It has not been an easy four years in the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department. Tumult at the no-longer-new and long-filled detention center, personnel scandals and a small flood of grumbling and rumors have painted an electoral target on incumbent Sheriff Mike McMeekin’s back. Two current department employees—Lt. Brad Giffin and Detective Dave Fowlkes—are running against him in the Democratic primary. Department retiree Don Morman, who came in second to McMeekin in the 2002 Democratic primary, waits in the wings this time as the unopposed Republican candidate. And though none of the candidates seems to want to make the campaign personal, it’s clear from talking to all three that the election’s number-one issue is McMeekin himself.
Their issues, they say, are the same ones raised by current and former sheriff’s department employees in the Aug. 25 Independent article “McMeekin’s Challenge”: an autocratic, top-down management style, administrative inconsistency, favoritism and botched investigative work. The result, critics say, is a morale crisis in the department that threatens to manifest itself as poorer public service than the public deserves.
McMeekin’s response is essentially the same as it was then: His leadership style, he says, is “democratic,” and “for most of the department, there is no ‘low morale issue’” excepting that “…a small group of disgruntled employees has spent the past several months doing their best to disrupt operations and create discord. Other employees are, naturally, unhappy when facing such negativity when they come to work and, as a result, morale suffers in those areas.”
Dr. John Stowers, quoted extensively in the Independent article on medical inadequacies and apparent illegalities in the operation of the detention center’s medical facility (contracted out last year to a Great Falls company) runs the boot-McMeekin website www.newsheriffmslaco.com. Lt. Ty Evenson, also quoted in the article on his personnel dispute with the sheriff, filed for office as a Republican but later withdrew after deciding that Morman had the better shot at unseating the sheriff.
A year-old departmental PAC, Missoula County Deputies for Ethical Government, has since changed its name to The Missoula City-County Public Safety Political Action Committee and endorsed Giffin.
Giffin is the race’s only real newcomer (Fowlkes and Morman both ran in 2002).
He’s running on his Missoula roots and his experience. A native and Hellgate graduate, his great grandmother was Missoula’s first police matron. His father served 27 years as chief of the Missoula County Reserve Deputy unit and he himself boasts 17 years experience in the department, during which he’s worked as a patrol officer, deputy coroner, tactical team leader and training officer. He’s also a veteran of four years in the United States Marine Corps and a graduate of the F.B.I. National Academy. Throughout his career he’s had the idea of running for sheriff in the back of his mind, he says, and decided now was the time because of what he describes as a dearth of positive leadership in the department. It’s the first elective office he’s sought, and he says he’s uncomfortable with the politicking involved, but he agrees that the race is largely a referendum on current leadership and says the biggest reason he’s running is to restore pride in the department. Deputies rarely see the sheriff, Giffin says, and if elected he says he would change that.
Fowlkes, a 30-year veteran of the department, is mounting his second run for sheriff. He’s a Billings-born Navy vet of the Vietnam era and remains active in various veterans organizations, serving as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars 1507 Honor Guard. Fowlkes is also the co-director of security for the Western Montana Fair and the concert chairman for the Missoula County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, among other extracurricular duties.
Fowlkes is the only candidate to make a point of his party affiliation, claiming 20 active years with the Missoula Democratic Central Committee, though he agrees with his fellow challengers that the sheriff’s race should be nonpartisan, and effectively is.
Asked what makes him the best man for the job, he describes the relationships he’s built over three decades in law enforcement and community service as an asset that would help him effectively navigate the challenges of running a tightly budgeted department in a fast-growing county. An ideal sheriff, he says, ought to be simultaneously authoritative, like former sheriff John C. Moe, and open to good ideas, like McMeekin predecessor Doug Chase. McMeekin, Fowlkes says, doesn’t fit the bill: he’s inconsistent and he doesn’t listen.
Morman, waiting in the weeds for the general election, retired several years ago after 29 years with the sheriff’s department, and says he’s running because he believes the department and the public have lost confidence in the sheriff’s leadership. Morman, who has worked under seven sheriffs in his career, points out that McMeekin worked 19 years under him. He’ll build his November campaign, he says, around his administrative experience.
Whoever is ultimately elected will face much the same basic issues: growth vs. budget, detention center crowding, employee retention, and a possible move into joint offices with Missoula police.
McMeekin says he’s “the only candidate with the practical management experience in every major function of the department” and that his knowledge is “crucial to success” in the face of what he identifies as the number-one issue facing his department: demographic, organizational and technological change.
His challengers say there’s already plenty of expertise in the department to tackle those challenges, but that McMeekin ignores it or, worse, discourages it.
To the voting public, looking in from the outside, it can be unclear whether McMeekin is refusing to listen to his employees or his employees are failing to listen to him. But come June 6, voters have a chance to send a message the candidates will be compelled to hear loud and clear.