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Attorney, coroner, sheriff candidates debate at forum

Jul 25, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Republican candidates for elected offices locked horns Wednesday evening during a forum at Central Wyoming College's Little Theatre. Members of the 100-strong audience posed questions to the speakers.

Fremont County Attorney Mike Bennett and challenger Pat LeBrun exchanged barbs.

Bennett said he set the county attorney's office straight since he was appointed in March 2013 following the resignation of Brian Varn.

"We had a state of disarray as far as mentoring. Basically we had a lot of young attorneys," he said.

LeBrun, who worked for the agency from 2009 until last April, disagreed.

"I think that's completely inaccurate. We had a fine office that was well run," he said.

LeBrun said he would be a better county attorney than Bennett.

"I'm going to be tougher on crime than Mr. Bennett," LeBrun said, laying out an argument he would return to later.

He also pointed to his experience as a chief deputy county attorney.

"I have more experience in the county attorney's office," he said. "I didn't come here one day and suddenly get put in charge of a $1.4 million budget and 20-some odd staff."

Bennett said he was right for the job.

"I'm the best candidate because I stand on my own two feet, and I don't think the constitution is for sale," he said.

Bennett said when he was appointed, the county attorney's office had a "win at all costs attitude." Two Wyoming Supreme Court decisions overturning cases from Fremont County showed local prosecutors went too far, he said.

The public misunderstands how his office uses plea agreements, Bennett said.

Much information about a case that goes into deciding a plea agreement cannot be released due to its sensitive nature, Bennett said, leading to misunderstandings.

"Somehow the public thinks trial is a slam dunk, and we should immediately go to trial," Bennett said. "The only thing I can guarantee about trial is juries are unpredictable."

LeBrun thinks plea agreements under Bennett's administration have become a problem.

"The reason people think Mr. Bennett brought plea agreements to Fremont County is because they became aware of them," LeBrun said. "They became aware of them because they've become a problem ... because they're too lenient."

Sheriff

Incumbent Sheriff Skip Hornecker said he supported shutting down the juvenile wing of the Fremont County Detention Center, which closed in 2012. It did not make financial sense.

Because youths cannot be housed with adults, about five juveniles at any time occupied a 20-bed space, forcing the county to regularly ship 30 adults to other counties for detention, Hornecker said.

"What we need in Fremont County is a juvenile detoxification center," he said "Most of our issues are alcohol- or drug-related."

Challenger Mark Stone believes the county should have a juvenile detention center.

"I think it's ridiculous to expect our law enforcement officers to transport them to Casper or Cheyenne or where ever it is (that house juveniles), and it's unfair to ask their families to drive 200 miles to visit their loved ones," he said.

A juvenile detention center would allow the county to educate and rehabilitate youths locally, Stone said.

Coroner

Though he respected his opponent, the other man was less qualified for the job, Fremont County Coroner candidate Mark Stratmoen said.

"In the worst of times...I have the most experience," Stratmoen said. "You shouldn't have to worry whether the coroner has the experience to do what needs to be done."

Stratmoen pointed to his 15 years working as a deputy coroner, seven of those as the full-time chief deputy.

His opponent, Dominick Weigel, pointed to his 16 years of work as a funeral director and five years as a deputy coroner.

"As a deputy coroner I learned the responsibility and the importance of gathering and ascertaining the correct way a person has died and getting that to family members," he said.

The two did not disagree that a year-long spat between the coroner's office and Fremont County Commissioners over vehicle decals was unwarranted.

"I didn't really see a need to fight it," Weigel said. "(The commissioners) pay the bills."

Stratmoen echoed him.

"I believe too much time was wasted," he said.

Republican voters can make their picks of GOP candidates during the Aug. 19 primary election. Winners would go on to contest the Nov. 4 general election.

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