by Mike Knaak
Two men, each with nearly three decades in law enforcement, are competing to be the first new sheriff elected in Stearns County in 16 years.
Dave Bentrud, Waite Park police chief, and Steve Soyka, a Stearns County Sheriff’s Office sergeant, are on the ballot Nov. 6. One of them will replace Don Gudmundson who was appointed to fill out the term of Sheriff John Sanner after Sanner retired in 2017.
Both candidates stress the need for better cooperation and communication with county residents as well as city officials and police departments in sprawling Stearns County. With a population of more than 155,000 people, deputies patrol a county that stretches more than 60 miles from metro St. Cloud to the farms and fields at the western end of the county.
The two candidates diverge over the value and significance of their considerable professional and academic experiences.
Bentrud, 60, is the “outside” candidate. Before serving as chief in Waite Park for 10 years, Bentrud was a sergeant in the St. Cloud Police Department. He touts his experience leading an entire department and his familiarity with management issues such as budgeting, technology and recruiting officers.
Soyka, 48, has spent his entire career in sheriff’s departments, first as a deputy in Benton County and for the last 22 years in the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. Soyka emphasizes his experience with a sheriff’s wider responsibilities such as running a jail, 911 dispatching and civil-process service.
The sheriff manages an annual budget of more than $20 million – half of it to operate the jail. The sheriff supervises more than 200 employees including deputies, dispatchers, correctional officers and support staff. The dispatch center answers more than a quarter-million phone calls a year. The jail booked 7,785 prisoners in 2017.
The county board will set the starting salary for the new sheriff in January. After that, the sheriff will be on the county’s pay grid and he will get increases the same as other county employees. Gudmundson’s pay was set at about $158,000 this year.
Bentrud calls the relationship between the sheriff’s office and the county’s 12 police departments “strained.”
“I’ve been outside the agency and seeing how it interacts,” Bentrud said. “I understand the issues and see how I can address them. There’s a sense of disconnect east end vs. west end. The county line doesn’t end just west of St. Joseph.”
Soyka offers a similar observation. “When I started campaigning, I talked to city councils and police chiefs. They want to talk about how we are doing as a sheriff’s office,” Soyka said. He stressed direct communication with citizens and leading deputies who want to stop and visit with residents and business people. “Go in there, introduce yourself and say ‘hi,’” Soyka says.
Both men have their own plans on how they would improve communication.
Soyka says he’d visit town board and city council meetings, continue the sheriff’s office weekly newsletter, improve the website and personally conduct town-hall style meetings to answer questions.
“I want to be out there with the people,” Soyka said.
Bentrud suggests a deputy or supervisor attend every township or city council meeting once or twice a year. Setting up substations in the west side of the county would allow citizens to meet deputies there to report crimes and complete paperwork instead of driving into St. Cloud. Years ago, there were substations in several western cities, but those facilities closed.
Bentrud also offered a technological solution of having deputies muster remotely via computer instead of driving into St. Cloud to begin their shifts.
Beyond the communication and cooperation issue, Bentrud and Soyka offer different visions of being sheriff.
Both men have degrees in criminal justice; Soyka graduated from St. Cloud State University in 1992 and Bentrud graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 1991 and later completed a master’s at St. Cloud State in 1996.
Soyka’s 27 years in law enforcement have all been in a sheriff’s department, including getting his start as an Explorer. As a result, he says, he’s familiar with responsibilities beyond patrol including the jail, communications and special services such as water patrol.
“I can take off on Day One,” Soyka said.
Bentrud wants to promote more effective cooperation between the sheriff’s office and local police departments.
One way to help city cops and police work together is to replace the 20-year-old records system to make sharing crime data easier and bring more focus to patrolling.
“We’re after the same bad guys,” Bentrud said. “There can’t be a data island.”
Right now, the St. Cloud Police Department and the sheriff’s office work on two separate computer records systems. Bentrud wants a regional system to replace the current system he calls “archaic” that costs the city and county $300,000 per year to operate.
“New systems are more affordable and cheaper to maintain and allow us to be more focused on where we patrol and how we investigate,” Bentrud said. “Stearns County is way too big for randomly driving around.”
Soyka zeroed in on the personnel issue: recruiting deputies and correctional officers.
“We need to hire the right people who can adapt to different worlds” of addressing the diverse law enforcement issues in rural and urban areas of the county, Soyka said. “There are not as many people interested in law enforcement careers.”
He wants to set up a recruitment team to visit schools with criminal-justice programs.
“I want to get our sheriff’s office to a place where we have 400 people applying for jobs,” Soyka said.
Both candidates said recruiting and retaining jail staff is a problem that affects employee morale, costs overtime and leads to employee burnout.
“The No. 1 issue is staffing of jail officers,” Bentrud said.
Once hired, Soyka wants employees to find a “change in philosophy” with more teamwork and more interaction between deputies and correctional officers and supervisors.
“I’m here to listen, but to be honest with people,” Soyka said. He wants employees to offer up what he calls “real-life solutions” to problems.
Soyka’s leadership roles include team commander for Benton-Stearns SWAT and commander of the Central Minnesota Violent Offenders Task Force. The task force investigates narcotics, prostitution, gangs and other violent offenses. The team is made up of deputies from Stearns, Sherburne, Benton, Morrison and Todd counties as well as officers from Sartell, St. Cloud and Little Falls.
Bentrud has been instrumental in a multi-jurisdictional effort to stem sex trafficking that started about eight years ago. With Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, Bentrud has spoken to public officials, educators, business people and advocates to “pull back the curtain” on the sex-trafficking problem.
“As a region we need to come together to address this,” Bentrud said. “We were able to show it’s a big deal.” Funded by grants, the sex-trafficking task force has hired two investigators to focus on the crimes and started a shelter for women.
If Soyka is elected, he wants a more community-oriented sheriff’s office that connects with the citizens.
“We need to let people know what we’re doing,” he said.
Bentrud says he enjoys being a problem-solver and he wants to address the issues of collaboration and cooperation.
This fall’s election will determine the mission and strategies for at least the next four years.