Full boil 

Is Sheriff McMeekin losing his control?

Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin is no stranger to the pressures that come with being the county’s top cop. Under his watch the department has been plagued by departmental scandals, repeated crises at the detention center and a handful of personnel disputes that have ended with wrongful dismissal settlements from the county. The sheriff has weathered each of these storms with cool and steady resolve.

But this summer, at the peak of the busiest fire season in years, things may have finally gotten too hot for McMeekin. Last week his deputies publicly turned their backs on the sheriff in a move that threatens to turn the simmering discord within the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department into a full boil.

On Sept. 21 the Missoula County Deputy Sheriff’s Association sent a two-page letter to local media characterizing McMeekin’s behavior as “irrational,” and “detrimental to the Sheriff’s Department.” The letter stems from the widely reported Aug. 16 row between McMeekin and former Undersheriff Mike Dominick, who until this summer had been McMeekin’s No. 2 man.

According to reports, the argument started when Dominick questioned McMeekin’s handling of the Black Cat wildfire near Frenchtown and ended with McMeekin demanding Dominick’s resignation. Details of what led to the brouhaha have, until now, been short in coming. But with the backing of all 45 sworn deputies below the rank of captain, now Deputy Mike Dominick is speaking out.

“Since four or five months ago, the sheriff seemed to have a lack of trust in the two department members he trusted the most: myself and [Patrol] Capt. Carl Ibsen,” Dominick tells the Independent. The seeds of mistrust between McMeekin and his subordinates were sown during a personnel conflict earlier in the year, when Dominick says he challenged his boss because the sheriff “was not giving the employee a fair investigation.”

Dominick declined to reveal details of that incident, saying only that, eventually the sheriff “allowed the investigation to go in the manner that the captain and I believed was the most fair.”

But the cracks between McMeekin and his top officers were already showing. Dominick says it was immediately clear that McMeekin didn’t trust anyone in the department, and when the Mile Marker 124 wildfire east of Missoula ignited, the feeling became mutual.

“I had gotten reports of the sheriff being exhausted, overly tired,” Dominick says. “The deputies that worked with him on the fire were not trusting his decision making. They voiced those concerns to me and they asked for my help.”

The Mile Marker 124 fire was still raging when the department turned its attention to the Jocko Lakes fire near Seeley Lake. Dominick says when he arrived at that fire McMeekin appeared to be “mentally exhausted.”

McMeekin approaches fire management with a fervor that borders on obsession, says Dominick. The sheriff rarely sleeps and micromanages all aspects of the department’s role in the incident command structure,  and his resulting behavior has become increasingly erratic, Dominick says. Their blowup occurred when McMeekin fumed after the undersheriff closed State Hwy. 83 at the request of the Jocko Lakes incident management team.

“I said, ‘I’m closing the highway because the incident commander asked me to close the highway because it was no longer safe.’ The sheriff’s response was, ‘Don’t you think we could’ve waited 12 hours to close the highway? I could have convinced [the incident commander] of that,’” Dominick recalls. “‘Well, you know, in a fast moving fire, if you’re going to make an error, make it on the side of safety,’ is what I told him.”

Dominick returned to Missoula where he says he prepped deputies before sending them out into the field to work the fires. He did that until the Black Cat fire erupted, at which point he and Sgt. Robert Kennedy headed to Frenchtown to coordinate security and traffic operations with Frenchtown Fire Chief Scott Waldron.

“They were very professional and did an excellent job,” Waldron says of Dominick and Kennedy’s performance on the Black Cat fire. “I enjoyed working with them and they performed very well.”

But according to Dominick, McMeekin didn’t share that assessment. At some point during the evening of Aug. 16, two days after Dominick and Kennedy had arrived on the scene, McMeekin showed up and demanded to take over command and control of county units.

“I believed his decision-making at that time was definitely impaired,” Dominick says.

According to Dominick, McMeekin was once again furious that Dominick had, at the behest of Waldron, ordered the closure of a major highway. Dominick declined to comment on the details of the ensuing argument, but he says it was McMeekin’s rage over not being consulted on the closure of the highway that led to the infamous blowup between the two.

The Black Cat Fire Incident Narrative authored by the Type 1 incident management team assigned to that fire seems to corroborate Dominick’s version of events. According to the report, Waldron ordered the closure of the highway after the “fire made a crown run toward the northeast, dumping significant smoke into the canyon.” The report goes on to say that McMeekin said, “Chief Waldron had no such authority” to make that decision.

But according to Montana statute, Waldron, as chief of the Frenchtown Fire District, does indeed have that authority.

“I reported his behavior to both the county commissioners office and the county attorney’s office. I had to make a decision: Was I more loyal to Missoula County and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, or to the man Mike McMeekin? Obviously I had to pick Missoula County,” Dominick recalls.

Sheriff McMeekin declined to comment for this story. However, in a voicemail message to the Independent, he cast doubt on the motive behind the deputies’ letter: “We have some internal things we’re working our way through. As far as the association and that press release, they’re a bargaining unit and they are right in the middle of trying to renegotiate a contract.”

While it’s unclear what will come from the turmoil within the Missoula County Sheriff’s department, the deputies want to make one thing clear: “There will be no reduction in the level of professionalism, service, and concern for public safety currently provided to the citizens of Missoula County.”

As for the embattled McMeekin, this firestorm may be more than even he can weather.
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