The three-way race for Missoula County sheriff stacks up as perhaps the most wide-open and significant bout on the Nov. 2 ballot. With incumbent Mike McMeekin entering retirement and 14 percent of the department's administrative officers expected to follow suit within the next few months, the county's next top lawman inherits a department in clear transition.
As part of the Independent's ongoing election coverage, we size up each candidate, and then pose five questions about how they hope to lead the department into the future.
Name: Carl Ibsen
Years with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office: 17
Defining feature: Freak-ishly manicured mustache
Secret to the 'stache: "Lots of wax."
Selling points: A long history combating drunk driving and domestic violence, both with the sheriff's office and the Missoula Police Department. Ibsen says one of his main priorities in curbing these problems is to seek harder punishments through the Montana Legislature. He also hopes to improve female officer retention, which he says has been historically poor.
Concerns: Ibsen has a lot of great ideas, from creating a domestic violence team to hiring a professional detention center administrator, but no clear plan of how to pay for them. With a tight budget and the loss of much of the department's leadership, it's uncertain how he'll meet his lofty campaign goals.
Indy: You jumped into service with the Missoula Police Department shortly after returning from military service in Vietnam in 1971. What prompted you to enter local law enforcement?
Ibsen: For me, it was a real simple deal. I wasn't a kid that wanted to be a jet pilot or an astronaut or a fireman. I wasn't like that. As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a soldier and I wanted to be a policeman. I was a soldier, then I went to be a policeman. That's still all I want to be.
Indy: Just over a year ago, you lost your wife, prominent Assistant City Attorney Judy Wang, in an accident with a drunk driver near Anaconda. How has that changed your sense of priority in changing Missoula's DUI culture?
Ibsen: My wife and I were already pretty well focused on it. But let's say that gave it a personal face. We always figured that there was a reasonable chance that, shoot, I'd get in a car wreck out on the highway on a call or someone would shoot me when I pulled them over...It has kind of solidified the desire to really work it hard.
Indy: You've stated publicly that, if elected, you plan to appoint Sgt. Mike Dominick as your undersheriff. Considering his 2007 confrontation with McMeekin—which resulted in Dominick resigning from the undersheriff position—how do you think the department will react to Dominick's reappointment?
Ibsen: When that occurred with Dominick, the uniform patrol captain resigned his position in protest. That was me. So we're both kind of polarizing to some of the people, but that's okay. One thing you learn in this line of work is if you want to be popular, go be a fireman. Everybody loves a fireman.
Indy: You've listed a number of planned improvements to the sheriff's department, but many of those come with a pretty hefty price tag. How do you plan to fund, for example, the increase in cost in hiring a specialized detention center administrator?
Ibsen: We might make up enough on efficiency and we might make up enough on lawsuits that are mitigated or that don't happen at all, 'cause we get sued all the time. We might make up that difference in cost. We might even make up more.
Indy: Describe McMeekin in one sentence.
Ibsen: Sheriff McMeekin is a hardworking, honest gentleman who has dedicated four decades...to serving his country and his community, and just like all of us, we all have idiosyncrasies, we all have something that irritates people.
Name: Brad Giffin
Years with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office: 21
Defining feature: Deep affection for the Zac Brown Band
Favorite tracks: "I just like all their stuff."
Selling points: A glass-half-full mentality. Giffin has a plan to deal with the combined loss of 163 years of department experience, and has penciled out potential assignments for division leaders based on his experience training those within the department. He intends to leave a few vacancies in upper management to keep experience on the streets. "The silver lining is that you have a huge opportunity to make the sheriff's office a better place—make it operate better, more smoothly," he says.
Concerns: Giffin promises to be open and accessible if elected, but he sometimes struggles to articulate his point. The result is a lack of detail regarding his vision for the department beyond DUI enforcement and personnel issues. Also, his notions on keeping the budget in the black appear dependent on pooling resources with other local agencies.
Indy: This isn't your first bid for Missoula County Sheriff; you ran against McMeekin back in 2006. How has your campaign approach changed this election cycle?
Giffin: I don't really think it's changed at all because I've always said the election is really not about me. I'm not an arrogant man. I'm not somebody who is out looking for the power of the sheriff. I'm a man who is running for sheriff to do good things not only for the sheriff's office but for the community, and that's what I ran on before.
Indy: What's your first priority when it comes to cracking down on Missoula's DUI culture?
Giffin: A comprehensive compliance program, like the one used by the Missoula Police Department. "Education followed up by enforcement means fewer drunk drivers on the road, meaning the one or two deputies I can assign to do that will be more successful. It's not going to solve the problem, but I think it's a better option because we're certainly not doing it right now. It's worthy of a try.
Indy: You've stressed the importance of training personnel in how to identify inmates at the county detention center who suffer from mental illness. How do you plan to make up for the lack of crisis intervention facilities in Missoula County?
Giffin: I would want people in the mental health community to have a committee basically to discuss these things, to find out where some funding might be available and how we could actually set up a temporary facility for people who have been identified as having a mental illness...It's going to have to be eventually discussed with the county commissioners, but my philosophy on leadership is that you can't just complain about things. If you're going to complain, you damn well better have at least a couple of solutions that are reasonable. To come up with those solutions you need to involve a bunch of people.
Indy: A few months back we wrote about the interests listed on your Facebook profile, specifically Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Patriots. You said afterward you didn't support either. In retrospect, would you have handled anything differently as the Democratic candidate in this race?
Giffin: The bottom line is I'm pretty Facebook stupid. If you've looked at my Facebook thing, I've been afraid to touch the dang thing.
Indy: McMeekin, in one sentence?
Giffin: To be fair, I have to say anybody, whether they're successful or not, who serves the public is an honorable man because I don't think people who don't do public service recognize how difficult that job is.
Name: Nick Lisi
Years with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office: 0
Defining feature: A line on his resume about once protecting Pope John XXII
Souvenir from the experience: A St. Christopher medal blessed by Pope John XXII
Selling points: Lisi has a detailed plan for cutting costs at the sheriff's office that focuses on reducing the number of lawsuits filed against the department. Through what he calls "Liability Incident Response Training," he hopes to track information on the actions that lead to litigation and direct the department's training efforts on avoiding similar situations. The information gathered could also be invaluable in court when lawsuits do arise.
Concerns: Lisi has suggested confiscating a drunk driver's car and selling it to pay for rehab and incarceration—a move he admits could directly impact an individual's livelihood. And he seems to think that punishment is the only thing keeping your average Missoula citizen from committing murder. "Most citizens don't go out and shoot somebody," he says, "because they don't want to do a life term in prison or get the gas chamber or electric chair." Lisi also hopes to use the Montana Meth Project—the effectiveness of which is in serious question—as a model for "unselling" alcohol among minors.
Indy: You're a true outsider in this race, running up against two veteran Missoula County Sheriff's Office employees. How does that work to your advantage or disadvantage?
Lisi: What it gives me is that fresh perspective. I have no ties or friendships, so it allows me to make decisions when I get in there and see something because I'm not part of that system that's been established for 31 years. I can see a clear and unclouded view and I can make those hard decisions I have to make to make the sheriff's office run...I've got the education. I'm truly the only candidate that has a clear, fresh perspective because I am an outsider.
Indy: The sheriff's department has gone through serious rough patches over the past few years, and the public's perception of the office hasn't always been stellar. What is your first priority in making sure the next administration doesn't repeat those mistakes?
Lisi: You want to raise morale, and I know you raise morale through knowing your people. In interviewing them and talking to them, I'll get to know these people. You need to know them, their backgrounds...I'll have to learn that, that's true. What I want is to just gain their respect. I don't expect to come in and have everybody want to be on the same page as me at first.
Indy: You've stated on your campaign website that you plan to use the Montana Meth Project as a model for anti-DUI education in Missoula County, despite some criticism of the program's effectiveness. Why do you think that's a worthy investment?
Lisi: Meth was in an epidemic stage in 2005, and alcohol's in an epidemic stage here now with these DUIs. You see one guy, it's not his first DUI. In the newspapers, it's his fourth or fifth or 10th...The idea is to start them young. What [MMP] did was they unsold meth, they made it unpopular. That's what we've got to do with alcohol, because alcohol is the number two most widely used and abused drug in the country. It's readily available, just like meth was, and it's reasonably cheap.
Indy: We noticed in your campaign bio that, among other training instructor qualifications, you're a third degree black belt instructor. Have you ever had to use those martial arts skills on the job?
Lisi: A couple times. Nothing serious other than leg sweeps, a take down or two. I did have one guy square off against me—he was a martial artist too—but he changed his mind...It's a lot of self-discipline, a lot of humility, and I think it's good for everyone to learn something like that.
Indy: McMeekin, in one sentence?
Lisi: I can't say much about the guy; I haven't really talked to him much other than when I first got out here, and he just explained to me his feelings on big city police and I didn't agree with him—I thought he was wrong.