Fire season claimed its first casualty this week. Who knew it would be the sheriff’s department?
As the Missoulian reported Tuesday, Sheriff Mike McMeekin got into a tiff with Undersheriff Mike Dominick while on fire duty last week and either demoted him to patrol sergeant or tweaked Dominick until he stepped down. On Monday, apparently, McMeekin demanded Dominick’s full resignation from the department. County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg intervened and announced that Dominick remains a deputy. McMeekin, suddenly exhausted from a month of fire-hopping, “decided” to take a week off to “recover physically and mentally,” leaving previously unknown Captain Carl Ibsen in charge until Aug. 28.
What to make of this?
The Missoulian report is almost as cryptic as the “cryptic late-afternoon statement” the paper says McMeekin released through Van Valkenburg Monday. That statement was never sent to the Independent, and when we asked for a copy Tuesday, the staffer who answered the phone said she’d never seen it. Van Valkenburg was in court and didn’t return a call by press time Wednesday morning.
McMeekin’s “statement,” as excerpted in the Missoulian, uses the word “require” twice in reference to the sheriff’s time-out. We’re unaware of any “requirement” that McMeekin suddenly take a week off. And if you were indeed “required” to take an unscheduled week off in the heat of fire season, would you start by canning the man designated to hold down the fort while you were gone?
Not if you were lucid you wouldn’t.
The Missoula Technology and Development Center recommends one hour of rest for every two hours of fire duty. If those guidelines require McMeekin to take a week of rest, he must have been working at least two straight weeks, 24 hours a day. That would put him at risk alright. “Long shifts and lack of sleep impair cognitive function more quickly than they impair physical productivity,” the Center’s report explains.
And why is Van Valkenburg’s office involved? McMeekin reports to voters and county commissioners. Van Valkenburg’s most obvious interest in a leadership meltdown at the sheriff’s department is that he’s the one who has to defend the county every time McMeekin decides another deputy needs to be made an example of.
Let’s not discount Sheriff McMeekin’s unquestioned valor in responding to the call of duty. But a leader needs to know how to manage himself if he’s to be expected to manage an organization, especially one as critical as the Sheriff’s Department. He can’t just go running himself ragged and leaving his team in chaos, no matter how noble the pursuit. But according to everything we know so far, that’s exactly what he’s done.