By announcing that he will retire after 20 years in the post, Bay County Sheriff John Miller ensured that in 2017 there will indeed be “a new Sheriff in town.”
A slate of five candidates are vying to replace him. Democratic candidates include Undersheriff Troy Cunningham, Pinconning Police Sgt. Terry Spencer and retired Sheriff’s Deputy Robert “Bobby” Lee. The winner of the August Democratic Primary will face off against Republican candidate Jason Holsapple, a former Sheriff’s Deputy and write-in candidate Kenneth Zolnierek.
It is fair to say the Sheriff’s Office has endured its share of controversy over the last several years, as lawsuits and allegations of procedural lapses have been frequent. Three of the candidates running have been involved in lawsuits concerning the governance of the Sheriff’s Office.
Jason Holsapple received a $480,000 settlement for a wrongful discharge suit that alleging he was fired for supporting Robert Lee in his 2012 run against Miller. Miller narrowly missed an upset in the Democratic primary that year by a vote of 6,610 – 6,375.
Lee has also contested Miller in the courts, with suits and countersuits between Lee and the Sheriff’s Office over management practice and procedure. Cunningham has been called into these cases, primarily as a witness, as he has many responsibilities as Undersheriff, including management of the County Jail.
In many ways the Democratic primary will be a public referendum on the sum of these matters. Hopefully it will also bring to a close a period acrimony, as any resources used by the Sheriff’s Office in the courtroom would be best utilized for public safety and criminal justice, not civil liability for the operation of the unit.
In preparation for the upcoming elections, The Review posed several questions to the candidates. (Note: The Review was unable to make contact Kenneth Zolnierek.)
Review: Please, tell us about yourself.
Cunningham: I have been with the Bay County Sheriff Office since 1992. For the last 3 years, I have served as Undersheriff. During my time with the Sheriff's Office, I have served the citizens of Bay County in countless ways including: implementing elder abuse seminars, championing child safety, investigating robberies, home invasions, homicides, bank robberies, drunk drivers, drug crimes and body recoveries, to name a few.
In addition, I have put in the time to improve the Sheriff’s Office through the implementation of updated rules and regulations, as well as obtaining grants for various items and safety gear that has enhanced our employee’s capabilities and efficiency. I have also taken the lead on such hot-button issues as cybercrime and manufactured synthetic drugs.
I know there’s still work to do, and I would like to be the one to do it. I have invested in this community, from the local and federal agencies with whom I have worked; to the citizens I continually served. I know firsthand the important issues our community faces.
Spencer: I was born and have lived in Bay City most of my life. After I graduated from high school I then joined the United States Navy, where I served two overseas deployments. I also served in the Michigan Army National Guard Aviation Unit out of Grand Ledge and I am a veteran.
My wife is Sara and we have two boys (Ethan & Cole) that attend McAlear-Sawden Elementary School.
I attended Delta College Criminal Justice Program/Delta College Police Academy. I started my law enforcement career as a Sheriff Deputy and part time in the Jail. In 2007, I was hired by the Pinconning Police Department where I still am currently employed. I was promoted to Sergeant in 2010 and served as our interim Chief for six months.
I have over 20 years of business experience and I am very involved in the bay area community. I sit on numerous boards including the City of Bay City DDA, a trustee for The Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge 103) and The American Legion (Post 18). My family attends St. Catherine of Siena Parish and I am a 4th degree member of Essexville Knights of Columbus (2740).
I am a business owner and President of Dunlop’s Downtown in Bay City. We are a family owned business since 1924.
Holsapple: I have been a Bay County resident my entire life. I graduated from All Saints Central High School and served in the Marine Corps in Kuwait and Iraq. I graduated from Delta College with a degree in Criminal Justice and currently own Intricate Concrete LLC. I am also a deputy with the Tuscola county Sheriff's Office. I am a member of the NRA, the Michigan Sheriff's Association, the National Sheriff's Association and the American Legion.
Lee: I was born in Bay City Michigan and have lived here most of my life. I worked for the city of Bay City for 10 years, then 25 years for the sheriff's office - 10 years in the road patrol division and 15 years as an investigator for the 18th. Circuit Court. I'm have also been an instructor at Delta College's police academy for 25 years. I was the 2009 Michigan Family Support Council Outstanding achievement award recipient.
Review: It might be fair to say that law enforcement agencies nation-wide have a public relations problem. Thankfully, we have been spared the ugly and tragic scenes that have come when an interaction between the police and a member of the public ends in death. The Bay County Sherriff’s Department has, however, been plagued by news stories of what appear to be internal squabbles and missteps in managing human resources. What would you do as Sherriff to turn around the impression of how the organization is managed and refocus on the positive work the Sheriff’s Office can do in the County?
Spencer: My administrative team and I will foster a positive work environment, which will start from the top down. I will not ask the staff to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. All staff will be treated fair during day to day functions as well as when there are special assignments and promotions. Those duties will be given on merit and not because of any favoritism.
We will have a transparent hiring process to include staff and members of our community, so we hire the best qualified and best fit for our community. We will create a training program for both road and correction deputies to make sure they understand the job and are capable of meeting our high standards.
We will have quality training for all staff and work to become members of the Delta College training consortium.
I will be a working sheriff, not only visible during roll calls, but also on the road taking calls for service, making arrests, writing citations, and also visible in our jail, working with our correction officers to better understand their job.
The sheriff’s office has a good staff and with the right leadership, they will become an elite organization that many will want to be a part of.
Holsapple: Ending all of the internal drama is simple: hold everyone to the same standard, hold everyone accountable and treat everyone fairly and with respect. The deputies should be focused of fighting crime, not worrying about if the administration is targeting them. I will encourage the deputies to become more involved with school patrols and community oriented policing. Rejoining the consortium at Delta College will be a priority to provide the deputies with current training and I will also encourage them to become more involved with mentoring up and coming recruits.
Lee: Yes, the Sheriff 's Office has had a lot of internal strife at the hands of the current administration, Sheriff Miller and Undersheriff Cunningham. They lost a law suit for the wrongful discharge of Jason Holsapple for supporting me in the last Sheriff race, which cost the county tax payers $485,000 dollars.
There are two more lawsuits pending, with Deputies Fred Walraven and Matt Gillts.
This mismanagement (bullying) has to stop and order has to be restored by working with the employees, not the intimidation tactics used by this current Miller/Cunningham administration, which will result in further lawsuits.
Cunningham: Our Department is focused on the positive work it is supposed to be doing for our county. Our primary job is to provide a professional response to a call for service as quickly as possible and in a professional manner.
We also are in charge of the jail, which is well regarded in the law enforcement community.
While there are always personnel issues in any organization, and people who are attracted to law enforcement for the wrong reasons, who need to be weeded out, the news stories you refer to are mostly as the result of taking swift action to make sure we don’t have the kind of people in our Office that would lead to the kind of ugly incidents you began the question with.
Review: Here is a question we also asked the candidates for County Prosecutor: While it is still a scheduled drug, attitudes towards marijuana have relaxed in this State. On the other hand, opioid abuse is growing, heroin has made an unwelcome resurgence and the “socially acceptable” drug alcohol is a prime factor in many violent and property crimes. As Sherriff, how would you allocate resources to help the community find lasting solutions to the link between substance abuse and crime?
Holsapple: I would seek to obtain grants to provide extra money for OWI enforcement which doesn't just go after alcohol. The enforcement targets all impaired motorists. I would also require all of the deputy's to be trained in the use of Narcan and carry it in their patrol vehicles. Next I would work more closely with BAYONET to provide any assistance I could so that we could come down hard on dealers and suppliers ending the supply to users. I would also do everything in my power to push for more aggressive prosecution of dealers and suppliers to make an example that selling drugs Bay County sends you to prison.
Lee: One of the steps I would take with the opiates is to take a direct approach of enforcement by finding the drug houses and going after the street level dealers without long term investigations. If you stop the distribution points and no one can sell, it will go someplace other than here.
I feel we are doing the citizens a great disservice when they come to me and point out a drug house "that everyone knows about" and nothing is being done. It makes us, as law enforcement officials, look like we don't care or worse yet, that we are unaware. That is unacceptable to me.
We have " big fish to fry" with the crack cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin. Marijuana is on the low scale of enforcement and only should be addressed if the person doesn't have a medical card.
Cunningham: I am leading the Law Enforcement effort on the Heroin Task Force. Though all opioids are part of the same problem, particularly prescription drugs like OxyContin and hydrocodone, which very often are how people are introduced to this problem, sometimes while legitimately managing pain. We should emphasize treatment for users, but be tough on the sellers.
Yes, alcohol abuse is a problem, but there is no legitimate recreational use for opioids. Marijuana is a scheduled drug, and there really is no provision in the law for looking the other way when it comes to pot dealers. I will enforce all laws as written, which is my constitutional responsibility.
Spencer: There is no one hundred percent cure to our narcotic problem. The first thing an observant leader does is recognize when there is a problem. A good leader is not afraid to identify a problem and then seek help from others to find solutions for that problem.
I believe in a proactive approach along with education, which begins in our schools. I also am not afraid to get in front of our community to discuss the issue so they are informed as well. This past year, I partnered with the Bay County Prevention network to host five heroin summits across Bay County to raise awareness to the issue that we have. I also met with a variety of groups including Bay Area Women’s Center, area schools, Bay City Lions Club, etc. and spoke about the heroin issue.
I believe in prevention and education, but we will also take a stronger stance on arresting the drug dealers. I will work with our probation and drug court partners to seek creative solutions that can help people with their addictions.
Review: Why are you the best person to be elected as Sherriff for Bay County in 2016?
Lee: I think I would be the best choice for Sheriff due to the fact I work well the public, the employees and have a great love for my community. I retired four years ago, but didn't want to leave my family and friends behind with the problems with drugs and illegal guns coming into Bay County. I feel I can make a difference and bring a positive change to the office of sheriff by transparency, integrity.
I will bring the Office of Sheriff back to the people by not having it be a self-serving position as it has been by the current administration of Miller and Cunningham for many years.
Also a point to address is the fact that when elected sheriff, both my pension and social security will be stopped and I will only be drawing my working wage as sheriff and not be double dipping the tax payers.
Spencer: I am the only Democratic candidate who is a business owner, has a history of community involvement, I am a military veteran, and a full time police officer. I have the experience, integrity for the position, passion for Bay County, and community involvement. I will be innovative in our approach to identifying and solving crime and in the operation of our jail and court security.
Policing has changed dramatically over the years. Law Enforcement is being scrutinized with their operations, so we must get and keep the community involved with how we do business to gain and keep their trust.
It starts with having our community involved in our Sheriff Department. Not only with the hiring process, but with creating a Reserve Deputy, a Citizen Academy, Youth Explorer Programs, using available technology, (cameras) and being involved in our schools, churches, and businesses. Policing is a service to our community, we must always put that service first! I love Bay County and I want my children to stay here and raise their children in Bay County. I will make this a safer community to live, work, and raise a family!
Cunningham: I am the only person in this race who has ever managed any organization of any size. Other candidates in this race have never had anyone directly report to them in a law enforcement capacity. Managing over 100 employees who answer calls for service and housing an average of 200 inmates per day takes knowledge and experience. I am the only candidate with that knowledge and experience.
I have performed—or am directly familiar with—every duty an elected Sheriff needs to perform, including management of a multi-million-dollar budget. I am directly responsible even now, for many of the policies that are currently giving Bay County a professional, courteous and effective Sheriff’s Office.
Holsapple: I am the best candidate for the office of Bay County Sheriff, because I have worked there and I have personally seen the misuse and mismanagement of County funds and resources and I will end it. I will stand up for what's right and I will hold everyone accountable. I am not a member of the current Good Old Boys club and I'm not a politician, I'm just a guy who works every day that's tired of seeing his hometown decay with crime and drugs while the people who have the power to change it stand idly by, because they don't have the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done.
16th November, 2023