In recent years, Sanders County voters have seen a high-profile federal manhunt and deadly shooting play out in their back yard. Next Tuesday, they’ll decide whether to give their county’s top lawman another term, or replace him with a former state trooper.
Two-term Sheriff Tom Rummel faces Darlene Lee, the retired Montana Highway Patrol Trooper, in a nonpartisan race. The incumbent predicts his experience will continue serving him well in the office.
“I have the distinct knowledge of the law-enforcement needs of Sanders County," Rummel said. "I want to continue serving the citizens of Sanders County.”
He and Sanders County were thrust into the national spotlight in 2016, when Plains resident Jake Ryan joined the Bundy-led occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, drawing a weeks-long search by federal authorities.
As it unfolded, Rummel urged Ryan’s allies to avoid Sanders County, and said he was aiding the FBI. But after Ryan’s arrest in Clark County, Wash., Rummel called for a release plan that would have allowed Ryan to return to Montana. Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel also described the sheriff as being “not entirely cooperative with federal law enforcement,” The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
“That’s not true,” Rummel said of Gabriel’s accusation. “I did everything I could in order to work with the federal side of this and the family side of this in order to find Jake Ryan, and there’s a balance in there.”
More recently, Rummel has been criticized by relatives of William Conko Camel, who was shot to death in Agency on Oct. 5. They said that they informed the Sheriff’s Office of possible shooters, but the sheriff failed to act before Preston Rossbach was arrested in Missoula in connection with the recent murders at Mission Valley Inn.
But Rummel stands by his handling of this crime. “We’re still trying to develop leads for trying to identify a suspect,” he said. “People in Agency, I believe, know what happened. Someone needs to come forward.
“We’ve done everything within our power to bring this to prosecution. We can’t act upon suspicion and hearsay,” he continued. “We’ve got to have fact, and at this point we don’t have enough facts to tie anyone to that shooting.”
Rummel’s quick to acknowledge the challenges of patrolling a cash-strapped, 2,800-square-mile county with just eight deputies, two detectives and an undersheriff.
But he maintains that “the last eight years have seen some significant accomplishments.” They include administrative and organizational improvements; new K-9 and community watch programs; a wildfire evacuation plan and the pending installation of laptops in patrol cars.
If re-elected, Rummel aims to expand the community watch program and take a more proactive approach to drugs.
“After doing this eight years, I have a distinct knowledge of the law-enforcement needs of this county and what the people expect and trying to give it to them.”
Rummel’s opponent, Darlene Lee, is also running on her background. “I think that my overall law-enforcement experience, coupled with my degree [in law enforcement] would definitely help me be sheriff,” the Thompson Falls resident said.
Having spent 12 years with the Montana Highway Patrol, Lee said “I work very closely with the sheriff’s deputies and other agencies, so I kind of know the inner workings of the Sheriff’s Office and I’m friends with a lot of them.”
Lee had mild criticism for Rummel’s high-profile operations. “I do feel there was some dragging of feet” on the Jake Ryan manhunt. “I think he was trying to please two sides with that,” she said, referring to Ryan's family and the feds. As for the Agency shooting, she said that “it sounds like they could’ve been a little more aggressive in their investigation,” but noted that it was an ongoing operation.
She voiced more concern for staff morale, pointing to a recent anonymous survey of Sanders County Sheriff’s Office employees.
A majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with some statements on leadership like “My Supervisor demonstrates that employees are important to the success of the county,” and “My Supervisor has the ability to deal with the challenges we face.” But the response to other statements was less positive, and several of the comments described a lack of leadership and communication.
Lee shares that view — and aims to do better. “There’s a lack of leadership at the sheriff’s office, and if you get everyone happy and working and accountable … right there you’ve increased your workforce.”
She’s concerned by what she considers a lack of coordination between various law enforcement agencies in Sanders County, saying that “I’ve always pushed for us working together because we’re all on the same team.”
Lee would also aim to improve officers’ training and equipment if elected. “I know the budget is very tight, but if there’s ways to make things more efficient, alleviate one part of the budget to have better training, I would do that,” she said. Lee declined to specify possible new funding sources or budgetary changes, saying she would need to examine the county’s publicly available budget more closely.
Rummel has questioned his opponent’s fitness for office, noting her medical retirement from the Montana Highway Patrol. “How can you be medically retired and continue to do this job?” he asked. “A rural sheriff isn’t administration only.”
“I am medically retired,” Lee acknowledged. “I could no longer tolerate sitting in a patrol car 10-plus hours a day, but I am still perfectly capable of backing up the guys if they need it.
“I am going to be a working sheriff out there. I’m not just going to be sitting at a desk.”
Also in Sanders County, Paul Fielder is challenging incumbent Carol Brooker for her role as Sanders County Commissioner.