Mike Balch: I would work through our Department of Emergency Management people to see that happen. You’re right, we have training available to us through the state and the federal government. It’s important. Our reserve program, our VIPs program, but to get the CERT program started, it is something I would delegate to the emergency management person, Beau Renfro and I would oversee that happen.
Mark Howie: The sheriff’s office has a staff of 64 employees and volunteers; 16 are employees so the rest are volunteers. You’re right, we rely heavily on volunteers. Our DEM coordinator, Beau has been in charge of trying to get people together for that CERT program before he even worked for the sheriff, as a volunteer for the fire department. He has spent hundreds of dollars on advertisement or putting up a booth at the fair. So many people have already been volunteers at three or four services, that’s why he’s only been able to get two or three people signed up. So I don’t know what the answer is. You’re right. We need to have CERT on both ends of this county and people to step up to the plate. It’s trying to get people motivated. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m open to hearing suggestions.
Question: As you know a number of campaign signs for Sheriff Howie have been stolen off private property and all over the west end of the county. The number now is about 20. What will you do when and if you hear reports from your camp of who is responsible for this blatant theft and attack on free speech?
Question: I appreciate as a voter your taking a positive approach. Mark, by Mike saying that the office is not unified or that he wants to unify it, suggest that it’s not, also by wanting to be a working sheriff, it suggests that maybe you’re not.
Mark Howie: The unification of the office, we were down two deputies, one was injured for a length of time. That was over the course of the summer. The two deputies that left were lateral hires, they were here for less than two years. Their wives and families would not commit to move to this county. Neither wanted to move here to this state or this county. One got out of law enforcement altogether, taking a job paying twice as much as here. One was injured for almost two months and took our staff level down so quickly I hired reserves to cover those shifts. Since then we hired a local person that was born and raised in Wahkiakum County. We’re sending him to the academy next week. He’s sharp as anything and can pass the physical better than anybody. At the last forum I read the list of responsibilities for the sheriff, it took me almost two minutes to read them. You cannot be a sheriff from the front seat of a car. I can tell you I go to calls and back up officers just as much as the next guy. The roles and the responsibilities of the sheriff are enormous. The majority of the time you can’t even get out of the office at the beginning of the morning because there are five people that need to see you. You have an undersheriff that helps you, but he’s out flagging calls. If there is nobody else to back an officer I get a call. As a sheriff I’m there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With five deputies you can’t run the department and have them out on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week but we are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have to prioritize when to have people on the street or available for backup. The last three years I’ve been here I’ve averaged between 45 and 50 hours a week. Most people can figure out that it’s a bigger job than going out in a patrol car.
Question: This is for Deputy Balch, you’ve been here almost your entire career, almost 30 years, serving under Sheriff Strong, Sheriff Bardsley, Sheriff Dearmore and now Sheriff Howie. My question is, none of them have appointed you to undersheriff or to an advanced position. I’m not clear why you think you’re now ready to take the very big step from deputy into the sheriff’s position.
Mike Balch: In 2002, I was offered the position of undersheriff for Sheriff Bardsley. I turned him down because I didn’t feel it was the time to take it. Since then I just felt at this time in my career, it’s time. It’s time to go for the head job to lead the county. Being sheriff is a lot about relationships. I think I have the relationships with the people in the courthouse, the community and I’ve gained a lot of trust, a lot of knowledge about what a leader needs to do. At this point in my career, I think it’s time. My wife and I discussed it this year and because of some personal family setbacks, we did not register for the job. I got written in the primary and instead of concentrating on what was negative in our lives, my wife and I decided to turn that into something positive and run for the office of sheriff. Timing is now better than it was.
Question: You mention the turnaround in the last couple years. You also mentioned a lack of unification. How do you look to stabilize and keep the retention from here on out?
Mark Howie: The first thing for me is selecting the right people. When we hired the last two laterals, we didn’t have a lot of people sign up for that. Selection is really key in retention. Like I said, this last young man that we hired, his family ties are here and he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. He went away to school and came back. He’s planted here. We had very serious things happen in our office in the last year. Three very tragic deaths and it’s been very hard on us. I have cared about every single one in that office, the ones that left as well. I care very deeply about this community. It takes a lot of sacrifice to be the sheriff. Mike’s right, it takes relationships, but it takes more than that. It takes relationships to be a good deputy but it takes more to make a good sheriff.
Mike Balch: The fundamental choosing of deputies is right, but we are probably going to have half a new department at the first of the year and you have to do things to make them want to stay. You have to offer them training opportunities. I took the job knowing what the job pays. We’re only going to get “x” amount of money in Wahkiakum county. You have to make the job as attractive as you can with what you have. I plan to do that if I get elected and make it an attractive place to stay and work. My wife and I have found a home here and we care about the people here and that’s important, because it’s certainly not about the money. Because his phone does ring 24 hours a day and when I’m on call my phone rings 24 hours a day.
Question from former Sheriff Dan Bardsley: For Mark and Mike can answer it too if he wants, the office has had some terrible tragedies. This department is very close knit. Right now the morale in this department is very low. The last couple of years you’ve had deputies leave, the last couple of months you’ve been down two that you haven’t replaced. Your communications officer left. You’ve already got people actively looking elsewhere. What are you going to do to take care of people that work for you?
Mark Howie: The morale issue you’ve talked about, that’s the first I’ve heard of it. I don’t know where you are getting that. I don’t know if that’s what my opponent has told you. We had a party yesterday. The morale is pretty darn good for all the things that happened last year. Deputies leave. Two deputies left when Jon was there, deputies left when you were there. That happens, that’s called attrition. People are not going to stay there their whole life. That’s not reality in this day and age. For us to pay one of the lowest salaries for a police officer or a deputy in this state, they are using us as a stepping stone. Any time you bring somebody in, you run the risk of them leaving, because there’s nowhere to go, there’s no upward mobility. Creating a sergeant position, I polled every single deputy in that office; they were ecstatic for that. It gives them another step up, more training, more experience and allows for upward mobility and when I’m long gone it allows somebody to maybe step up into the undersheriff or sheriff position. That sergeant is still a deputy. He still handles calls, he still makes arrests, he does everything a deputy does but he is a supervisor on the weekends and at night so that me and the undersheriff don’t get calls 24 hours a day. He’s trained to be a leader and a supervisor. The morale in that department especially now we’ve got more people coming on--we’re not going to be in la la land. We can’t go back two years from now. There are other realities to deal with. As far as staffing level, we’re still down one deputy that’s in our budget, the shifts are still being covered by two other part-time people and myself and the undersheriff.
Question: Mike, my understanding is you’ve got some heart problems. If you want my vote, I’d sort of like to make sure in advance that you are going to be the sheriff full time and not have some health problems and end up being part time sheriff.
Mike Balch: I just got done with the cardiologist appointment for congestive heart failure and general health from my primary care physician. They both gave me a clean bill of health. They tell me I’m duly able. I want to keep my health as good as I can. I try walking as much as I can because the doctor recommends low impact for me. They tell me I’m okay. They tell me I’m managing it and I appreciate the concern.
Mark Howie: The first thing that came into my head is domestic violence. The bulk of the phone calls that come in on the weekend they are either DUIs, drunk and disorderly, or domestic violence. We have a great prosecutor’s office that has an advocate and we’ve learned to work closely with the prosecutor’s office as well as the Charlotte House to try and move through that. It’s very difficult when you live in a smaller county, you have juries that tend to know both parties and tend to be more lenient on those that are arrested for domestic violence, so we tend to arrest them several times. But the other issue that I see as sheriff, is really mental health issues. You mix that in with crime and drinking and using, we have a big problem. We’re seeing it in our jail. We’re packed with 14. At any given time we might have a third of those that we are bringing in health and human services to help us out with their issues and if we can’t address it we have to take them to the hospital to get medication. It’s a very big concern and some people, if they are let out without the help that they need, and they are out in the community without medication, that’s my concern.
Mike Balch: I want to answer that also with animal control problems that seem to rise up in a very big way. They are challenging both our budget and manpower, because of the amount of people living closer together on the Island and the Westend. Our dog complaints, our animal complaints are huge. Is it as big of concern, I’d say no. In the juvenile area, I’d say our cyber stalking and cell phone crimes are just going crazy. Social media is a big issue. We’re just getting into that now. But domestic violence and crimes related to drugs, thefts, and things for meth users is a big problem.
Question: There used to be standards for fitness. Do you have to be fit?
Mark Howie: In the old days you could have that standard and risk losing your job or being suspended. Nowadays you can’t do that, we can’t dictate to the unions what a health standard is to keep their jobs. As cops, our adrenal glands go up and down, we crave sugar, there is an element to that. The only way I can see right now and what I’ve tried to do and encourage people, is to continue offering when deputies overlap, allow them an hour to work out. They can also do that down the street at the fire hall. I’m trying to lead by example. I’m still over weight, but I’m gradually going down. I’m going out every other day and working out and getting on a treadmill. It takes work. To try and offer incentives that way, a lot of agencies, ones that can afford it will offer a premium incentive. If in six months they take the test and they pass, they get an extra $100 a month premium. It’s something we might be able to work out with the union to do. It’s actually increased the fitness level in other agencies.
Mike Balch: I’d also think the best way to work with that, as a union guy, is to work with the unions to provide incentives. One of the things I said to start off with is that I wanted to create a more positive atmosphere and I think that would. Fitness always equates into better feeling, better sense of pride in one’s self. Every time I go to my doctor’s appointments they say I need more time a week in low impact exercise. The Cathlamet fire department and Grays River have made their gyms in their fire houses open to the law enforcement officers all times of the day and night and that is a huge positive because sometimes the only time is in the middle of the night.