Deputy Morale at Center of Sheriff’s Race

By Beacon Staff

Unlike most races for public office this year, residents of Flathead County will know who their elected sheriff is on June 9.

The primary election on June 8 is the final vote for sheriff, since all three candidates – Lance Norman, Chuck Curry and incumbent Mike Meehan – filed as Republicans, bringing a sense of immediacy to a traditionally sleepy stretch of the election year.

As the incumbent, Meehan would expect more criticism from his challengers than the other candidates, but a recently released vote of “no confidence” in the sheriff by three-quarters of his staff has added an extra level of scrutiny to the race.

Meehan, however, said he stands by his past three and a half years on the job and has openly questioned the timing and motivations behind the deputies’ vote.

For Curry’s part, his entrance into the race marks a return to law enforcement after retiring from the sheriff’s office in 2005. Some have questioned his ability to jump back in to a leadership role, wondering if he is up to the challenge of running the office he left five years ago.

Curry dismissed the possibility of personal burnout and said he is ready to return the sheriff’s office to a simpler, more transparent operation.

Norman points out that if elected, unlike his competitors, he would come into office directly from patrol duties on the street.

With a vision of smaller administration and a more positive image for law enforcement, Norman dispelled assertions that he, as the youngest of three, may lack the experience to take over the office.

Naturally, each feels he is the best fit for the job, and all are eager to shoulder the same responsibility: To protect and serve the citizens of Flathead County.

Mike Meehan

Sheriff Mike Meehan believes he has made strides in enhancing the office’s programs while maintaining a reasonable budget in tough economic times since taking office Jan. 1, 2007.

The 54-year-old sheriff began his law enforcement career as a Houston patrol officer from 1975 to 1981. He moved to the Flathead in 1983 and joined the sheriff’s office eight years later as a deputy. Meehan worked his way up, promoted to corporal, sergeant and eventually the Northwest Drug Task Force director from 1998 to 2002.

Later in 2002, Meehan became patrol commander. He served as undersheriff before being elected sheriff in 2006.

Among his achievements in office, Meehan listed the work release program for the detention center; adding a second nurse to keep unnecessary hospital visits and costs down; establishing a child advocacy center to work with child abuse victims; providing more effective training times for deputies; and establishing a major crime scene unit.

Meehan has also faced considerable criticism that he has built a top-heavy administration with too much supervision and not enough communication.

The sheriff, though, disputes the notion of having too many high-level positions. He said his administrators – undersheriff, patrol commander, detective commander and two lieutenants – bring efficiency to his office.

The only difference between his and the previous administration is the addition of the two lieutenants, Meehan said, who handle the posse, reserves, SWAT team, firearms program, training schedules and supervise six, six-man patrol shifts.

“They do not sit around,” Meehan said. “They’re very busy. I defend their positions.”

More notable criticism comes from within his office. Anonymous letters from employees in connection with the recent no confidence vote accuse Meehan of inconsistent discipline and poor leadership. Many letters refer to lax punishment for an alleged affair between a commanding officer and a subordinate and for an officer who allegedly got behind the wheel of a county vehicle after drinking alcohol.

Meehan said he couldn’t discuss specifics of personnel issues, but he said those situations were dealt with and not all decisions he makes are going to receive approval from everyone.

Meehan also questioned the timing of the no confidence vote, which included 74 percent of sworn employees and 80 percent of unsworn employees, saying it is a political move.

“I feel a lot of it is ridiculous, I feel it’s politically motivated,” Meehan said. “I question a lot of it.”

He did concede there are communication issues he would like to work on, and creating a labor management committee to have regularly scheduled meetings with all employees to address concerns could help.

“I’m certainly willing and want to work through these issues,” Meehan said. “You’re not going to please everybody when you’re working for the taxpayer, and I am.”

Chuck Curry

Chuck Curry served in the Flathead County sheriff’s office for 25 years before retiring as undersheriff in 2005. He has not, however, taken up a quiet retirement.

Having worked with ALERT emergency helicopters since 1984, Curry, 50, used his newly freed up time to become the program’s chief flight paramedic, as well as taking on a leadership role.

This kept him sharp and busy, Curry said, and reinvigorated his enthusiasm for the sheriff’s office. He began his career there at 18 as a member of the sheriff’s posse and was hired as a deputy two years later in 1980.

He was a uniformed deputy for 11 years, was promoted to corporal and became undersheriff when Jim Dupont was elected sheriff in 1990.

When he retired, Curry said he felt comfortable leaving because the office was running smoothly and he was proud of its accomplishments. He said he has decided to make a run at sheriff after five years away to fill a perceived need for balance and stability.

“I did miss it a lot; I missed the people, I missed the work,” Curry said. “I felt that I had what the public and the office need at this point.”

Curry said the current administration has too many supervisors, which he said breeds poor employee morale and micromanagement. The deputies’ letters and no confidence vote are proof of low spirits, Curry said, which he plans to fix with evenness, fairness and the confidence that his administration would be consistent in disciplinary matters.

If elected, Curry said he would reduce the number of administrators, moving them back to patrol or other empty positions, such as more school resource officers.

He also hopes to reinstate a full-time search and rescue coordinator to ensure constant and efficient communication.

Moving administrators around also frees up salary money for other areas of the office, Curry said.

He also wants to increase the sheriff’s presence on the waters in the Flathead, promoting public safety to give locals and visitors alike peace-of-mind.

He praised the other candidates, saying they are both solid law enforcement officers, but asserted he could do a better job in office than either by promoting a transparent office based on the idea of fair treatment and consistent policies.

“I feel I’ve had a good break,” Curry said. “I feel I have an awful lot to offer.”

Lance Norman

Patrol Sergeant Lance Norman enters the sheriff’s race armed with his own goals and specific criticism for the current administration.

Assertions that he, as the youngest candidate at 41 years old, lacks the proper experience to be sheriff are disputable by the numbers, Norman said.

He began his law enforcement career in college in Idaho as a member of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, eventually moving to the Columbia Falls Police Department in 1990.

He was hired to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office in 1992, spending the past 17 years in many positions, including coroner, field training officer, firearms instructor and as a member of special teams, including SWAT. He also spent two years as a detective in sex crime investigations.

Born and raised in Whitefish and now raising his daughter there as a single parent, Norman said he has put in the time necessary to be sheriff.

In fact, Norman thinks his age and experience on patrol are advantages in the race. He hasn’t been in an administrative position like the other two candidates, giving the office a much-needed fresh perspective, he said.

“We need to get somebody that hasn’t been staled by the office,” Norman said.

One of his biggest concerns for the office is morale, Norman said, which he believes to be at the lowest it has been in 20 years. Lifting spirits means bringing an open-minded perspective and new ideas, Norman said, an approach finds lacking in the current administration.

A major part of his plan would be more community outreach, he said. Most people only come in contact with sheriff’s deputies when bad things happen, Norman said. A greater presence in positive environments, such as school presentations or on a community advisory board, could strengthen trust between the office and the public, he added.

“We have a total lack of that right now,” Norman said.

Achieving this goal could be possible through more face-to-face contact with deputies when filing reports, Norman said, and through classes taught on personal and property safety by experts from the office.

He also hopes to cut down administrative staff numbers and put more officers in school resource positions. Norman also wants to change the way the jail handles offenders by taking away every amenity provided to inmates except those required by law.

“We need to make it unpleasant to be in jail,” Norman said.

If elected sheriff, Norman said he would try to help clarify regulations in the medical marijuana law by testifying before lawmakers about challenges officers have with the current law.

Norman said he runs a six-man shift with high morale and is confident he can do that for the entire sheriff’s office.

“We need to start giving more back to the community,” Norman said.

The primary election takes place June 8. Absentee ballots are available May 10 through noon on June 7.

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