MONMOUTH - Being aggressive in bringing criminal cases to trial and strengthening ties with community health organizations are among the chief goals of the candidates vying to become the next Polk County District Attorney.
Stan Butterfield of Dallas and Michael Fagan and Aaron Felton, both West Salem residents, discussed their platforms and fielded questions during a public forum at Western Oregon University on April 16. About 25 students and area residents attended.
Mark Henkels, political science professor at the university, said he coordinated the event to highlight local races during a presidential election year.
"It might not matter to you who ends up in congress, but what should matter is the interest a district attorney may take in your case someday," he said. "This makes more of an impact on your life and you can influence it" with a vote.
The district attorney's office represents state and local law enforcement in all criminal matters that occur and are prosecuted in the county. It oversees a budget of more than $1.4 million, 23 employees and 63 volunteers in the prosecution division, and additional programs such as child support and victim's assistance.
In 2007, the district attorney's office filed charges on 1,820 of 1,964 referred cases, with felonies representing about a third of that figure.
This year marks the first contested race for Polk district attorney in almost a decade. Incumbent John Fisher is not seeking re-election.
Fagan, a Marion County deputy district attorney, said his years as a Naval training and electronic warfare officer have groomed him for the position's administrative duties. Having regular training for his prosecutors are among his chief goals, he said.
"DAs need to be fearless when they step into court," he said.
Felton, an assistant attorney for the city of Salem, said he wants to use the position to leverage outreach partnerships to prevent future crime. One example is working with Chemeketa Community College to set up potential tuition assistance for teens who come from families involved in legal trouble.
Felton said his six years as a Polk County deputy district attorney also give him an edge. "I've done the job my opponents are talking about doing," he said.
One vow shared by all the candidates was to be aggressive in bringing cases to trial. Butterfield, a Polk public defender with a private practice in Dallas, said he was running to alleviate concerns he has heard from law enforcement about cases that don't go to court.
"Things get dropped and don't go forward," he said, "even though officers think they have more than enough proof for convictions."
Butterfield said he believed that tact results in only half of the beds in the Polk County Jail being occupied at a given time.
Taxpayers "gave resources to law enforcement to use and it hasn't happened," he said. "I've played the adversary (in the courtroom to the district attorney) so I think I can come in as an outsider and tackle these problems."
Fagan and Felton both stopped short of criticizing Fisher's leadership, but expressed an interest in seeing more trials.
Some audience members asked about the candidates' approaches to wrangling the county's methamphetamine problem. All said keeping the Polk Interagency Narcotics Team (POINT) in operation was an important step.
Fagan stressed regional cooperation between district attorney offices in different counties.
Fagan and Butterfield declined when asked to give an opinion on a ballot initiative by Republican congressional candidate Kevin Mannix to set mandatory three-year prison sentences for those who commit drug crimes, burglary and identity theft, regardless of their criminal history.
"Mannix's measure will bankrupt the system," Felton said.
David Zahn, a Western sophomore, said he attended the forum on a whim and wasn't previously familiar with the candidates.
While he was disappointed that civil rights weren't discussed, Zahn said he was glad he "got to know the candidates and could put their names to some faces.
"Before I make a decision, I like to know where they stand."