Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace believes he knows why the county commission chose him 2-1 to succeed former Sheriff Joey Chavez a year and a half ago — even though Chavez, who resigned to join the corporate world, had endorsed Bill Conner, a senior officer with 20 years’ experience who is now Wallace’s foe in the Aug. 8 Republican primary.
“I like Bill — he’s a good guy and I would never want to say anything that would go against anybody else,” Wallace said in a recent interview, “but the strength I bring to the position is [in addition to] 10 years of law-enforcement experience I have 25 years of training and managing people.”
Wallace said he also was more thoroughly informed about budget and personnel matters when he sought the job.
“I think that when we went through the interview process, I was the only candidate who had reviewed the budget or personnel issues at the sheriff’s office before taking the interview,” he said. He said he didn’t mean individual personnel matters, which are confidential, but what he’d gleaned from “talking to different people about what was going on there.”
“When they [the commissioners] saw that, I think it gave them a picture of someone who takes it very seriously and was able to do a good job.” Wallace also said the two commissioners who voted for him — Larrie Rule and Gerald Koppenhafer — said they had received numerous phone calls expressing reservations about Conner, although they never cited specific objections.
“Again, without seeming negative against Bill, there were a lot of people that had concerns with my opponent and his ability to run the agency,” Wallace said.
Support for both candidates — measured unscientifically by the number and sizes of yard signs around the area — seems to be widespread. Wallace was born in New Zealand but moved to the States in 1985. A former San Miguel County deputy with 10 years of experience ranging from code enforcement to canine deputy, he said he looks at the sheriff’s job as more than just law enforcement, and is actively involved with community groups such as the Meth Action group, the Piñon Project, Partners, and school resource programs.
“We really try to be out there in the community,” he said, “and I think that’s a little different than what has been the case before.”
Wallace portrays himself as the new broom that sweeps clean.
“I bring a different philosophy to the agency than what was there before — I bring a very much open-door policy [and] I really believe strongly in working with the community at all levels — the commissioners and all the other elected officials — and coming up with a common theme.”
Whoever wins the Republican primary will face independent candidate Sam Sparks in the general election. Sparks, a deputy marshal in Mancos, was the third of the three finalists to replace Chavez. Meanwhile, debate on the Republican candidates’ relative merits in the editorial pages of the Cortez Journal has been lively, including pointed attacks on their integrity and competence.
For instance, one letter-writer portrayed Wallace as “one of the biggest landowners/one of the wealthiest people” in the county and a crony of the commissioners, a statement Wallace later challenged in a column of his own. Wallace responded that he doubted a two-income family with a mortgage on the 200 acres he farms qualifies as wealthy. In his column, he also encouraged voters to ask the “tough questions,” including “why did the commissioners decide not to appoint Bill Conner, as Sheriff Chavez had requested.”
In a column of his own, Conner accused Wallace of fostering low morale and a high turnover among the detention deputies because of their unequal treatment during a recent pay raise.
“I understand why these deputies are not currently feeling valued or respected,” he wrote, “causing the alarming turnover rate in that division.”
Wallace scoffed at the idea that spirits were low among his staff.
“From what the deputies tell me and the feeling you get walking through the office, morale is better than it’s been in a long, long time,” he said. “That’s a pretty common attack on an agency — that morale is low and turnover is high.
“Our turnover is not any higher than it was before I came here — in 2001 we had 10 people leave the job and in 2005 we had 10 people leave the job, and out of those 10 people, eight cited pay and benefits as the number-one reason for leaving.
“Politics can get a little nasty sometimes, but the morale is good — we all work well together, communication is better up and down the chain of command, and we’re one person away from being fully staffed again, so we’re doing well,” he said.
On the down side, the pay/benefit package for deputies in Montezuma County is among the lowest in the state, Wallace pointed out, and this is a major reason they move on to other agencies. For instance, Cortez provides full medical coverage for police offi- cers’ families, but for deputies this can cost $800 a month, and Wallace sees no possibility of changing this in the foreseeable future.
“It seems to be going the wrong way — it’s getting more and more expensive for organizations to be able to afford insurance for their employees,” he said. “I think what’s happened is that the county has been so far behind the eight-ball for so long . . . I just don’t think that’s possible (to provide better medical coverage).”
Wallace said he plans to start a non-profit foundation that will raise money to cover the expenses of catastrophic illnesses or crises that might occur in employees’ families.
Wallace said he has also been changing the department’s approach to crime-solving.
“One of my priorities is working with the staff — we’re changing the direction in which we look at law enforcement,” he said. “When the deputies go out and take a report they can take (it) with the mindset of just taking information, filing a report and that’s the end of the situation.
“Or they can take a report with the mindset of getting all the information — gathering it all and working the case and coming up with a successful arrest or finding a solution,” he said. “We’ve worked more on the second one of late and it’s really starting to show — our success rate in closing a lot of cases is up quite significantly.”
Much of the county’s crime continues to stem from the sale and use of methamphetamine, Wallace said, even though far less is being produced locally than it was.
“Meth is involved in pretty much everything we do,” he said. “There are a lot less meth labs in the area, and that’s partly in response to the restrictions that are being put on the chemicals that were available over the counter in drugstores,” but also partly because much meth is smuggled into the country from Mexico, where it’s now produced in prodigious quantities.
Another of the county’s major problems is child-molesting, incidences of which are disturbingly high.
“We think we have a lot of sexual assaults on children” for a population of around 25,000, he said. “It stems from a lot of different reasons, I think. It can stem from upbringing, economic concerns — a variety of issues.”
Another less serious but very common problem is dogs running loose, biting people and killing livestock. Creating a position of animal-control officer is probably going to be necessary in the future, Wallace said, although responsible pet-ownership could go a long way toward postponing that time.
“I think as we see more and more people here, that’s going to be an issue that will move further to the front of the fire,” he said, noting that there is currently no dog-at-large ordinance in the county.
Sheriff’s races in Montezuma County tend to be heated. One of the closest was in 1994, when Sherman Kennell beat Steve Penhall in the Republican primary by a mere 8 votes.
The close competition tends to engender some nastiness, and this race is no exception. Wallace speculated that the lack of substantive criticisms of his performance may have inspired the mud-slinging against him.
“I think this has been a nasty campaign because my closet doesn’t have any skeletons, so to try and make me look worse or not like a good candidate, I think people have to throw dirt.
“And the concerning thing about that is some of that dirt sticks, even if it’s untrue.”
He said he’d spoken to county residents who told him they were too intimidated to work on his re-election campaign.
“A lot of people told me they were supporting me but didn’t want to get involved because they’re afraid of retribution. . . and I go, ‘What do you mean?’ and they go, ‘That’s just the way it is down here’.”
But Wallace likes the fact that voters choose the county’s top cop — unlike the Cortez police chief, for instance, an appointed position.
“I’m glad it’s an elected office — I know a lot of people think it should be just an appointed office by the commissioners, [but] if we had a group of commissioners who weren’t as professional as the ones we have now, it could lead to some concerns.
“The sheriff is directly responsible to the community that votes him into office and answers directly to that community — and I think that’s good.”