There’s a new sheriff coming to town. Voters in Kootenai County are electing the first new top law enforcer in 13 years because Sheriff Rocky Watson is retiring.
Three Republicans are vying in the May 15 primary. The winner will face three Independent candidates in the November general election: former deputies Joe Bodman and Tom Dickson and Coeur d’Alene City Code Enforcement Officer Bob Foster.
Two of the GOP candidates are familiar names in Kootenai County, Maj. Ben Wolfinger and Keith Hutcheson. The third is constitution law attorney John Green who ran for the Idaho Senate in 2010.
Wolfinger, 50, is likely most recognizable to residents because as the department spokesman he is in the news almost daily. Hired as a deputy at 21, Wolfinger has spent his career with the sheriff’s department, managing every department during the last 29 years. But he is clear that his leadership style – one of compromise and openness – is much different than his longtime boss Sheriff Watson and that he is more fiscally conservative.
Hutcheson, 44, recently stepped down as the Coeur d’Alene Tribal police chief to run for sheriff. The former fireman switched to law enforcement when he moved to Kootenai County in 1996. He worked for the Benewah County Sheriff’s Department for a year before becoming a Kootenai County deputy and then detective. He is known for his work with drug dogs, such as his beloved Baron. He is currently chairman of the Kootenai County Fire and Rescue Commission.
Green is a former Texas deputy and attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. John Hammond, R-Post Falls, in 2010. Green didn’t return phone calls but sent an email saying he was down with the flu and to use his website for information.
Although not running for the Constitution Party, Green’s campaign website shows a photo of the Constitution and reads that as sheriff he would “support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Idaho, against all those who would trample upon the rights of the citizens.”
The most conservative of the candidates, Green’s website from his 2010 state senate campaign states he believes the Internal Revenue Code is an “abomination” and that Idaho should protect its citizens from the fraud of “fiat” money.
While working as a Houston attorney, Green represented tax protester Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who stopped paying income tax in 1996. Last month the Idaho Supreme Court ordered Hart, who is seeking re-election, to pay more than $53,000 in delinquent taxes.
Green was barred from practice for five years in the Eastern District of Texas in 2004 for making a “recklessly false” statement when questioning the integrity of a magistrate while he was representing another persistent tax protester. An official at the State Bar of Texas said the disciplinary sanction applies specifically to the federal court and that Green has no record of public disciplinary history with the state bar.
One of the largest issues in the race is what to do about the overcrowded jail. Currently Kootenai County ships up to 50 inmates a month out of the county, costing about $900,000 a year. Voters twice rejected proposals to expand the 325-bed jail.
Wolfinger, who managed the jail during the last $12.5 million expansion in 2000, said the facility was designed for future expansion as the county population grows. He said the overcrowding problem isn’t going away and building new cells, especially for high-risk inmates, will only get more expensive.
He argues that a quick-fix remodel of a work-release center next door to the jail isn’t a good, or long-term, solution. He added that a remodel is likely more expensive than an expansion because the work-release center doesn’t meet fire codes for long-term housing and there is no medical or recreational area.
“There are some real leadership needs,” Wolfinger said. “It’s time to step it up and take it from here.”
Hutcheson said there’s no reason to ask voters a third time. Instead he believes the county should convert the work-release center and leftover money from local justice programs could be used to pay for the remodel. It’s a better use of resources and will save the county money now being spent transporting inmates to jails in other counties, he said.
“We need to start thinking differently and bring in a fresh perspective,” Hutcheson said.
As tribal police chief, Hutcheson said he has spent the last six years adopting more professional standards for the police department and rewriting the policy manual to increase transparency. He also updated technology, including a new records-management system and body cameras worn by officers, and said he established better relationships with other agencies such as social services, probation and the courts.
Hutcheson said he can improve morale and retention at the sheriff’s department in many of the same ways. Besides raises, especially for deputies who have worked five years or more, he said the department needs to make clear what is expected of each employee.
Retention is one of the main problems for the sheriff’s department, which for years has lost experienced deputies to higher-paying Spokane County. Even though the department’s budget has doubled in the past decade, it is still below the state average of officers.
Wolfinger agrees that raises are needed for mid-level employees. He said just a $2 per hour raise would mean an extra $4,000 per year for a fifth-year deputy and help keep people with experience and loyalty in the department.
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