Garfield County sheriff challenger wants more open department | AspenTimes.com

Garfield County sheriff challenger wants more open department

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A Republican primary challenge against Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has a lot to do with running a sheriff’s office that’s more accountable to the public, says Vallario’s would-be successor.

“Seeing how this administration has been run, I believe there is more that can be done to provide better service to the community,” said Doug Winters, a Rifle resident and 13-year member of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, who successfully petitioned onto the Aug. 10 Republican primary ballot to face Vallario.

If successful, Winters, rather than the two-term incumbent, would earn the party’s nod to run for sheriff in this fall’s general election against the Democrats’ nominee, Tom Dalessandri, a former two-term Garfield County sheriff.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Winters said.

But it wasn’t until he started talking to citizens about some of the recent happenings in the sheriff’s department, from budget decisions to personnel issues to lawsuits involving jail inmates, that he decided now was the time.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say how unapproachable and arrogant the current sheriff is, and I’m not that way,” Winters said. “I hold myself accountable, and my constituents hold me accountable. And, if an explanation needs to be made, I will address it in an appropriate way.”

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Vallario said he applauds Winters for putting himself in the public eye to challenge him. But he countered that he is more than willing to answer to the public when questions arise about his department’s policies and procedures.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a few people who are unhappy with me over isolated decisions have convinced Doug to challenge me on their behalf,” Vallario said recently, after Winters’ ballot petition containing 193 valid signatures of registered county Republicans was confirmed in late May. Winters needed just 69 valid signatures to make the ballot.

“I wish those that are unhappy would have the courtesy to come to me and discuss these things openly and honestly,” Vallario added. “Those that have, have found that any of their concerns – especially those based on misinformation – have been resolved to their satisfaction.”

As for Winters’ aspirations to run the sheriff’s department, Vallario said he also questions his challenger’s level of administrative experience and police tactical training. Winters is a detective with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department.

“He’s been a deputy and detective for 13 years, but has done nothing to develop his career path for this position,” Vallario said of Winters’ readiness to be sheriff.

“I, on the other hand, have 23 years of law enforcement experience, all committed to Garfield County,” Vallario said, pointing to 17 years of supervisory experience, including being second in command with the Glenwood Springs Police Department for seven-plus years before being elected sheriff.

“I have been instrumental in developing budgets and policies and procedures for over 15 years,” he said. “Basically, I have worked my way up through the process to remain qualified for the position.”

Winters answered that there’s a lot of competition for advancement within the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department but that as the chief detective on several cases he has been in a supervisory role.

“As the lead detective you are the supervisor on the case, which means you direct personnel, including the officers and deputies involved,” Winters said. “I have the time, training and experience to handle that aspect of it.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel qualified to do the job,” he said of his bid for sheriff.

“I also believe I have youth on my side,” said the 36-year-old Winters. “I’m energetic and charismatic, and I’m not abrasive when people approach me. I listen to my constituents. I don’t have a problem with people questioning my experience, and I’m willing to accept criticism. We can all learn from criticism.”

Winters said his concerns do not extend to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department as a whole.

“There are some good people in the organization,” he said. “But there have been some things that have happened recently that I believe are inexcusable.”

Those range from Vallario’s budget decisions, including purchase of the $236,000 BearCat armored rescue vehicle used by the All Hazards Response Team; to lawsuits involving the jail; what he believes to be a questionable promotion of a female jail detention officer with whom Vallario had a personal relationship; to a recent change in the volunteer application process to join the county’s backcountry search and rescue team.

Winters acknowledged that the jail lawsuits have been dismissed, and the District Attorney’s Office investigated Vallario’s handling of the jail division promotion and found no wrong-doing.

“The problem is these kinds of things shouldn’t come up in the first place,” Winters said.

The BearCat purchase was something that should have involved more public input, he said.

“Were there other alternatives? We don’t really know,” Winters said. “You have to put yourself in the citizens’ shoes, and citizens have a right to question leaders on whatever they do.”

Vallario has defended his purchase of the BearCat, including in his semi-regular “Just the Facts” newsletter which he uses to address issues within the sheriff’s department.

“Of course, spending that amount of tax dollars deserves scrutiny and accountability,” Vallario wrote, drawing a comparison to the amount of money spent on fire fighting equipment by local fire districts.

“In today’s world of fire retardant materials, sprinkler systems, etc., there is little chance that your home or business will catch on fire,” he continued.

Still, citizens expect their fire department to be prepared for the worst, he said.

“In the world of law enforcement, we must also be prepared for the highly unlikely, but possible tragic event,” Vallario wrote.

These and other issues in the sheriff’s race will be covered in the Post Independent in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 10 primary election.

Garfield County primary elections for both registered Republicans and Democrats, as well as registered third party voters, will be by mail-in ballot only.

July 12 is the last day to register to vote in the primary election. That’s also the deadline for any voters currently registered with one party who want to change party affiliation for the primary.

Unaffiliated voters who want to obtain a ballot to vote in a primary may affiliate with a party and request a ballot from the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office by July 10.

Election day affiliation for unaffiliated voters is permissible, though only at the clerk and recorder’s offices in Glenwood Springs and Rifle.

Voters may also register or change their party affiliation and other registration information online at http://www.sos.state.co.us.

jstroud@postindependent.com