box,” he said. “The crime rate keeps going up. At some point, we as citizens have got to look at that and say, ‘Something has to change.’”
The candidates also debated over the voter-approved plan to turn the entire county Law Enforcement Center into an expanded jail. County voters passed a bond to pay for the renovation in 2016, then an operations levy to run the facility in 2017. As part of the project, city and county leaders plan to move the Helena Police Department and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s offices to a building on Fuller Avenue.
Nelson said he’s concerned about why, almost a year after the levy was approved, no work on remodeling the jail has begun. He also questioned whether the project will be completed at the price voters were told. He argued there hasn’t been enough transparency around the planning process.
“When I’m elected in November, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out what we’re going to do, but it’s probably first going to be starting with a feasibility study to see if the jail can even be built there,” said Nelson. “If it can, then we’ve really got to get moving so that we can expand the jail – which is what the citizens wanted – and we can keep it to budget, and we can move forward.”
Dutton said the city and county have already taken tangible steps to move forward with the jail project, like interviewing contractors. He said it’s more important to move carefully and make sure the work is done right.
“It’ll take about 14 months,” he said. “We’ve assembled a great team – I’m telling you, they’re top-notch. No, it doesn’t mean move at the speed of light, but it does move, and it moves efficiently, and it moves at the pace that we can afford.”
This is the first election since the Lewis and Clark County Commission voted to consolidate the county sheriff and coroner’s offices. The winner will take over the combined position on Jan. 1, 2019.
Dutton said he and three of his deputies have already trained as deputy coroners, so that they will be able to assist with the growing number of calls the coroner has to make. He said they will work to maintain a separation between their work as law enforcement officers and as coroners, so they can serve families as they need.
Nelson, whose father Mickey Nelson served as Lewis and Clark County coroner for 42 years, said he was still concerned that deputies trained as coroners couldn’t provide the comfort and personal attention to a grieving family that a dedicated coroner could.
Absentee ballots will be mailed to voters in Lewis and Clark County on Oct. 12.
-Reporting by Jonathon Ambarian