Incumbent Williams County Commissioner Lew Hilkert and challengers Heather Freese and Jennifer King made their cases for why they are the best choice for commissioner on Nov. 3 in a candidate forum Thursday.
The forum took place in the Bryan Board of Public Affairs meeting room in the Bryan Municipal Utilities office at 841 E. Edgerton St., Bryan, where attendance was restricted due to COVID-19. It featured a testy exchange between King and Hilkert over commissioners’ responsiveness and transparency that included comments by Freese.
The exchange came when King, of Bryan, charged that the commissioners have “repeatedly” denied her an opportunity to discuss her issues with them and have not allowed her on their meeting agenda so that she can address them in open session about ongoing issues she has with the county Job & Family Services office.
King, a non-party-affiliated independent candidate, also pointedly charged that Hilkert, a Republican from West Unity, has not returned multiple phone calls and that she has phone records as proof. Hilkert strongly denied the charge, maintaining King has never left him a message and that if she had, he would have returned the message.
“If you called me, you never left a message, (so) how can I respond to you,” Hilkert said, adding that during an informal meeting, King had “stormed out of the office” while telling Hilkert, ‘I have some issues and if you want to hear about them, you call me.’
“If you have some issues, you talk to me,” Hilkert replied.
During the forum, King said if elected she would propose a resolution to improve access to commissioner meetings.
Freese, a Montpelier Democrat who served as director of the Williams County Elections Office from early 2017 until she resigned to go into private business in mid-2018, said she also felt passionate about the issue of transparency in the commissioners office because of her experiences at the elections office.
Freese said that during her term in the elections office, an elections board member told her that he would meet with “(an unnamed) commissioner to discuss what the board had talked about in an open meeting prior to it going to a public meeting space,” Freese said.
“That may not be you,” she said, pointing at Hilkert, “but it is one of you three (commissioners).”
“It’s important that if we’re discussing items with our board members ... that it continues up the chain in that same manner,” Freese said. She emphasized Friday that she is not inferring any illegality, but only pointing out that public officials, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, should only discuss official business in official open meetings.
Hilkert noted he was not the commissioner to whom she referred, and during his closing statements noted that neither King nor Freese have attended a commissioner meeting since they qualified for the ballot.
“So my question is, how can you claim there’s a lack a transparency when you haven’t heard the discussions and conversations held by the board ...” Hilkert said, adding that commissioners have maintained transparency and that “all decisions we make are made in open session as required by law,” and that all meetings are transcribed and the minutes are posted on the county website for public viewing.
Hilkert has served 13 years as commissioner and also touted his leadership skills and more than 50 years of experience in banking and retail management as qualifications to serve on the board of commissioners, which he said establishes policies, creates and works with balanced budgets and makes appropriations.
“I feel I have a lot of experience, especially in this time of uncertainty with the coronavirus going on. Not knowing where the finances of this county will go in to the future, it’s very, very important to keep experience in the county commission office to guide this county and keep it solid ... I have a passion to keep this county (financially) solvent,” Hilkert said.
As examples, Hilkert cited his experience in dealing with the 2007 recession and with this year’s budget pressures caused by the business slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the commission has made tough decisions to shave $1.4 million from county’s $16 million general fund budget so far this year to meet anticipated reduced revenues.
“I love this county ... I have the experience and a proven leadership record,” he said.
Freese, who works in private business, volunteers on the United Way of Williams County Finance Committee and is pursuing graduate study in business, said her goal in running for commissioner “is to create a safe and healthy community.”
Freeze said she believes she would make an effective commissioner with her two fellow Republican commissioners as during her time as director of the Williams County elections office from early 2017 to summer 2018, she was able to successfully work with the Republican deputy director to find “a common goal ... and the perfect solution,” she said.
Freese also advocates for additional transparency from the board of commissioners, saying she would like to bring commissioner meetings “back to the public space where they belong ... it just promotes democracy.”
“It’s become clear to me a small group of individuals have made decisions in this county and I’m hoping we can make that effort a group effort instead of just that small group,” Freese said.
She acknowledged she has not attended commissioner meetings either in person or via Zoom in the past six months but said she has read and taken notes on commissioner meeting minutes, and read information on the County Commissioner Association of Ohio website and from the county commissioner handbook.
She said if elected, she would use the handbook as a guide, and that the handbook states that “the most important attribute of a county commissioner is the ability to lead, to listen to the needs of the citizens and other elected officials, to compromise and to develop a consensus on priority issues to improve the county.”
King said she feels the people of Williams County “are going unheard” by the current board of commissioners and called herself a “no-nonsense independent candidate.” She said her fiscal experience derives from her involvement with her family’s locally based business and real estate interests, and promised to advocate and “stand up for the rights of families in this community.”
She called herself a “team player” and “a tenacious force for good, someone who will not be bullied, intimidated or controlled.” She noted while she does not need the job, “... I am confident the county needs me, or someone like me.”
“We need to keep a fresh perspective. The current (commissioners) may have experience, but their ears are not listening ... I feel everyone deserves someone who will fight for them. I desire to be a voice for the people, not a puppet for a political party. I am determined to right the wrongs that have been served unjustly.
“Electing me will serve an eviction notice to the ‘Good Ol’ Boys Club’ of Williams County,” King said.
Several changes from past election forums that were open to the public were in effect for the event due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions imposed at the state level to limit indoor gatherings to 10 people, according to Dan Yahraus, executive director of the Bryan Area Chamber of Commerce, which produced the event.
The forum took place in the Bryan Board of Public Affairs meeting room and attendance was restricted to the five candidates, a moderator, a timekeeper, the executive directors of the Bryan and Montpelier chambers and a reporter from The Bryan Times.
Josh Torres, who served as moderator, is now a Maumee-based small business owner and entrepreneur. He served as a chamber of commerce director for 17 years in the greater Toledo area.
Yahraus said due to the 10-person restriction, the chamber was not able to extend an invitation to the two candidates in the race for Ohio House District 81 — incumbent Republican State Rep. Jim Hoops and challenger Janet Breneman, a write-in candidate.
The video of the candidates forum for both the commissioner and the sheriff races is available on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/We-ZQc7f6mc.
Thin Blue Lines painted on roadways have popped up in several communities in Williams County to show support for local police. But what about the legal lines separating law enforcement from partisan political activity?
In response to questions this past week about the legality of whether police officers are allowed to attend an event Saturday that the organizer is billing as a “Cops for Trump” rally, The Bryan Times found the answer is generally yes, as long as they are not in uniform — with one notable exception.
The actual line between restrictions and liberties starts with the concept of the use of official authority, contained within the federal Hatch Act, according to Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Office of Special Counsel’s Hatch Act Unit in Washington, D.C.
The Hatch Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to prevent the use of federal funds to intimidate or bribe voters: In summary, it states anyone who receives federal funding, whether by paid salary or grant administration (for example public safety initiatives, body armor and vehicles purchased through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act), “May not use official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the results of an election or a nomination for office.” It also states these same people, “May actively campaign for candidates for public office in partisan and nonpartisan elections, contribute money to political organizations or attend political fundraising functions and participate in any activity not specifically prohibited by law or regulation.”
As for the legality of Saturday’s event, “It’s a tough question since not all state and local employees are covered by the Hatch Act,” Galindo-Marrone said in a phone interview with The Times Thursday afternoon. “For those individuals covered (by the Hatch Act), certain things could be a problem. If this is a rally to show support for the Trump candidacy, anyone covered (by the Hatch Act) should not be wearing the uniform, badges or insignia. Nor should agency vehicles be used to attend any campaign rally.”
The more difficult question, she said, is whether “Cops for Trump” constitutes use of official authority.
“If it’s just ‘Cops for Trump,’ that’s a pretty generic term, like ‘Vets for Trump’ and ‘Vets for Biden,’ so I don’t think it falls under use of official authority,” she said. “It’s not like anybody’s saying ‘I’m Sergeant so-and-so from such-and-such police department and I support Trump.”
County sheriffs are one exception, though.
“Sheriffs, for the most part, hold elected positions, like governors and mayors,” she said. “If they are covered by the Hatch Act, the rules are different when it comes to use of official authority. If they’re running for election it makes no sense to prohibit that title. They have some freedom and flexibility with the use of title and uniforms that other officers don’t have. What they can’t do is coercive solicitation and order or direct subordinates to attend.”
If political views are based on personal beliefs and government employees want to attend a political event on their own time, nothing should stop them, according to former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When the Hatch Act was challenged in 1973, Douglas (who was appointed by Roosevelt) argued that, “It is no concern of government what an employee does in his or her spare time, whether religion, recreation, social work or politics is his hobby, unless what he or she does impairs efficiency or other facets of the merits of his job.”
The Times also contacted Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office by phone and email multiple times earlier this week but as of late Friday, has received no response.
The rally begins with a lineup at 1 p.m. today on the racetrack infield at the Williams County Fairgrounds, 619 E. Main St., Montpelier. Organizer Dylan Woods, of Montpelier, told The Times last week that there will be two routes from Bryan to Montpelier and the rally will take about an hour and 10 minutes.
Woods invited cars, trucks, motorcycles or RVs and “anything roadworthy at 40 miles per hour. And bring your blue line flags.”
After the ride, at 4 p.m., there will be a “Back The Blue” rally in the Gillette Building on the fairgrounds with guest speakers advertised, including Sheriff (Richard K.) Jones from Butler County and Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague. Masks are required for that event.
Contacted Friday, Woods declined to comment.
The Williams County Health Department has reported a fourth death from COVID-19.
A woman in her 60s was the latest victim of the virus, Williams County Health Commissioner Jim Watkins confirmed late Thursday. No other identifying information was made available.
“Anytime someone passes it’s tragic, it’s unfortunate,” Watkins said. However, he added, “If you look at the counties around us, so far those numbers of deaths they’ve experienced is not what we’ve seen (in Williams County).”
As of Friday afternoon, Williams County reported 292 confirmed and probable cases and four deaths.
Henry County reported 426 cases and 17 deaths, Defiance County 425 cases and 13 deaths, Paulding County 172 cases and one death, Fulton County 451 cases and four deaths and Putnam County 821 cases and 27 deaths.
In northwest Ohio, Putnam, Lucas and Mercer counties are among 29 counties in the Level 3/Red category in the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, which tracks the degree of the virus’ spread in each county based on seven key indicators, including new cases per capita, sustained increase in new cases, sustained increase in new COVID hospital admissions and intensive care unit bed occupancy numbers.
Williams, Henry, Defiance, Fulton and Paulding counties are all in the Level 2/Orange category, which indicates between 50 and 100 cases per 100,000 people.
Williams County on Thursday was at 96 cases per 100,000 population, but as of late Friday is now at 122 cases per capita (100,000 population), putting it at a “high incidence” rate (more than 100 cases per 100,000 population)
As of late Friday, Ohio reports 177,991 confirmed and probable cases and 5,054 deaths statewide.
The pandemic shows no signs of abating any time soon, according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine
“We have 70 counties that are either Red or high incidence. That’s 10 million Ohioans or 85% of the population, living in an area with a high risk of community transmission,” DeWine said in a briefing Thursday afternoon.
DeWine also announced the state’s positivity rate as of Thursday was 5.4% and the seven-day average was 4.2%. This is up from September when the positivity rate was 2.7%. He reported that as of Thursday, Ohio has 1,042 COVID patients in hospitals, a significant increase from the 563 patients on Sept. 20.
Watkins noted many counties, including Putnam, have experienced large outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
“We’re happy we have not had any outbreaks in nursing homes as other counties have had,” he said.
In addition, Watkins lauded county schools for their proactive measures that have kept the number of COVID-19 cases low so far.
According to the Ohio Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard on Friday, Williams County has eight confirmed cases in schools: Three in Bryan (one student and two staff); three in Millcreek-West Unity (one student and two staff), one student in Edgerton and one student in Montpelier.
However, Watkins told The Bryan Times late Friday that a second confirmed case was reported at Edgerton Schools late Thursday, and it appears that case has not yet been added to the ODH COVID-19 dashboard totals as of late Friday.
The most recent Edgerton case is a student, and that student has been quarantined, along with a number of others that the student has been in contact with recently, Watkins said, adding the county health department is working with Edgerton Schools on contact tracing.
Watkins said while schools have done “a really good job of preventative measures,” such as cleaning and disinfecting and mask-wearing, they also are “a reflection of the community” and vulnerable to community spread. “They don’t operate in isolation,” Watkins said.
Watkins emphasized that several recent university studies and one in Israel have shown wearing face masks and facial covering are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. He said masks are key to keeping schools and businesses open.
“Facial coverings cut down on the spread and on the incidence. It’s really, really important ... (Masks) are the best way for businesses and the public to keep the spread of the virus low so we can continue to operate,” he said.
Watkins also said studies are showing that while masks prevent transmission from wearer to the public, they also help protect the wearer from absorbing particulates from the public that transmit the virus.
“They protect others and somewhat protect the wearer,” he said.
Watkins also said it’s being shown that countries with high rates of mask-wearing have lower numbers of cases than in the U.S.
“Culturally, change is hard for (Americans), it’s hard to adjust to (wearing masks). But countries with high mask rates do better. Communities that do these things do better. All you have to do is cross the border and look at Canada,” he said.
DeWine on Thursday expressed agreement.
“The only way we can beat this virus back is to follow the prevention methods we have been talking about since the beginning of the pandemic,” DeWine said.
“Stay home when you are sick. Social distance. Wear a mask. Always.”
The Williams County Agricultural Society (fair board) saw a loss of funds with a smaller county fair this year.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered county fairs to be junior fairs only at the end of July, a little more than a month before the Williams County Fair was set to kick off in September.
The move meant most of the money-making aspects of the fair — such as grandstand events and non-food vendors — were canceled this year. However, in June, DeWine offered $50,000 from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to county fair boards.
“We’re still waiting on some bills to come in, yet, but I would say — wet finger in the air — even with the $50,000 we got from the ODA we’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $25,000 shy,” Matt Kennedy, fair board president, said in an interview Friday. “So, we have to pull that out of other areas.”
Previously, he had said it would take around $100,000 to run a junior fair, which just features 4-H projects and livestock shows.
On Friday, Kennedy said the costs are high, including: around $2,500 for utilities; trash pick-up, which was $1,800 for the trimmed back fair held last month; various service contract expenses, including for sound and an electrician, which run “a few thousand dollars” each; judge expenses usually run more than $3,000 a year; premiums paid to the kids, which usually cost around $5,000 to $9,000 a year; and liability insurance, which is based on attendance from the previous year’s fair, was $16,000 this year and ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.
Kennedy also said there were “all kinds of extra expenses” people don’t always see.
“I know a lot of (county fairs), it’s going to take three to five years to get out of the hole this year put them in,” he said.
The fair board dropped the gate fee for the fair this year and the public was allowed to go there for food and to walk through the livestock barns, but only those with a wristband could attend the shows, themselves.
“Most of the people who attended the fair would have been, I want to say probably 98% of them, were family members of livestock exhibitors,” Kennedy said. “There were some I saw come in to get some food, look around and then took off, but not very many.”
Exact numbers were unknown.
The fair board met on Thursday, Kennedy said, and voted on dates for the 2021 Williams County Fair: Sept. 11-18.
In addition, he said they approved some constitutional amendments to appear on the ballot for the fair board elections, which will be on Nov. 7 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The annual meeting will start at 4 p.m.
The amendments would change the time of the elections, moving it to the Monday of the county fair with the annual meeting on the third Thursday of October.
Another change would lower the minimum number of people on the board of directors from 18 to eight, to be in line with the Ohio Revised Code. There is no plan to downsize the current board, which currently has around 17 members after a few had to resign throughout the year. At the start of the year, Kennedy said there were 19 members.
He said membership for the society will be on sale during office hours until Oct. 22. They will then be stopped, per Ohio Revised Code.
Williams County sheriff’s candidates Tom Kochert and Gary Mohre have different agendas but it’s clear that neither had much regard for the other’s experience during Thursday’s public forum sponsored by the Bryan and Montpelier chambers of commerce.
Kochert stated he was an Edon resident and spent his entire career as an Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Officer in Williams County, averaging 75 criminal arrests per year and investigated more than 70 shootings from property damage to homicide. His focus is on training, transparency and accountably.
Gary Mohre is a lifelong resident of Williams County with a family history of service. His father, Mose Mohre, was the county’s civil defense director before there was an Emergency Management Agency and “We’re local business owners passionate about Williams County.” He has also served as the police chief of Blakeslee and has been a private investigator for 24 years. He intends to launch a new child safety program and county response team as well as rebuild the sheriff’s office special deputies program, posse and 4x4 all-terrain vehicle teams.
When asked about the biggest threats facing county residents, Mohre said drug addiction and drug trafficking continue to be huge problems in the county and state while Ohio ranks fourth in the nation for sex trafficking. That is what makes child safety an “essential task” he said. His program would focus on getting the right people in the right place to “make change” and “help from the beginning instead of just making arrests” by meeting with stakeholders from multiple agencies on a monthly basis to identify and address problems and design solutions.
Kochert identified the greatest threat as “a general trend toward lawlessness” that could put anyone in danger at any time and his “utmost priority” is to train and develop professional officers able to respond to that. He agreed that a new child safety program was a good idea but, “Any new program takes time to analyze who’s involved, what they will actually do and their purpose for doing it, but funding is always an issue. We need proof that it’s worth the time and effort of people involved before we make a logical decision,” he said.
Neither candidate was in favor of additional oversight from a community-based task force. Kochert said such oversight already exists when citizens vote on the sheriff every four years and county commissioners oversee the sheriff’s annual budget. He liked the idea of community members offering insight but insisted that the county’s chief law enforcement officer still needed autonomy to do whatever was needed. Mohre was firmly opposed to the idea, responding “No, sir” to the question. His position is that sheriffs have power and resources to make decisions and they are hired for their training and experience which others neither have nor understand.
When asked about the use of body cameras, Kochert said they were a “double-edged sword, useful in reporting exact information” but that information “can and has been used against officers.” Mohre said he was in favor of them and would use them if he had the budget. “It helps us and others get the right information out,” he said. “The price is salty, though.”
When asked about K-9 units, Kochert said they were “a valuable asset if used to their full potential” because of the expense involved in maintaining them. His focus would be to balance K-9 training with the rest of his force while integrating with other agencies. Mohre said he planned to bring a third K-9 unit to the office to ensure all three shifts were covered.
Kochert defended his choice to bring a chief deputy back to the sheriff’s office, stating “It’s a union shop” and a chief deputy was “absolutely critical and essential” to managing day-to-day operations and developing new policies in conjunction with the union while acting as second-in-command to make decisions in his absence. Mohre was not asked to give an opinion on the subject.
The candidates disagreed on the value of detectives, however: Kochert said he brought the positions back at the request of road patrol deputies, which “We heard over and over and over, like a broken record.” Major felony investigations require additional time and effort, and appointing two deputies as detectives takes that burden off the road patrol, he said. Community concerns regarding the unsolved murder of Grace Kennedy on Dec. 23, 2009, in the City of Bryan, and the disappearance of Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton on Nov. 26, 2010, from their home in Morenci, Michigan, were also “major considerations,” he said.
Mohre said the need for detectives “never came up” while he was interim sheriff and he would have to analyze the situation to understand why they were appointed since the road patrol “was already five people short.”
“We went from zero to two overnight when we have none for 10 years,” he said.
In their closing remarks, Mohre said, “You have two opponents: One with 41 years of experience in law enforcement, one with none; one the backing of eight county police chiefs and one with none; one with supervisory experience and proven financial responsibility during 13 weeks as interim sheriff.”
He pointed out his 13 weeks included the COVID-19 outbreak, a $93,000 budget reduction and an internal investigation that led one officer to resign. “The bottom line is I’ve shown you in 13 weeks what I can do for Williams County. Can you imagine what I can do in four years?”
Kochert, who was appointed sheriff and replaced Mohre after winning the county’s primary election in April, responded that, “You do have one candidate that for 13 weeks said that he wanted detectives, said he wanted several things, said he wanted training and yet none of that happened. I have shown in the time that I have been there that we have two detectives.”
He also pointed out he has implemented quarterly training events, written Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant applications to acquire five new vehicles and countered Mohre’s assertion that wildlife officers were not actually law enforcement by stating it was “an outright ... not true.”
“Clearly my actions speak louder than words,” Kochert said. “What I said I would do in the primary I have already done and I’m moving on into the second phase. I’m the clear choice for Williams County moving the sheriff’s office forward.”