Both Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin and Oregon State Police Trooper Jim Pierce, who answered questions Wednesday night at the American Association of University Women’s candidates forum, care about the mentally ill getting more help when involved with the authorities in Clatsop County.
The two candidates for Clatsop County Sheriff differ, however, on how those mentally ill should be housed, with Bergin wanting a new mental-health center built and Pierce wanting the Clatsop County Community Corrections Transition Center reopened.
They took part in the candidates forum Wednesday night sponsored by the Astoria chapter of the American Association of University Women and hosted by Clatsop Community College.
The transition center, opened in 2006 in Warrenton, was a residential center housing 24 males and six females, providing a holding facility for local offenders and people about to be released back into the community. Members of the facility held jobs, were on work crews and took part in treatments and other mental health services during their stay. It closed April 1, 2011 because of budget constraints.
The county only needs a few rooms, said Bergin, to house people with mental disabilities until their transfer to mental health services elsewhere, and the transition center is too expensive to operate.
“You don’t want to bifurcate your workforce,” said Bergin, sheriff since 2005, about dividing staff between the transition center and the main sheriff’s office.
Pierce, an Oregon State Police senior trooper, said the transition center, only half of which is being used for the Community Corrections Department, should be reopened to house people with mental illnesses.
“This is an issue I’ve been working on for six years, not six months” said Bergin about his work to better service the mentally ill from within the Sheriff’s Department.
He previously said that minor offenders with mental health issues should not be housed in the jail, and that the county needs to coordinate resources for people with serious mental illnesses closer to home.
There will be a symposium to discuss mental health issues in law enforcement at 7 p.m. today at the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria.
The drug problem in Clatsop County was one thing both candidates agreed on.
“We have a huge drug problem that’s getting out of control in this county,” said Pierce, adding that the county needs to be focused on how to educate people to reduce recidivism.
Both candidates said they’d like to see the Astoria Police Department provide an officer for the county’s interagency drug task force, but they understand if the cash-strapped agency can’t afford the involvement.
“I will continue to advocate in a nice way,” said Bergin, adding that 65 to 70 percent of drug work the task force does is in and around Astoria.
“We have a statutory need to have state, county and city agencies out there,” said Pierce about overlapping jurisdictions, adding that agencies need officers that can handle any contingencies.
Bergin said the county has formed numerous overlapping law enforcement teams to deal with specific issues and that he would continue with the sheriff’s office’s involvement in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program.
When asked what his top three issues would be, Bergin said continuing strategic planning, putting control room technicians in to run the jail and patrol deputies back out on the road, and continuing engagement with the community are some of his top priorities. Addressing the drug issue, focusing on preventative measures and strengthening the perception of there being regular sheriff patrols throughout the county are the priorities Pierce said he would focus on.
“I don’t believe my career is ending at this point,” said Pierce, who retires in about a month and a half from the Oregon State Police. He added that he would take a pay decrease, as opposed to Bergin’s recent pay increase, and not collect a retirement package from the county.
Base pay for the sheriff is $107,000, plus contributions from the state’s Public Employees Retirement System and benefits.
Bergin closed by saying it was a committee, not himself, that decided in his most recent pay increase. He said that the Rotarian commitment to service above self would be his focus and that he has taken the time throughout his career to educate himself in all manners of law enforcement and running the department.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.