Mike Balch has 29 years of experience in the department and serves as the department’s detective. Tukwila Police Department officer Mark Howie joined the department several years ago as undersheriff under Sheriff Jon Dearmore and was appointed to be sheriff almost a year ago upon Dearmore’s death.
Both candidates have appeared at community forums; here is another look at them.
Mark Howie has worked in law enforcement for 23 years. His career path was clear to him at the age of 16 when winning a Kiwanis essay contest gave him a chance to attend a state patrol sponsored law enforcement camp. He was born in Boise, Idaho, graduated from a high school in Spokane and received a BA in Marine Transportation with a minor in Public Administration at the University of Washington. At 25, he found a home with the Tukwila Police Department.
“I always had a calling for law enforcement,” Howie said. “I knew I would be going into enforcement of some sort. And public service, really.”
Mark and his wife, Deb, came to the Cathlamet area to visit his mom. Eventually, they bought a home, spending many weekends here and making friends. It wasn’t long before they were calling this a second home. On one of those visits he met former sheriff, the late Jon Dearmore, and found a great camaraderie with the man. Their friendship and a shared philosophy of law enforcement moved Dearmore to ask Howie to join the force as his second in command, in the role as undersheriff.
“We’d talk about law enforcement and became really good friends for about five or six years before he offered me the job,” Howie said. “Our vision for law enforcement with the sheriff’s office and service was really parallel, so we knew we’d work really well together.”
According to Howie, in the 20 plus years he’s spent in law enforcement, he’s had over 3400 hours of law enforcement training. He holds a certificate for first line supervision, middle management and has had executive leadership training with the FBI, who, he says, “cater their training to chiefs or sheriffs.”
He is running for office to continue the vision that he and Dearmore shared and because he loves what he does.
“I want to continue to lead our department in the right direction and continue to improve upon the things that Jon and I both started out doing and that I’ve continued to do this year. I want to continue to build a higher trust and partnerships with the community. The ultimate goal is to keep our citizens safe and secure. I really care about our community and I care a lot about our department and our wellbeing, we’ve been through a lot of stuff this year. I want to be a consistent person and be a stable figure in our department.”
“We all see the effects if we don’t cope with the stresses of this job,” Howie said. “If we don’t have people in top condition in all those arenas, we’re not at our best to serve the community.”
He wants to continue to build on the community’s trust in the sheriff’s office. According to Howie, while working with Dearmore, they began to reach out to neighborhood groups. They started a block watch on the Westend when there was a problem with theft.
“Since the beginning of the year, I’ve put a deputy on the west end, to man the substation at Johnson Park on Tuesday afternoons, and the word was starting to get around and people would stop in. We’re more visible over there. I’ve directed deputies to at least one time on their shift to drive over there. I drive over there. That was important to me as a sheriff, just being really accessible to our community.”
The sheriff’s office will continue to wear the new uniform as a source of pride, which Dearmore and Howie believed had become lax in past years.
Howie hopes to work with commissioners to fund another officer position while waiting to hear if the department will receive a federal grant for a school resource officer.
School violence is a hot topic in police departments everywhere, and it’s no different here. Howie has sent deputies to be trained in mass casualty and school incidents. He hopes to create practice drills for the school and the courthouse. While meeting with local teachers, his staff completed a security assessment of the school and found problems that were quickly addressed, including locking down outer doors and creating a single access to the high school. Classroom door locks in the high school were changed to a simple thumb lock, handier than keys in a situation that may require quick thinking and even quicker action. Howie hopes to continue to work with teachers and staff, as well as his own officers to keep students safe.
“I really enjoy this job, even with all the trials and tribulations of the last year,” Howie said, alluding to the loss of his friend and colleague, Dearmore.
After 29 years of service with the Wahkiakum County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Mike Balch has decided to run for sheriff. He and his wife Darlene had considered declaring his candidacy for the office next year, but when he joined the election as a write-in, an honor he didn’t expect, they decided it was time.
“After a while, just working on the line, you want to do something different,” Balch said, “but with our son dying recently, it just wasn’t quite the year. After we were told I was going to be on the ballot, we thought, why sit around and mope and worry about things we can’t change. My son died, that’s a horrible thing. If my wife and I can change that negative into something positive and go forward and put our minds to this election, this is good, this is what Jonathon would have wanted.
“I think it’s just natural,” he added, “after so many years I want to try the top spot. I want to be there. I want to try and lead this department and it’s hard to do that from the line position.”
Balch graduated from Clallam Bay High School and went on to Pacific Lutheran University, where he received a degree in Communication Arts and Broadcast Journalism. While working as a disc jockey for a local radio station, he frequently visited the Forks Police Department to pick up the sheriff’s report for his show. He got to know the sheriff and when a position in dispatch came open, he was offered the job. When he asked about a background check or testing for the position, the sheriff told him, “Mike, I’ve known your family forever. I’ve already done my background investigation.”
Balch started out as a dispatch jailer, receiving training in corrections. While training as a reserve officer he found that he really enjoyed the work. A couple years later he met former Wahkiakum Sheriff Gene Strong and was offered a position in Cathlamet. He jumped at the chance.
“I scored number one on the civil service test back in ‘84 and he hired me,” Balch said, “my first day was July 9 of that year and I’ve been working here ever since.”
Balch went to the basic law enforcement academy and has continued to receive more than 3000 hours in training over the years. He’s had first level supervision training and gone through the field officer training program. He’s been at the department for 29 years now, on patrol, responding to calls and working as a detective. According to Balch, he’s been given the responsibility to train new officers several times, a trust given him by more than one sheriff.
He’s also found a leadership role as a board member with the local Assembly of God church.
He wants to bring back the working sheriff and undersheriff. With a small crew, he feels it is important to have everyone out and visible in the community.
“I’ve been through four sheriffs and I’ve seen good and I’ve seen bad. And I think the good parts were when you had a working sheriff that kept in touch with what the people wanted.”
Balch is concerned about the negative image of the black uniforms that the department is currently wearing. If elected, he would return to a more neutral look in hopes of making the department more approachable and as a complement to his desire to see the department go back to what he terms as “community policing.”
“I don’t think they send the right message. People look at TV or social media and they see black and they get the idea of SWAT team or special cert teams or whatever. I want to go back to traditional sheriff’s uniform, the tan and green. I don’t want to be scary to the public, I don’t want the sheriff’s office to be this aloof thing.”
He goes on to explain his vision of community policing, of leading an approachable department that wants to have a hand in creating a safer environment for all.
“I want to change the attitude that you just can’t talk to us when we’re in uniform. We’re part of the community. [The community] is too small not to be that way. We’re in the community too, we want to see those problems solved also.”
Balch admits he has a lot to learn about certain aspects of the job, including the handling of the department budget. He prefers to see it in its simplest form.
“You have a pot of money; that is your budget. My job with the help of other people in the office would be to make sure those budgets stay within the realm.”
One of his hopes, if elected, is to create a budget that looks out for the future in case, he said, “things go south.”
He’s also quick to point out, “People know me. Sheriff is a relational type of job. So far that I know, I get along with Dan Cothren, Mike Backman and Blair Brady. I get along with everybody in the court system. I think that’s a real strength for me.”
Balch has seen people come and go over the years, noting that several officers and personnel have left the sheriff’s office recently. He considers the sheriff’s office as family and doesn’t understand the high turnover.
“I hope with my leadership, leading from the top,” Balch said, “that we’d get a more stable group of people.
“Self-promotion is not something I’m comfortable with,” Balch said. Nevertheless, when pressed, he described himself as an ethical, loyal, and honest man with a pretty good handle on the community he represents.
“I think if I can’t do something for you or if I don’t know, I have learned it’s much better to tell you ‘I don’t know’, than to try and make something up to please you at the time. This is a one year term, basically. What am I going to accomplish in one year? Hopefully the relationship thing and the administrative thing and then I will run again next year. There is not going to be this humongous change, I don’t want to fool anybody by that or make anybody think it’s all going to happen that quick. It can’t. It has to start somewhere and you have to start building some sort of consistency. I think that’s the strength of a leader. Police work is police work.”