Battle for the badge 

Inter-office upheaval colors Missoula County sheriff's race

For the past few weeks, Bob Parcell, Missoula County's resident deputy in the Seeley-Swan, has been talking up the physical distance between his current jurisdiction and the office he's hoping to lead. Parcell is one of three current sheriff's office employees vying to replace the outgoing Carl Ibsen on the Democratic primary ticket in June—a vote that, for lack of a Republican challenger, will effectively decide the next sheriff. And while his position away from the county's main population center may normally seem like a hindrance, this year's race is anything but normal.

"Everything's off kilter, and I hate that," Parcell says. "I've been in this outfit for 32 years and I want it to succeed and I want it to do the best it can for the citizens. Right now, we're kind of off on tangents with these two factions, and I want to correct that."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Three current Missoula County Sheriff’s Office employees are vying to replace Carl Ibsen in the Democratic primary this June. Inter-office turmoil has become a prominent part of the campaign.

Those inter-office "factions," as Parcell calls them, formed over the past year in the wake of a human rights complaint filed against Ibsen by Detective Sgt. T.J. McDermott, another sheriff's race contender. McDermott says he'd been frozen out of promotions and transfers in response to his intent to run in the 2014 election. Detective Jason Johnson, whom McDermott had identified as his prospective undersheriff, also filed a complaint after he was removed from his position as the department's public information officer. Johnson's political discrimination charge was affirmed by the Montana Human Rights Bureau following an investigation, and Missoula County settled with McDermott and Johnson for $60,000 each.

"This has been super difficult," McDermott says. "It has been very uncomfortable to work at the sheriff's office. Unfortunately, when it became known that I was going to run for sheriff, I immediately began suffering adverse employment actions which led to the filing of a human rights complaint. ... I am limited on the things that I can say, but it's important for people to know that number one, the reason this human rights complaint was filed was because I simply wanted the discrimination and retaliation to stop."

Undersheriff Josh Clark, who also threw his hat in the ring for sheriff at this month's filing deadline, acknowledges that the department has hit some turbulence. People within the office choose sides, he says, as is their right. But he chalks up the temporary disruption to typical political gamesmanship.

"I believe the turmoil is part of a campaign strategy," Clark says. "It's a strong campaign strategy to stir some of this stuff up, but it's also part of the everyday world of politics. I understand that."

Clark feels the election itself will go a long way in calming existing tensions. A majority of the staff are "hardworking, honorable people," he says. While there are some challenges during campaigns, Clark believes the office will "go back to just more of a normal working environment once the election is over"—though he is willing to confront any lingering problems afterwards if need be.

"Some of us might have had our differences, but we're moving forward," Clark says. "This is what you can expect from me, this is what I expect from you, and just move forward that way. I would address it and remind people we're all on the same team, we're all on the same page. We don't always have to agree, but when we disagree, we'll do it respectfully."

For Parcell and McDermott, however, the healing process poses one of the most significant challenges for whoever steps in to fill Ibsen's shoes. A third human rights complaint was filed against Ibsen, Clark and other officials last month by a female deputy in the department, and based on conversations with deputies, detention officers and civilian staff, McDermott says morale in the department "is low." Both he and Parcell boast about being best suited to pull things back together.

Between Clark and McDermott at least, local support appears to be starkly divided. Clark comes endorsed by numerous senior officials from the department, including Ibsen and former Undersheriff Mike Dominick. McDermott has the bipartisan backing of a host of politicians including Democratic state Rep. Ellie Hill and former Republican County Commissioner Barbara Evans. Mayor John Engen and county commission Chairwoman Jean Curtiss serve as McDermott's campaign co-chairs.

"I hold Detective McDermott in the highest regard," Engen wrote in endorsing McDermott. "T.J. has the respect of both City and County law enforcement officers and the experience, over his 18-year career, to be a top law enforcement leader. Our citizens can't ask for a better person to become sheriff—I fully support his candidacy."

Parcell, meanwhile, hasn't garnered much in the way of local support. He lost his last Democratic primary bid in 2010 to Sheriff's Capt. Brad Giffin by fewer than 1,000 votes, but isn't necessarily concerned with a lack of recognition. "It's not like I'm up in Siberia," he says. Rather, he's making political hay out of his detachment from the troubles in Missoula proper.

"I think what you need is somebody outside of those factions coming in and saying, 'I've got this. Let's get this worked out,'" Parcell says. "They both can work for me. I'm not sure that they could work for each other. It'd be really tough."

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