Commission candidates meet to answer questions surrounding union and ambulance

Republican Candidate Mike Bleak, among other candidates vying for a commissioner seat, answers questions Wednesday night at the Iron County Commissioner Candidates meeting sponsored by the local chapter of the AFSCME union. Enoch, Utah, May 17, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

ENOCH CITY – Only about two dozen voters showed up Wednesday night for the “Iron County Commissioner Candidates” meeting but more than 200 people tuned in to watch it live on a Facebook video feed provided by Cedar City News.

The meeting, held at Enoch Elementary, was sponsored by the local 1004 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

While the two-hour meeting was open to the public it was primarily organized in an effort to allow the members of the union, all employees of the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, a chance to vet their candidates.

There are seven candidates in total running for two county commission seats, Seat A and Seat C.

Prior to the meeting, candidates were given questions they were to answer and send back to ICSO Sgt. Nik Johnson, the president of the 1004 chapter. Those same questions that largely focused on issues affecting the sheriff’s office and the union were posed to the candidates at the meeting.

To kick off the meeting, Johnson asked the candidates if they knew why the ICSO initially joined the union in 2015.

Former ICSO Lt. Jody Edwards, whose termination with the sheriff’s office was part of the reason for the sheriff’s office joining the union, joked about being “intimately familiar” with the issue.

“The commissioners decided to enact and create some policies that frankly roughshod over the sheriff’s office and it caused a disturbance in the balance of power. That’s what happened in a nut shell,” Edwards said. “I think what everybody in this room needs to understand is that the balance of power was disrupted. The other thing that everybody needs to understand is how crucial, crucial, the sheriff’s office is, to everyone.”

The sheriff is the only elected law enforcement position in the country, Edwards pointed out.

“The sheriff deserves every bit of power that he can get and respect,” he said. “And that’s what happened – the commissioners, they started over legislating him (the sheriff) and they starting controlling him.”

Edwards was terminated in 2015 after the county commission voted to sell the county ambulance service and in turn, dissolving his position as director over the department. At the time, there were no open positions for him at the sheriff’s office to return to and the commission refused to create one.

Edwards appealed the commissioners’ decision with the Career Service Council and won. Iron County appealed the council’s ruling to 5th District Court but later dropped the case and returned Edwards to full-time status at the sheriff’s office.

Edwards “retired” in less than a year stating he could no longer work as a law enforcement agent because he felt he lacked the support of Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett. Edwards recently told Cedar City News he has since made amends with Garrett.

In defense of the commissioner’s actions at the time, incumbent Commissioner Alma Adams responded stating he “respectfully thinks there was a little paranoia in the sheriff’s office.”

“We had one department that was sold into the private industry and one RIF (Reduction in Force) action,” Adams said. “People just thought we could carry on and carry on. No one else was Riffed.”

Adams, who is running on the Republican ticket, was adamant that he does not support the union because he believes it was an “unconstitutional delegation of government power.”

“If the union begins to tell the government what to do then all of a sudden they’ve lost some of the power,” Adams said.

While praising the commission for fiscal responsibility, Republican contender Casey Anderson promised the sheriff’s employees that no county employee would ever be Riffed if he is elected commissioner.

Both Anderson and his Democratic contender Scott Truman emphasized the importance of getting over the past and learning to work together for the future.

“This happened, it’s in the past. Now what can we do about the future,” Truman said. “As county commissioner I would like to have a process of keeping the doors open and keeping communications in place and talking and working through things. It’s kinda like a marriage, are we always going to agree in a marriage.”

Unlike some of his Republican peers, Sam Brower did not say he was against the union.

“I think the most important thing is, how the sheriff feels about it, how he feels he can work with the union and it’s up to the commission to listen to him and what he has to say,” Brower said.

Republican candidate Mike Bleak, a detective with the Cedar City Police Department, said he does not agree with unions, but as a police officer himself he understands the frustration the sheriff’s office employees feel.

“I will bring to the table an open communication with the sheriff, not only with the sheriff, but with the employees of the sheriff, to address the needs to make sure those issues and those fears are put to rest,” Bleak said.

Libertarian Wayne Hall said he believed the problems in the county sit not just at the commissioner’s feet, but also with the county attorney, whom he called the county’s “Chief Legal Counsel.” He advocated accountability for all elected leaders and transparency in all offices and departments.

Throughout the night, Constitutional candidate Ken Bauer emphasized his support of the sheriff but told the group he thought they were looking for a “lobbyist” in a commissioner and if that was the case, he was not their candidate.

Bauer said he did not believe in unions and felt it, like a county ambulance service, “was not the proper role of government.”

There were questions later in the meeting from audience members surrounding the sale of the county’s ambulance service in 2015 that sparked a few fireworks among candidates.

Edwards took the line of questioning as an opportunity to criticize Adams and his fellow commissioners for selling the ambulance service and terminating him.

A few voters watching the display of emotion said they were concerned that Edwards was running to “get back” at the commission for “what they did to him.”

Others supported the former lieutenant and felt he was justified in being angry and was only trying to “hold the commissioners accountable.”

Adams explained the service was not financially viable and had to be sold in order to protect the county coffers. As to the termination of Edwards, Adams said there was no open position for him in the sheriff’s office and the commissioners were not going to create a “special one” just for him.

Republican candidates Brower, Edwards and Adams are running against each other for Seat C in the June primary. The winner will go on to contend against Hall and Bauer in the November election.

Adams secured the convention vote in April with nearly 70 percent of the Iron County Republican delegation supporting him.

Prior to Senate Bill 54, which passed in 2014, Adams would have avoided a primary and gone straight to the November election.

Under the Count My Compromise however, candidates who want to force a primary can now bypass the convention vote by collecting a certain number of signatures to guarantee their name on a primary ballot. All three challengers in the Seat C race collected the necessary signatures to force one another into a primary – no matter who would have won at convention.

Bleak and Anderson are vying for Seat A. They will also be on the June 28 primary ballot.

Seat A came open with the early resignation of former Commissioner Dave Miller, who announced in March he would be leaving to follow job opportunities elsewhere. Anderson is filling the seat as interim commissioner until January when the winning candidate will be sworn in.

Anderson and Bleak previously challenged each other during the Republican convention. Neither one of them were able to secure 60 percent of the votes from the delegation to escape having to go through a primary.

Truman will challenge the winner in the fall.

Ed. Note: Cedar City News | CedarCityUtah.com is a counterpart to St. George News | StGeorgeNews.com.

Email: tsullivan@stgnews.com

Twitter: @tracie_sullivan

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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