Re-elect Burger as sheriff.
If you're riding in a jetliner with a failing engine, you want a pilot who has experience dealing with emergencies. For the Lane County Sheriff's Office that could soon lose a third of its work force and nearly three-fourths of its remaining jail cells because of the loss of federal timber payments, the pilot of choice is incumbent Sheriff Russ Burger.
Burger faces two challengers in the May 20 primary - Daniel Schmitz, a 42-year-old computer specialist at Liberty Bank, and Rick Dotson, a 45-year-old veteran sheriff's deputy at the Lane County Jail. Neither has the public safety administrative experience that is essential for the next sheriff, whose department may soon be eviscerated by the loss of federal payments.
Burger's resume reads like an instruction manual for aspiring law enforcement administrators. After earning a degree in finance from Oregon State University, he joined the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in California, moving from deputy in corrections to corporal and watch commander within five years. In 1994, he moved to the Oregon State Police, where he climbed the ranks to become area commander of the agency's Springfield, Florence and Oakridge operations. In 2003, Burger came to the Lane County Sheriff's Office, where he served as then-Sheriff Jan Clements' second-in-command before decisively winning the sheriff's office in a three-way contest in 2004.
Burger has had to draw heavily on his experience in his first term, presiding over an agency overextended by a growing population and a budget that has not kept pace with a surging demand for services.
Burger has been a steady, consistent and, at times, a creative force in the county's beleaguered public safety system.
The Lane County Jail is routinely derided by local officials as a "revolving door," but Burger deserves credit for stretching his department's limited jail dollars to the maximum. An example is his reconfiguration of existing cell space, which added 35 additional jail beds without having to hire additional deputies. Now, he says he believes he's found a way to restore 48 local jail beds of the more than 70 proposed for elimination in the county administrator's budget for the next year.
Burger was the driving force in the recent revival of the Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team three years after it was disbanded because of dwindling revenues. He is resolved to keep INET in operation, despite the looming loss of federal timber payments and the federal government's frustrating refusal to give Lane County a federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation that would open the door to increased federal funding.
Recently, county commissioners approved Burger's proposal to shift parole and probation services from the county's health department to the sheriff's office. The change could free up to $200,000 for public safety services, eliminate redundant surveillance programs and give a single agency management responsibility for offenders from arrest through parole.
Burger also has resisted pressure to eliminate progressive programs such as the Defender Offender Management Center, which uses state-of-the-art risk assessment tools for inmates and matches inmates to treatment programs gauged to best reduce recidivism. While it's unclear how such programs will fare in the tough budget years ahead, Burger deserves credit for keeping them alive in the hope that the county eventually will find a way to adequately fund its public safety system.
Finally, Burger has managed to maintain around-the-clock rural patrols, although the county administrator now proposes dropping them to 20 hours a day and eliminating the traffic enforcement team. That's where Burger's administrative experience could prove invaluable. He hopes to find a way to maintain 24-hour patrols - and his record of creative scrounging for budget dollars suggests he'll be able to pull it off.
Schmitz has nearly two decades of law enforcement experience, including six years as a military police officer and the remainder as a sheriff's deputy and municipal police officer in California. Schmitz says he can run the sheriff's office more efficiently than the incumbent, but he offers few specifics other than a plan to replace jail deputies with lower-paid correctional officers.
The proposal has slim chances of succeeding in the face of existing labor contracts and certain union resistance.
Dotson says he's running to restore public trust in the sheriff's office and to rebuild the morale of jail employees who he says are subjected to an increasingly "punitive atmosphere" by administrators. He also wants to expose what he says are abuses of power and ethics violations within the district attorney's office and courts.
He says his efforts to address these concerns prompted a mental fitness evaluation and suspension of his authorization to carry a firearm on the job. (Dotson says he's been found mentally fit and is working in the jail; he says he has not requested that his firearms authorization be restored.)
If federal payments are not renewed, both Schmitz and Dotson believe the county should eventually ask voters to approve a modest property tax measure narrowly targeted for core law enforcement services.
The next four years promise to be turbulent ones for Lane County's sheriff. Burger has the right mix of law enforcement, administrative and political experience to make certain the office provides the maximum level of services possible with the limited resources available.
Voters should re-elect Russ Burger as Lane County sheriff.