Sheriff Joe Overstreet is a cold-blooded, profligate union buster and as petulant as a toddler with a tantrum.
Or, he has a plan to improve the Latah County Sheriff’s Office and the rare fortitude to carry it out in the face of unreasonable opposition.
Latah County voters may get a chance to decide next year if Overstreet decides to run for re-election.
But it’s clear that as a public official, Overstreet will be viewed in one extreme light or the other. It is too late for anything else.
In three years as sheriff, Overstreet has been sued by former employees and reviled by the county commissioners who pay his bills.
He was widely criticized for taking a backhoe to a rural Moscow resident’s driveway and shop area in search of the body of a woman who disappeared in 1979. Items recovered in that search have been at the FBI laboratory for about six months. Overstreet believes he ultimately will be vindicated, because those items will show the woman had been buried on the site.
Overstreet became so estranged from the county commission that earlier this year commissioners served him with a subpoena to force him to meet with them over cost overruns in the sheriff’s office.
“I don’t know what Joe regards us as,” said Commissioner Shirley Greene. “Maybe he thinks we’re just fools.”
Overstreet believes in a strong, single line of authority in the sheriff’s office, and he probably is the antithesis of the man he defeated in 1992, Ken Buxton.
Buxton pushed through a project to have mentally unstable individuals committed to his care in Moscow’s Gritman Medical Center rather than in a jail cell. He entered into salary and pay grade talks with an employees union, and maintained friendly relationships with the county commission and media.
Overstreet’s plan to reform the department focuses more on making it professional than humane. He has made it clear to commissioners he doesn’t work for them, and he tolerates the media as a necessary evil.
After he took office, he fired Buxton’s lieutenants. Both sued. One suit was settled - for an undisclosed amount of money - but Cameron Hershaw’s is set for trial next April. Hershaw, now a deputy sheriff in Whitman County, said Overstreet reneged on a contract to continue to employ him. While he declined to comment on his suit, Hershaw said of Overstreet, “It appears Latah County taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth from him as sheriff.”
When he became sheriff, Overstreet declared he would not be bound by negotiations Buxton had undertaken with the union, and he told commissioners that while they set his budget, they weren’t going to tell him how to spend the money.
Overstreet doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about his critics. In his prior career as a financial consultant, and, before that, for 28 years as an Army officer, results counted, not process.
“I view this office as a business that gives a service. The (Idaho) Code says what that service is, and I view it that I am running the business,” he said.
“The sheriff thinks he stands alone as an elected official, and no one has the right to tell him how to spend money or manage his department,” said Commissioner Greene.
“Over and over he has told us just to give him a bucket of money. Well, I told him his bucket is empty, he spent it all,” she said after Overstreet turned in bills for $12,000 in excess of his budget this year. The commission will pay the bills, Greene said, but will deduct the money from the sheriff’s 1996 budget.
All three county commissioners and Overstreet are Republicans. Greene and Overstreet were elected in the same year. She was the county GOP chairman when Overstreet announced he would run for sheriff.
“I thought it was so wonderful to have a Republican come forward, I didn’t question anything about him,” she said. Next time around, she added, “I will not support him.”
Overstreet’s no cop, doesn’t pretend to be one. He believes that as sheriff he can be an administrator and leave law enforcement to the professionals in his department.
His only police experience is one year of running a 250-person military police company.
“I really liked it. That was more than 20-some years ago. But I viewed it as a business then, and that kind of laid the groundwork,” for his philosophy as sheriff now.
The Army did not teach him about politics. Overstreet said he ran for sheriff because he felt that, by and large, it was a nonpartisan office, and he has tried to run things that way.
“Had I known there was going to be all this politics, I would not have taken the job,” he said.
He is referring not only to his battles with commissioners, but to the fact he was the subject of a recall bid whose proponents, he said, could not tell him what he was doing wrong the one time he met with them.
Still, the job is not about being remembered fondly. It is about carrying out a plan, making the sheriff’s department run smoothly, then stepping aside.
“I know what I’m trying to do,” he said. “I know why I’m here. I know now what it takes to do it, and I ain’t letting anything get in my way.”