A powerful position that’s been under heavy scrutiny in recent years, the sheriff of Lake County will be decided in next month’s primary election along with two other top county positions featuring partisan contests.
The sheriff post requires candidates to declare a party in the election, and this year four Republicans and no Democrats filed in Lake County to replace Jay Doyle, who is not running for reelection after serving one term.
Among the four candidates, there is little disagreement on the issues confronting the sheriff’s role, starting with rebuilding trust between the office and local residents after years of scandal and investigations.
“There has been some damage to the public trust and the team spirit inside the office. I think rebuilding those two things go hand-in-hand,” said Dan Yonkin, the current undersheriff and a candidate for sheriff.
The races for county attorney and District 1 commissioner are in similar scenarios, with two Republican candidates apiece squaring off in the primary.
Absentee ballots have been mailed and polling locations will be open June 3 throughout Lake County from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voting will take place at the Dayton Presbyterian Church, Polson’s Linderman Elementary School gym, the Ronan Community Center, Charlo School, St. Ignatius School gym, Ferndale Sewing Club House, Swan River State Forest headquarters and the Arlee Senior Center.
In recent years, the state’s POST council, a quasi-judicial board that certifies and investigates police officers accused of misconduct, looked into multiple claims leveled at four different law enforcement agencies in Lake County, including the sheriff’s office. Accusations centered on officer misconduct involving a range of offenses, both criminal and ethical, including perjury, poaching, nepotism and witness tampering and intimidation.
Among the consequences, former Lake County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Duryee was stripped of his badge.
Other inquiries and accusations were deemed unfounded and dropped, however, and a lawsuit by current and former Lake County sheriff’s office employees against the sheriff and three of his officers, including Yonkin, was dismissed in 2013.
Yet in the aftermath, prospective candidates for the sheriff’s post are focused on improving transparency and accountability in the office.
“I have the skills the sheriff’s office needs to progress forward and to get past some of our past, and also be able to build a strong future,” Yonkin said.
Four candidates are vying for the county’s top law enforcement position— Don Bell, Kim Leibenguth, Rick Schoening and Yonkin.
Yonkin, who has a background as a detective, has worked for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office for 15 years and served as the undersheriff the past two. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2010.
Bell, a native of Ronan who has lived in the county his whole life, is an officer with Tribal Law Enforcement on the Flathead Reservation and has 22 years of law enforcement experience.
“I want to build back rapport with the sheriff’s office and the public,” Bell said. “That’s my goal, to build a working trust between the sheriff’s office and the public.”
Both Bell and Yonkin pointed at high rates of drug and alcohol abuse as lingering issues that need to be addressed in the community, including underage drinking.
Leibenguth, a native of Missoula who moved to Lake County a decade ago, is a detective with the sheriff’s office. She previously worked as a detective in Oklahoma and as the executive director of CASA, a group of trained advocates for abused or neglected children.
Schoening, a resident of Lake County for more than 26 years, is an officer for the Polson Police Department with more than 30 years of experience in the field.
Leibenguth and Schoening could not be reached for comment.
Mitch Young is seeking his third four-year term as county attorney against first-time challenger Steve Eschenbacher.
Young, who earned a law degree at the University of Montana, has worked in the Lake County attorney’s office since 1989, when he began as a deputy.
Eschenbacher, who also received a law degree at UM, has been the managing attorney for the Office of the Public Defender in Polson for nearly six years.
Eschenbacher said he ran at the last minute to ensure the race for county attorney would be contested. He said he believes the attorney’s office has had a hand in the broken trust between public officials and the community.
“I’m looking to provide a change and give people a choice,” Eschenbacher said, adding that his goals would be managing cases so that they “aren’t always being dismissed” and “providing supervision for the office and making sure everyone stays professional.”
Young disagreed with the assessment of his office and its case management, saying the small staff has done its best to manage a large, persistent flow of cases.
“I’ve been here 25 years, and I’m not going to tell anyone that I never made a mistake while I was here. It happens. You hate to see that, and you try to avoid that, but a certain amount is inevitable,” Young said, adding, “ We’ve made a lot of improvements in the office in the time that I’ve been here. I just want to continue doing what I’ve been doing.”
District 1 Commissioner
Incumbent Bill Barron is seeking another six-year term in District 1 as one of three county commissioners, who are responsible for running the county. He faces Rory Horning.
Barron, the former sheriff who has lived in Lake County for more than 18 years, has served as a commissioner since 2008, when he was first elected.
Horning, a retiree who has lived in the county for more than 16 years, was tabbed as a finalist to fill in for the vacant state Senate seat after John Brueggeman of Polson resigned abruptly in late 2010.
Lake County Candidate Forum
May 30, 7 p.m., at the Museum in the old Round Butte gym
Candidates from all precincts were invited to attend and will answer questions that were submitted beforehand. Send potential questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline is May 23. The Round Butte gym is four blocks out west of the light on U.S. 93 & Round Butte Road at the museum.
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