SOMERSET – For one night, candidates for commissioner and district attorney in Somerset County focused all of their attention on the ways addiction impacts the community during a forum sponsored by We Will Recover on Tuesday.

Four candidates for commissioner – Republicans Gerald Walker and Colleen Dawson, along with Democrats Pamela Tokar-Ickes and Daniel Hillegas – addressed topics such as the condition of the county jail to whether drug use is a choice or a disease during the discussion at Somerset Area Senior High School.

Moderator Marty Radovanic, former longtime anchor at WJAC-TV, also posed the question as to what are the county's strengths and weaknesses in treating the addiction crisis.

Walker and Tokar-Ickes, who both currently serve as commissioners, pointed to collaborative work being done through Somerset County Drug-Free Communities, which operates in conjunction with Twin Lakes Center.

“I can tell you unequivocally our strength is our Drug-Free Communities coalition,” Tokar-Ickes said.

Walker said, “I think our strength here in Somerset County are all the partners that we've built through the coalition. When you have a roomful of people that truly want to help the recovery community, they don't take 'no' for an answer, not afraid to think outside the box. There's nothing we can't do when we work together, when we have individuals that truly want to overcome their addiction.”

Hillegas and Dawson also pointed to work being done by We Will Recover.

“If you work together with other counties, and with We Will Recover, and our jail, and our commissioners, and also Twin Lakes and counselors, and the more people that you get involved, the more people you bring to the table, the better ideas that you have and the better ways that we can solve our issues here,” Dawson said.

Hillegas stated: “The key issue facing us is that we need to educate the community about addiction. Like I said, it's a disease. It's not a moral issue. Programs like We Will Recover is a great step forward in educating the community on addiction. We also need to make sure funding for maintenance facilities is available. That's another key thing, maintenance drugs to help people recover from addiction.”

When discussing weaknesses, Tokar-Ickes and Walker mentioned they would like to see improvements at the jail.

“I think that we need to do a better job at figuring out the underlying issues when these individuals hit our jail,” Walker said. “And this is not a jab on any of the work that is being done now. I just think we need a better assessment tool to figure out what types of services these individuals need as we move them into programs to divert them from the jail.”

Tokar-Ickes said there are “a lot of limitations just because of the physical plan of our jail.”

“There really aren't programming spaces in that facility,” she added. “We don't have real good ways to assess individuals for underlying substance abuse issues when they are incarcerated. And I really do think that that is a very good place that we have to begin to address the problem, long before someone is released from our facility.”

Dawson pointed to Somerset ranking high among Pennsylvania counties for children removed from homes due to addicted parents.

“This has to stop,” she said.

Dawson continued: “I think a lot of what's here is that we need to give our youth something to look forward to. We need to give them reasons not to get addicted. It starts with the addiction. If we can curb it before it starts that's where our success will lie.”

The district attorney forum – between Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, a Democrat, and Republican Jeffrey Thomas – dealt with mostly legal issues, such as legalization of recreational marijuana and whether individuals with addictions should be punished or treated.

Radovanic concluded the forum by asking Lazzari-Strasiser and Thomas what they would say to him if one of his children died from an overdose and the supplier of the drugs was unknown.

“Losing a child has to be one of the worst experiences that someone can endure,” Thomas said. “So when a person comes to me, I'll do everything I can to get them the help that they may need to try to deal with those issues. But then I would want to talk to them. I'm going to want to ask them, 'Where do you think your child got these drugs from? Were there any indicators? Were there people coming over?' Maybe look through their cellphone. And I'm going to tell them, listen, as your district attorney, I'm going to wake up every day and do everything that I can to make sure that this doesn't happen to another parent.”

Lazzari-Strasiser answered by saying, “Dealing with victims, the parents, siblings is one of the hardest things a prosecutor does. You can't bring them back. However, what I can do is the same thing that I did today in the courtroom and that is have a person that delivered drugs to someone who then died be held accountable and be sentenced to prison for six and a half years minimum.”

She continued: “My son always tells me I talk in words that only few of us understand. I'm going to dumb it down. Drug delivery resulting in death and conviction is one of the hardest things a prosecutor can prove in the courtroom. So when those cases come to our table, it's not just me making a decision. It's the integrity of the investigation done by law enforcement, it's what the family wants, it's how much information the family can provide. It's my team, my staff, their input.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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