Two compete for sheriff’s job

FAIRMONT – Martin County Sheriff Jeff Markquart is seeking his second term as sheriff this November but has an opponent in Fairmont police officer Jaime Bleess.

“I feel I have enough experience to continue serving the county residents as sheriff,” Markquart said. “I’m managing more than 40 full-time, part-time and volunteer employees on a daily basis, along with a $3.5 million budget.

“Despite budget cuts, I’ve worked closely with the county commissioners to reallocate resources to be more efficient and provide increased control. We recently remodeled the existing space in lieu of a new facility to better serve the public and meet state regulations.

“What we need to remember is that the Sheriff’s Office is a business, and the primary job of sheriff is to manage the sheriff’s office.”

Markquart previously served as chief deputy, when he helped manage day-to-day operations in the Sheriff’s Office. Since becoming sheriff in 2011, Markquart has helped implement the Code Red emergency notification system.

“There is more to the Sheriff’s Office than patrols and jail,” he said. “There are civil processes that need to be taken care of, serving court documents, and court securities. We’re responsible for notifying other agencies through the dispatch communication.”

The challenger

But Bleess – who has worked for the Fairmont Police Department since 2004 and currently serves as the Fairmont Area Schools resource officer – feels there are weaknesses in the Sheriff’s Office that need to be addressed.

“I have a three-point action plan that shows reasons why we need a different leadership style, ” he said. “I believe I will bring that by being more visible in the community and throughout the county with the goal of being more responsive to the community needs. The commitment I would make is to meet regularly with the city councils and local governments and police, schools, fire departments and emergency personnel to anticipate and deal with issues in a timely fashion.”

Bleess says his three key issues are: patrol hours, ARMER radio access and more communication with local communities.

Patrol hours

“Point one is the 24-hour patrol,” Bleess said. “Currently, the only people who work 24-7 in the Sheriff’s Office are the 911 dispatchers and jailers. In the early morning hours, there is no deputy on duty in uniform. There is one deputy on-call out of uniform with a take-home squad car. The response time in the early morning can be up to more than an hour, depending on where the call is from and were the deputy is located.

“In our small towns, none of our law enforcement, except for Fairmont area, is on 24/7 patrol. … When a call happens in the wee hours of the morning, that call is usually a ‘GET HERE NOW!’ kind of call. I know this from doing overnights in the summers throughout my career. It’s usually things such as a vehicle crash, cattle in the road, which is dangerous, or a medical emergency or a burglary in progress. All of these things require an immediate response, and a delayed response can cost lives …

“I’ve been meeting with small-town councils, and leading from the front, working with everyone to make solutions that will benefit everyone. I think [24/7 coverage] can be done by reallocating man hours and not increasing the budget.”

Markquart said the Sheriff’s Office is on duty 24 hours per day, much like firefighters and ambulance personnel.

“In the past 10 1/2 years, about 84 percent of our calls come between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. with 14 percent coming in from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. That’s 98 percent of our calls. The calls in the wee hours average to less than one per week. I would rather have more people working when we have the bulk of our calls. But someone is being paid to be on call 24 hours a day. There is 24-hour coverage with fire departments and ambulances, and it’s the same with the Sheriff’s Office.”

Radio coverage

Bleess is also voicing concerns regarding emergency radio coverage.

“Point two is the ARMER radios,” he said. “We’ve known about these issues for two years, and there are simple solutions to fixing the problem areas, which include areas of some school buildings in Martin County. We can work together with the local school administrations to find funding sources to install an external antenna on the buildings with reception issues that are connected to signal boosters on the buildings interior. We had it done with the LEC basement within two months.

“Some schools have areas in their buildings where the radios simply do not work. It’s been that way for two years, and it’s simply unacceptable and it shows it’s not a priority currently. If elected, this would be my top priority, to continue to keep looking for ways to fix this problem.”

However, Markquart states the situation is not as dire as made out by his opponent.

“The state is aware that the radios won’t work everywhere. But there are workarounds in the system that do work in the known reported problem areas,” he said. “With the protocols and training that is in place, our system we have today will work without spending any more money. In radio trainings the past two years, when someone has reported a problem area, we asked for the specific areas and numbers to bring in. We did not receive that.”

Markquart is the local system administrator for ARMER, meaning not only does he help find solutions to communications issues, he is also responsible for ensuring that all radio solutions implemented are in compliance with state and federal standards for radio usage.

“The ARMER radio is a system that was agreed upon by the county, and a necessary upgrade due to FCC regulations,” Markquart said. “This was the option that the county chose and there are only a few counties in the state that have not implemented this system.”

Reaching out

Finally, Bleess believes there should be greater involvement with the smaller communities served by the Sheriff’s Office.

“Point three, I call cooperation, communication, and teamwork for a greater visibility,” Bleess said. “I’d make a commitment to be visible in the community and to meet regularly with local leadership to determine what the Sheriff’s Office can do to assist with the public safety issues. Ultimately, the sheriff’s responsibility to anticipate problems on the horizon and lead from the front to make the county a safer place to live, and increase the quality of life in Martin County.”

Markquart pointed out that it was working with township boards and municipalities that helped the county obtain $750,000 in disaster relief funds to help rebuild roads and infrastructure from June storms, and that working with the other police departments is a must.

“We provide backup as needed and partner together to keep Martin County residents safe,” he said. “We’ve developed and maintained very good working relationships with area fire and ambulance EMT units throughout Martin County.”

Summing up

“I look forward to working with leadership and entities to help determine what the sheriff’s office can do to improve safety, not just talk about what we can’t do,” Bleess said. “I am excited to face the challenges that the office holds, including balancing the fiscal responsibilities with the liability of the county and safety of Martin County residents and first responders.”

“Safety of the county is my largest concern, as a lifelong resident of Martin County and having children and grandchildren living here,” Markquart said. “I have a passion for helping the public; it’s my way of giving back to the community.”