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News >  Idaho

Sheriff’s bill triggers debate

Josh Wright Staff writer

BOISE – Legislation that would require sheriff’s deputies in Idaho counties to take an unpaid leave of absence if they run for sheriff has created a flurry of debate, with some lawmakers arguing it will create an unfair advantage for sheriffs.

“It penalizes a guy who’s doing public service,” said Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. “What’s the deputy going to do? He won’t have any income.”

But supporters of HB 223, which is being sponsored by the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, say it will help sheriffs do their job while running for re-election.

Contentious issues arose in at least five counties, including Boundary and Bonner counties, during the last election when sheriff’s deputies or detention officers ran against their bosses. Some of the cases involved breakdowns in confidentiality and discipline, according to Michael Kane, a lawyer and lobbyist for the sheriff’s association.

In three of those scenarios, tort claims were filed by the deputies who claimed their free speech rights were violated during the campaign.

If this legislation passes, the proponents say, such problems and litigation could be prevented. The deputies would be reinstated to their former rank if they lose, according to the bill.

“We’ve got to have trust and loyalty from our employees,” said Chuck Reynalds, sheriff of Shoshone County and president of the sheriff’s association. “It’s very difficult to run an organization when a person under you has power to make you look bad.”

The House State Affairs Committee introduced the measure last week, but only by a 10-7 vote. Sandpoint Republican Rep. Eric Anderson, who voted against it, voiced concern about what would happen if the deputy lost the election.

“In the human condition we all live with, the animosity is going to linger,” he said. “You’ve got another four years for conflict to exist.”

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said deputies would be discouraged from running against their bosses if it’s approved.

“Fewer people would run,” said Hart, who voted to introduce the bill, but expressed reservations about it. “It would make it more difficult for the incumbent to lose.”

Hart also was concerned that the bill made the deputy’s leave of absence mandatory.

Kane said he would be lying if he didn’t admit some deputies would be discouraged to run. But he pointed out other states have passed similar legislation. And in some states, like Texas, there are constitutional provisions that say public employees can’t run for public offices, he said.

The 9th District Court of Appeals has ruled that in “quasi-military organizations,” like sheriff departments, the needs of the individual aren’t necessarily as important as those of the organization, Kane said.

“It’s a unique situation,” said Reynalds, noting that a sheriff’s department has the same ranks and levels as the military.

While he wouldn’t go into details, Kane said the three tort claims, which have been filed and are still pending, deal with deputies who argued they were unfairly disciplined or demoted for running against their bosses.

“The people getting this on the neck aren’t just the sheriffs, but the public,” Kane said. “They’re the ones that have to pay for the claims to be filed.”

One of the big reasons for this legislation, Kane said, was that the five counties that had problems all dealt with the conflicts differently. In Twin Falls County, for example, the sheriff put his deputy on a personal leave of absence.

“The sheriffs are adrift on this issue,” he said.

Still, Anderson said this measure won’t solve anything. “You would think a sheriff and his deputy could solve their complaints like men,” he said.

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