It’s a race.
When Sheriff Mark Sterk endorsed Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker last summer to replace him, the appointment seemed a foregone conclusion.
But with Sterk’s early retirement nearing, and a replacement decision expected from Spokane County commissioners in the coming weeks, the contest is becoming one of the most divisive in years.
And with charges and countercharges beginning to fly between the candidates’ supporters, it’s only just begun.
Sterk’s resignation will be effective March 31, at which time Undersheriff Larry Lindskog will become acting sheriff until commissioners make an appointment to fill the remaining eight months of Sterk’s second term.
The commissioners can choose from three Republicans:
“Lt. Jim Finke, a 32-year veteran of the department, a leader in the creation of the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort program and the only candidate who has served as a lieutenant, which is the highest rank attained through civil-service testing rather than political appointment.
“Sgt. Ozzie Knezovich, a 10-year force veteran, Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association president and training supervisor, who is the only candidate with a four-year college degree.
“Walker, an 18-year veteran named by Sterk in 2003 to be the Valley chief, who was a supervisor of the serial killer investigation that led to the arrest of Robert Yates Jr.
Knezovich and Walker both have announced they’ll run for the office this fall regardless of who gets the appointment. Finke said he’s unlikely to run.
County commissioners say they haven’t ruled out any of the three and have scheduled to interview each separately in an open meeting April 10.
“Being that it’s an elected position, it needs to be a very open process,” said Commissioner Phil Harris. “I have an open mind on all of them. To be honest, I haven’t made a decision.”
Walker’s firm grasp on the appointment began to slip when rank-and-file deputies balked at endorsing him, and a former boss accused him of so badly botching an investigation of a child sexual abuse case in the 1980s that criminal charges couldn’t be brought.
Walker disputes the recollection of his old boss, former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, and points to endorsements from others in the department, such as correction officers. Supporters of Walker say the skills he has shown and contacts he’s made as Spokane Valley’s first police chief make him the best choice.
Sterk, who announced his retirement in August, said he is departing before the end of his term, in part, to give a Republican candidate the power of incumbency going into the November election.
But Sterk now said he’s worried the contest could create unhealthy divisions in the department as employees from deputies to captains to jail nurses and forensic experts are forced to take sides.
Meanwhile, Democrats have no announced candidate, and county party Chairwoman Sharon Smith said she’s uncertain if there even will be a Democratic candidate for sheriff on the ballot.
When a vacancy appears in any partisan office in Washington, the party of the vacating official recommends three people to county commissioners to fill it. In December, Republican precinct committee officers voted convincingly to back Walker. The vote was 48 for Walker, 24 for Knezovich and 14 for Finke.
Sterk, who was elected county Republican chairman the same day Walker got the party nod, said commissioners – all Republicans – shouldn’t dismiss the party’s opinion.
“I’m hoping that the commissioners will act on this very quickly and that they will listen to the precinct committee officers who made it very clear who they want to be the next sheriff,” Sterk said.
The sheriff asked commissioners to endorse a candidate before he leaves office so he could have worked with the appointee before his resignation is effective.
Commissioners declined to make an early appointment, citing state law. Harris said he asked Sterk to stay on through the end of his term so Sterk could mentor the new sheriff after one is elected in November. Sterk has held to his end date and accepted a job as a director at a Nazarene conference center in Stevens County.
All three candidates have been questioned by critics on their GOP credentials.
Finke ran for sheriff as a Democrat against Sterk in 1998. Knezovich acknowledges being a Democrat until about a decade ago. Bamonte said Walker told him he preferred the Democratic Party when Bamonte, a Democrat, appointed him to be a sheriff’s inspector in Pend Oreille County.
“He said he wasn’t very active in either party but said his preference would be Democratic,” Bamonte said.
Finke and Knezovich say their party affiliations switched as they examined party planks more closely. Walker said he didn’t think much about party affiliations until recent years and doesn’t remember any discussions with Bamonte on the matter.
The candidates say once one of them is named sheriff it shouldn’t matter with which party he is affiliated.
Backers and detractors
Although they differ on the fine points, they share many of the same positions. Walker, Knezovich and Finke say creating more jail space is a top priority. They want to bring back Crime Check, the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week non-emergency line citizens used to call to report crimes. They support the idea of merging all the police agencies in the county into one department to create efficiencies, but admit the concept is a long shot. They are open to the creation of a “tent city” jail operation in warmer months to reduce a backlog of low-security convicts needing to serve short sentences.
Knezovich’s biggest support has come from sheriff employees, especially from the union he’s led for the last five years as president. In October, the deputies association gave its endorsement to Knezovich, who received 85 votes, compared with 51 for Walker and 19 for Finke or to remain neutral. Last week, the sheriff’s support staff and radio, forensic and jail cooks unions also voted to back Knezovich.
Knezovich supporters in the department say Walker doesn’t communicate well with the rank and file.
“I wish I knew what direction we were heading,” said Deputy Eric Johnson, who works on the Valley police force and is a Knezovich campaign contributor. “I don’t know and neither do any of the other guys I know who work (in the Valley).”
Backers of Knezovich talk about his conviction and ability to lead, as shown during military service, on the SWAT team and as the leader of the deputies association.
“He’ll go out and run out in front of a bus if it’s the right thing to do,” said Detective David Skogen.
Walker admits some gaps but said that has been the result of being the Valley’s first chief, a role that took tremendous administrative time for contract negotiations among the sheriff’s office, county commissioners and the new city, and to stake out a vision for the new department.
Walker hasn’t gone without support from within. He received the endorsement of corrections deputies in the jail and the county’s lieutenants and captains association. He’s garnered the nods of numerous law enforcement leaders in the county and across the state. He also enjoys strong support from elected Spokane Valley leaders.
“He really cares about this community,” said Spokane Valley City Councilman Mike DeVleming. “When there’s been a problem, he’s been really responsive.”
And he continues to have the endorsement of Sterk, who rates Walker’s work as chief as “tremendous.”
Meanwhile, Walker is amassing significant financial support for the upcoming election. State records show he has raised more than $50,000, about 10 times more than Knezovich has collected.
Finke has kept the lowest profile of the three and said he hasn’t tried to collect any endorsements beyond speaking to groups such as unions at their request.
Questions of ethics
Walker’s first job in law enforcement came in 1983 when he was appointed inspector by Bamonte, who was Pend Oreille County sheriff at the time.
In a letter he sent to county commissioners in October, Bamonte said he assigned Walker in 1984 to investigate two boys ranches where sexual abuse was suspected. Bamonte said Walker never performed the work and then quit, leaving him with little to present to a Superior Court special inquiry.
“They were doing some pretty perverted things to these kids,” Bamonte said. “I was counting on Walker to investigate this. He didn’t do one thing.”
The boys ranches, J-Bar-D near Ione and Reynolds Creek near Cusick, were closed by the state in 1985 as a result of the inquiry. However, Bamonte said he had hoped for a better examination so criminal charges could be pursued.
Walker disputes Bamonte’s allegations and said he performed an investigation and planned to stay at the department until his work on the case was complete. However, when he told Bamonte he wanted to quit his job once the case was done, Bamonte told him to leave immediately, Walker said, adding that he turned over all his work.
“I wasn’t going to walk out in the middle of it,” Walker said. “Whatever he’s carrying around, it must be real to him. It must be bitter to him. I’ve moved on.”
Bamonte said he remembers the case so vividly because the special inquiry was the one shot at providing justice to the victims. Walker never turned over any investigation or offered to stay until one was completed, he said.
“I’d be very glad to do a polygraph on this one,” said Bamonte, who said he has no aspirations to be Spokane County sheriff and came forward now because he doesn’t think Walker has the integrity for the job.On the other hand, Knezovich has been criticized by some Walker supporters who argue it’s a conflict of interest for him to remain president of the deputies union while campaigning for sheriff.
Sterk said keeping both titles is “borderline unethical.”
Johnson, the deputy who supports Knezovich, said keeping the office while running for sheriff is no more unethical than Sterk endorsing Walker over other GOP candidates while serving as the leader of the county Republican Party.
Knezovich said he’s stayed on to finish work on contract issues and other matters and will take a leave of absence from union leadership in April.
Picking a successor
Sterk’s effort to influence the choice of his successor is hardly unusual. Over the last half century, many sheriffs succeeded in picking their replacement, usually with the support of deputies’ associations.
Roy Betloch named Bill Reilly as his replacement in 1957 when he left for the state patrol. Before Reilly retired in 1978, he groomed his undersheriff, Larry Erickson, to take over. Erickson easily beat another deputy, Jim West (the recent Spokane mayor), in that year’s election.
When Erickson retired in 1994, he supported Undersheriff John Goldman, who defeated Sterk. Four years later when Goldman retired, however, he did not support a successor, and Sterk defeated Finke.
Harris said commissioners have a hard choice with three veterans with strong résumés and skills.
“That should be something you should say hoorah (about),” Harris said. “I’m glad, but it makes it more difficult.”