Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Sheriff candidates prepare for election

Femling kicks off campaign against Gunter with barbecue

Express Staff Writers

Retaliating against criticism by his primary election opponent, incumbent Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling on Sunday said he is not a part-time sheriff. He also stressed his 17 years at the helm of the sheriff?s office have helped build a department that can handle intense workloads, like those of the last year and a half.

Femling and about 100 of his supporters gathered Sunday at the Chocolate Gulch home of Anita and Mike McCann for a campaign kickoff barbecue. The rainy weather didn?t dampen the spirits of the sheriff or his supporters.

Local builder Earl Engelmann pointed out that the sophistication of crimes in Blaine County is increasing, and notedthree high-profile shooting and murder cases have occurred within the last year and a half.

?What we?re seeing is not a small-town atmosphere,? Engelmann said. ?Walt is probably one of the most highly respected law enforcement officers in the state of Idaho. Why would we want to give that up??

Femling, a Republican, faces Democratic challenger Jeff Gunter, a Hailey Police Department lieutenant, in the Nov. 2 general election. Femling soundly beat Republican challenger Steve England, another Hailey Police Department officer, in the primary election in May.

In interviews this week, Gunter said the controversial issue for him in this election is that Femling spends too much time out of the office consulting on jail projects.

?I am interested in getting consolidated dispatch done and focussing on Blaine County,? Gunter said. ?I will be able to free up officers to investigate drug dealers because I will be here.?

The sheriff talked for roughly 30 minutes Sunday afternoon, covering topics including a new sheriff?s office, jail and dispatch center; his community and state-wide volunteer work; and the heavy load of high-profile crimes his department has dealt with since last September, when a Bellevue couple were found shot to death in their Aspen Drive home.

Femling, a 17-year sheriff, has been working for more than 10 years toward construction of a new jail to replace the outdated and overcrowded facility in Hailey. He pointed out that the Blaine County Commission is asking for public opinion on how to fund a new facility in the form of an advisory ballot issue for Nov. 2.

?The jail used to be full of people we were mad at,? he said. ?Now our jail is full of people we?re afraid of.?

Gunter said the time Femling spends lobbying for a new jail takes away from other important job duties. If elected, he said he would identify a non-partisan group of people with the appropriate backgrounds and education to assess a new jail or explore the idea of cost sharing in a regional facility.

Countering Gunter?s position, Femling said a regional jail would probably not work for Blaine County. Regional jails work for communities that are roughly the same.

?Blaine County would end up funding 98 percent of that jail, and we would have to run our jail because it would be so far away,? he said. If the jail were in Blaine County, it would import criminals from elsewhere.

The sheriff also defended his public service record and private consulting business.

?It is not a negative that they have appointed me to the governing board of the Idaho Association of Counties,? he said. ?It?s something that?s a good thing and being turned into a negative thing.?

Femling said his appointment as president of the association enables him to create in-roads for Idaho and Blaine County with prominent politicians throughout the state and nation. He said he has lobbied for increased payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) installments from the federal government to Idaho. It has not hampered his duties as sheriff, he said.

The glut of serious crimes committed in Blaine County since last September has placed new stresses on the sheriff?s office.

?But we have built a department that can handle this,? Femling said. ?This position, this job, isn?t for everybody.?

He said his consulting business is something he does only at home and on his own time. Last year, he said he averaged $75 per week.

Jeanne Cassell, who serves on the advisory board of the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence, said Femling might not have to worry too much about getting reelected this fall.

?But it?s great that he?s not taking it for granted,? she said.

Anita McCann pointed out the importance of having a sheriff who understands and is accessible to a community?s children. Femling embodies that, she said.

?I want you to know that I am a Democrat, but the only Republican that I?ll say four more years to is Walt,? she said.

Gunter, on the other hand, has received the endorsement of former Hailey Police Chief Jack Stoneback.

Gunter said he is interested in promoting more treatment programs for people struggling with drugs and alcohol.

?I want to coordinate through law-enforcement to get treatment for people who can not afford Canyon View,? he said.

Gunter also said policing of illegal drug activity has slipped.

?The pipeline needs to be slowed down,? he said, adding that he would like to foster a spirit of cooperation between law-enforcement and emergency departments in the valley. He believes his background in emergency medical services and fire fighting will help him do that.

Gunter said he knows emergency service providers have issues with police response, and he is open to their criticism and hopes to be responsive to their concerns.

Other issues on Gunter?s platform are improved training for deputies and sheriff department staff.

Gunter said as sheriff he would be committed to improving efficiency, eliminating wasteful spending and working to control costs.

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