Ozzie Knezovich, once a long-shot candidate virtually unknown outside local law enforcement, was named the 25th sheriff of Spokane County on Tuesday after a grueling and contentious six-month appointment process.
In making the choice, county commissioners – all Republicans – rebuked their party and retiring Sheriff Mark Sterk, who argued that Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker should have gotten the nod. Republican precinct committee officers voted in November to endorse Walker.
The unanimous decision was made in a courthouse hallway after commissioners met for 1 ½ hours behind closed doors in their offices. Candidates and about 30 of their supporters paced the hallway behind a row of TV cameras waiting for commissioners to emerge for the vote.
Knezovich, 43, was sworn in immediately after the decision while Walker and Lt. Jim Finke, another candidate for sheriff, watched. Knezovich will be in charge of the department at least until the end of the year, when Sterk’s second term would have ended.
“I will be the sheriff of Spokane County, but the Sheriff’s Office belongs to the community,” Knezovich said after the vote. “I want to be responsive to their needs and reach out and build a strong connection with them.”
When a vacancy appears in a partisan office in Washington, the party of the vacating official recommends three people to county commissioners to complete the term. Sterk retired March 31.
Knezovich has worked in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for a decade, but in the contest to be sheriff he ran as an outsider, declaring the need for more openness and proposing department shifts to promote community policing.
Walker argued that his work as Spokane Valley chief and close ties to area law enforcement officials would bring stability to the department at a time when the Spokane Police Department also is searching for a leader.
Finke, who ran for sheriff against Sterk in 1998, has the most experience in the department but largely remained in the background during the race.
Knezovich and Walker will compete once again in September’s Republican primary for a full four-year term. Finke, who earlier said he likely would not run in the primary unless he was appointed, said after the decision that he was reconsidering. Democrats have not announced a candidate for sheriff.
Anticipating questions about breaking party ranks, County Commission Chairman Todd Mielke told the candidates and assembled crowd just before the vote that commissioners received a wealth of information that party officials didn’t have when they endorsed Walker. He offered praise to all the candidates and then read a resolution naming Knezovich to the post. The commissioners held a voice vote on the resolution.
In recent months, the appointment process became heated as Sterk questioned the ethics of Knezovich remaining president of the deputies union while running for sheriff, and former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte accused Walker of botching a child sex-abuse case in 1984.
In interviews after the vote, commissioners said they researched Bamonte’s assertions, but they were not a factor in their decision because the case was too old and not provable.
“What I found out was that there’s nothing left in terms of records and no one really recalls the details,” Commissioner Mark Richard said. “In the end it didn’t come into play.”
What did come into play, commissioners said, was Knezovich’s administrative abilities shown while in the Army, Sheriff’s Office and in the union.
Walker declined to comment on the vote but said his campaign for sheriff will continue “full-steam ahead.”
Despite the power of incumbency, Knezovich will have no easy path to winning the GOP nomination. According to the latest campaign fillings with the state, Walker has amassed $58,000 in campaign contributions. That compares with only about $6,000 for Knezovich.
As sheriff, Knezovich has the power to appoint 10 people to his upper-level staff. When he walks into the Public Safety Building today for his first day, he will be surrounded by Sterk-appointed administrators, many of whom backed Walker.
Knezovich said in the coming weeks he will start an application process for the top spots. He said he will encourage Walker to apply to retain his chief’s position in Spokane Valley.
“I am not going to make wholesale changes immediately,” Knezovich said.
Larry Lindskog, who filled in as sheriff since Sterk’s departure, said he will stay on as undersheriff if Knezovich wants despite his support for Walker.
“It’s going to be very difficult for me, that’s for sure,” Lindskog said after the vote, noting that besides Sterk other top administrators recently have retired. “We’re going to continue to go forward and work for the good of the community and good of the Sheriff’s Office.”
Despite pleas from Sterk and others in the office to act quickly, commissioners insisted that they needed time to review the candidates and insisted on holding interviews of the candidates in a public meeting. Each candidate was questioned for an hour on Monday.
“The process was done above board, and it was very intense to make sure we made the right decision,” said Commissioner Phil Harris.
Richard said he was grateful the board made a unanimous decision to cap a contentious appointment process.
“We absolutely did it the best we could,” Richard said.
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