Ravalli wrap-up 

Tough times ahead for county sheriff candidates

When the votes were counted in Ravalli County’s primary election last week, several things were made clear: Democratic voters crossed over in huge numbers to vote the crowded—and more interesting—Republican ballot, Ravalli County commissioners did a poor job of selling their public safety levy to voters, and the sheriff’s last-minute endorsement of one of the seven candidates vying for his job paid off. Moreover, the conservative and deeply religious town of Pinesdale harbors at least one Democrat; each Democratic candidate received a single vote there.

Of the county’s 26,061 registered voters, only 8,473 actually cast ballots last week, making for a dismal 32.5 percent voter turnout. Of those, the majority voted Republican.

Other than Robert Candee and Steve Kelly, two Democrats vying for the seat of Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R–Mont.), there were no contested races on the Democratic ticket in Ravalli County. In fact, there were few Democrats running at all, which allowed Democratic voters to strategize by voting on the Republican ticket.

Probably the most talked-about race was for county sheriff, where six Republicans and one Democrat crowded the field and fueled much speculation among voters, who have known only three sheriffs here since the mid-1960s. Republican Chris Hoffman, a veteran police officer with the Hamilton Police Department, was the name on most voters’ lips in the final days leading up to the election. He cinched it when he received the public endorsement of incumbent Sheriff Perry Johnson, who is not running for reelection. Hoffman garnered 2,980 votes, besting runner-up Bob Graler, considered the leading choice among deputies. Graler polled 1,521 votes.

Hoffman now faces Democrat Andy Kollmer in the November race. That race should be a walk in the park for Hoffman. Kollmer, a former detention officer at the Ravalli County jail, goes into the fall campaign with two strikes against him: Not only is he a Democrat in a rock-solid Republican county, but he was fired from his job by Sheriff Johnson.

One county official called Kollmer a “high-maintenance employee” who did his job so poorly that others had to cover for him. But another county official expresses serious doubts that Johnson ever gave Kollmer the training he needed and asked for in order to do his job properly.

Kollmer agrees with the latter assessment. He says he was lured away from a part-time patrolman job with the Darby Police Department by Johnson in the summer of 2000. Though he told Johnson he had no experience as a detention officer, he claims Johnson assured him he would work out. Kollmer says he never received any job instructions, despite repeated requests.

Interestingly, he was placed on administrative leave two days after he filed for sheriff. Though he says Johnson gave him no reason for placing him on leave, Kollmer suspects Johnson may have had a political motive.

Kollmer is not the first employee fired by Johnson who claims he was not given legitimate reasons for dismissal. Former deputy Brad Squires, another unsuccessful Republican candidate for sheriff, was also fired by Johnson. Squires said he was puzzled by his termination, considering the high praise he received for his job performance. Another deputy, Jim Theis, was fired after pulling a relatively harmless office prank.

Kollmer’s eventual termination in May came as a complete surprise, he says, given that his personnel file contained nothing but praise. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have never left Darby,” he says. Kollmer is back on the Darby beat again, but he plans to run a full-bore campaign against Hoffman.

“I’m looking at [his termination] as a benefit to me,” he says. “I was unjustly fired, is how I look at it. I think it’s a hurdle to overcome, but I have confidence.”

Johnson’s endorsement of Hoffman may not be the benefit some might think, he says. “I don’t think Perry is as popular a sheriff as you might believe.” Kollmer tallied 923 votes in the primary, an impressing showing, he says, considering he did it without erecting a single campaign sign. Nevertheless, given his termination he enters the race under a cloud of suspicion, which could give Hoffman a considerable head start. Hoffman isn’t taking his solid lead for granted, however, and says it would be a mistake not to concentrate on the task ahead of him.

The rigors of the campaign trail will pale in comparison with the twin challenges the ultimate victor must take on: an unsolved triple homicide and a budget likely to be severely crippled by anticipated cuts in federal funding.

A public safety levy would have raised $750,000 and would have freed up another $250,000 for other county services. County commissioners placed the levy on the ballot only weeks before the election, fearing that Congress was preparing to redirect federal funds away from counties and towards the war on terrorism.

The levy was doomed from the start. Not only did it appear to be a poorly conceived, last-minute decision, but commissioners subsequently failed to sell it to the public. Sheriff Johnson also publicly rejected it, which likely sealed its fate. The levy failed on a vote of 5,284 to 2,317. Voters will probably see the levy return on the November ballot, though the commission hasn’t made that decision and probably won’t until after the annual budget hearings are completed later this month.

As for the unsolved triple homicide in Florence last November, Hoffman knows a cold case will pose a daunting challenge to the new sheriff, whoever that turns out to be. But he says it would be “silly” to comment on the case now. “I don’t have all the inside information on it,” he says. “I’ve talked to Perry but I don’t have all the details. Obviously, it’s been something I’ve been thinking of since I filed.”

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