Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue looks at his opponents in next week’s Republican primary and questions whether Parma Police Chief Albert Erickson and Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office investigator Tony Thompson have the background to lead the sheriff’s office.
“Neither one of these individuals has even worked for a sheriff’s office. They absolutely have no concept, in my opinion, as to the intricacies and the enormous responsibilities of what a sheriff does,” Donahue said. “You only get that by working at a sheriff’s office.
Donahue, 54, elected sheriff four years ago, has spent more than a dozen years at the sheriff’s office. He began as a jail deputy and served in a variety of positions, including school resource officer, gang and drug investigator and as captain and chief deputy before being elected sheriff.
“It’s a lot different as a police officer. You drive up to the sally ports (at the jail), you go in and book in your guy and you’re done. Our job is just beginning,” Donahue said.
Neither Erickson nor Thompson has made an issue of it, but Donahue does have a cloud hanging over him: An Idaho State Police investigation into whether Donahue improperly used his position as sheriff in operating a nonprofit foundation that fights domestic violence. Donahue has denied any wrongdoing.
CHALLENGERS: NEW APPROACH
Erickson, 58, Parma’s chief of police for nine years, and Thompson, 49, a former Caldwell police officer who works on sex crimes, child abuse and child pornography cases for the Prosecutor’s Office, believe they would bring a fresh perspective to the Sheriff’s Office.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Robert Muse in November’s general election. He’s running unopposed as a member of the Constitution Party.
Four years ago, Donahue defeated Erickson in the Republican primary and beat Muse in the general election.
Thompson downplayed the need for experience within the Sheriff’s Office itself. Policing, he said, is basically the same whether it’s inside a city or in the unincorporated areas of a county. The fact that he hasn’t worked in the jail doesn’t hamper his ability to lead.
“I may not have the experience in the jail, but we have very good people within the office that know what’s going on. They know what needs to be done. I’m counting on them to steer me,” he said.
Erickson said he didn’t plan on running again. But he said several deputies encouraged him to run, telling Erickson that department morale is low and that Donahue spends little time in the office.
“The only time employees are recognized is when they make an error in judgment,” said Erickson, who said he would create an atmosphere that encourages employees and recognizes them for their contributions.
Donahue said no one has complained to him about his management style, so he’s not sure who is contending that morale is low.
“Show me the four or five people that you’re talking about. I’d like them to bring them forward,” Donahue said. “Are those the people I’ve terminated for a violation of policy, violation of law, performance? Let us see who they are.”
If elected, Thompson said, he would approach employees with a mentoring style.
“A leader is one who removes obstacles for the people who are doing the job. There are times when you have to bark orders because of a high-stress situation. But I always try to respond back with what do you want to do, and have them walk me through it so they learn,” Thompson said.
Erickson said he teaches principles to his Parma officers and lets them do their job. He said he encourages his officers to speak up and offer suggestions.
“I’m not threatened by someone who has an answer,” he said.
Both Erickson and Thompson say they’re troubled by high turnover during the past four years. A total of 150 deputies and other employees have left during Donahue’s tenure. Nearly three dozen positions remain unfilled.
Thirty percent of those went to work for other police agencies that pay better than Canyon County, Donahue said. One experienced deputy with more than 20 years of service left for Ada County, where he was paid $5 more an hour. Nearly 20 percent of those who left were terminated for not meeting performance standards or for violations of policy or law, he said. Another 20 percent retired.
In the four years before Donahue became sheriff, he said, 142 workers left the sheriff’s office.
He said law enforcement agencies across the country, not just in Canyon County, are finding it hard to fill open positions. Shootings involving police and citizens in other states have given law enforcement a black eye. With Oregon, Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana use, it’s made it tougher to find applicants who haven’t used marijuana within the last three years, Donahue said.
The two challengers also fault Donahue for spending time on numerous outside boards and commissions. Donahue serves on state and national committees dealing with jail standards, domestic abuse, juvenile justice, drug trafficking and on a terrorism task force.
“You can’t lead an organization if you’re not present,” Erickson said.
He and Thompson say Donahue’s involvement with those organizations cuts down on the time he spends working on county business, a charge Donahue denies. A lot of the work involves responding to suggested changes in the law or lobbying the Idaho Legislature or Congress into enacting new laws to help protect the public, he said.
“It’s laughable when people say that,” Donahue said. “That’s what a sheriff does. He’d better be, otherwise he’s sitting on the sidelines doing nothing. And I don’t think we take that oath to sit on the sidelines.”
If elected, Erickson said he would spend time on the streets and in different departments at the sheriff’s office.
“You will see me working in the jail. You’ll see me out on patrol. You’ll see me involved in every facet of the operation,” he said.
All three candidates oppose an expansion of the Canyon County Jail. The county has struggled for more than a decade to relieve overcrowding and poor conditions. Voters have turned down three bond proposals that would pay for a new jail, the option all three candidates prefer.
NO WORD ON ETHICS INVESTIGATION
Kieran Donahue has been dogged by the investigation into whether he misused his position as sheriff in operating his K. Donahue Foundation. The nonprofit organization, which he says operates on a budget of about $25,000 a year, campaigns against domestic violence and raises money for groups that support victims of domestic abuse.
The Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation last summer after an anonymous complaint. The Idaho State Police took over the investigation and the Twin Falls prosecuting attorney assigned is reviewing it to determine whether action is necessary.
Donahue denies that he did anything improper. He said a county SWAT team gave a demonstration during a rodeo event that his foundation was involved with. He said the SWAT unit often gives public demonstrations.
His challengers said they do not know the circumstances behind the investigation. “I feel sorry for him that this hasn’t been resolved,” said Tony Thompson.