BEND, Ore. - Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson and his fall election challenger, Deputy Eric Kozowski, clashed Wednesday evening on a range of issues, from the propriety of wearing the uniform while campaigning to the department’s recent high-profile turmoil, in a live half-hour debate aired on NewsChannel 21 and KTVZ.COM.
Nelson, appointed to succeed Larry Blanton last year, is facing the first contested sheriff’s race in close to 20 years. Recently, Kozowski has claimed the sheriff has retaliated against him for running and the challenger has even threatened legal action, while saying the years of good-old-boy operation need to change.
The debate was moderated by KTVZ’s Lee Anderson and included several questions received from the public.
Nelson noted more than once how he worked his way up the ranks but said he has worked in his year or so at the top to solve problems and address wrongdoing that has brought the department some unwanted attention in the past year, as several high-ranking deputies have faced investigations. He noted that Capt. Scott Beard, convicted of theft and money-laundering, was sentenced to five years behind bars and ordered to pay full restitution.
Kozowski claimed the process of choosing a sheriff in a contested election has been “subverted” for decades as “insiders have appointed insiders” in a “cozy” relationship.
“I believe this good old boy system has caused scandal after scandal by the sheriff’s office, as officers have been forced to resign and the department has faced multi-million dollar lawsuits,” a reference to one pending by the family of a jail inmate who died of a methamphetamine overdose.
Kozowski said he’s “not a career bureaucrat,” and that with his law enforcement and private-business background, “(I will end this broken system that has failed all of you.”
Kozowski also disputed Nelson’s claim that he violates agency policy by wearing his uniform while campaigning, as well as his claim Kozowski was out of line for commenting on pending investigations.
“The actions taken against me have been clearly retaliatory,” Kozowski said. “I’m being investigated for … clearly protected political speech. I had a legal review done, and my legal team has found clear case law that supports me wearing my uniform in campaign events, just as my opponent does.”
Nelson said, “I don’t discuss ongoing and pending investigations, because you always want to maintain integrity.” He said outside counsel “has directed Mr. Kozowski he is not to wear the uniform for appearances that are campaign related, but for the duties of deputy sheriff.”
“There’s nothing retaliatory,” Nelson said, adding that they asked outside investigators to look into the allegations because the agency wants to “be transparent in everything we do.”
“I’m going to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons,” Nelson said, a theme he would return to later in the debate.
Nelson also said he did not know why Kozowski had missed a recent “all hands on deck meeting” to make sure all in the agency know they are in the “customer service business.”
Kozowski defended his activity levels after a radio station’s report that he was toward the bottom of employees’ ranking in that regard. He noted such recent elements as being away from patrol for two weeks to complete firearms training and about a month on paid leave in June, a standard practice, after being the second officer on scene in the assault and shooting at the High Desert Museum. But Nelson said his opponents’ job performance results go back farther than a year and “show the same thing.”
The issue of Nelson’s endorsement by former sheriffs Larry Blanton and Les Stiles also was raised in a question from a viewer who claimed Blanton’s mismanagement had led to many of the problems Nelson has had to deal with.
Kozowski said, “I did not seek out their endorsements. They represent the system I’m trying to change.” He also noted his performance reviews are posted on his campaign Website and that he has received high ratings. Nelson said he also didn’t seek out the endorsements but that Blanton and Stiles did so in regards to his “work ethic, qualifications, leadership and experience.”
On the issue of qualifications, Kozowski said he spent 15 years in the high-tech industry and co-founded a “highly successful Internet company” that was acquired, as well as six years as a combat engineer in the Marines, which ‘taught me a lot about leadership, especially in trying and difficult circumstances.”
Asked what he’d do to restructure the sheriff’s department, Kozowski said “the citizens have been begging for more patrols” and faster response times, and to end situations where people wait in the lobby for some time to be helped.
Kozowski said he wants to change to a scheduling system that is “more productive and healthy for employees, allows some shift overlap to potentially reduce overtime.” He also wants to “look at realigning some positions from management into non-management, more service delivery, boots on the ground, in the cars.” But he said he’d “take advantage of natural attrition to minimize the impact” on current employees.
“There’s a lot we can do to improve efficiency with the people we have now,” he said.
Nelson noted the sheriff’s office recently reclassified a supervisor position and removed a management position from the budget.
“Our expectation is we have working supervisors,” the sheriff said, such as those in the Patrol Division who “go to calls, back up on calls, take reports.”
In fact, Nelson said records show just over half of supervisors are "out there handling calls," Kozowski said that was “not an efficient use of money. … Why are we paying supervisor salaries to do deputy work?"
Nelson replied, "I think a little bit of that shows the inexperience here (with Kozowski). ... It's not just supervisors who have this uncommitted time, so they can go out and be proactive in the community. Deputy sheriffs are doing that as well."
In closing statements, Nelson said, “It is absolutely important for integrity that accurate information gets out there. I’m going to be as transparent as I can be, without creating liability. We want to do the right thing for the right reasons and at the right time.”
Kozowski said the choice is clear: “You can vote for the current system of insiders appoint insiders that have brought scandal after scandal, or you can vote to end this broke system that has failed all of you. You can vote for someone who is not part of the current system. You can vote for me, Eric Kozowski, to be your next honest, trustworthy sheriff.”