Sheriff’s office regroups after levy failure

<p>Rowan</p>

Every precinct in Umatilla County voted against the two recent public safety levies, with one exception.

Unofficial election results show the measure to add 18 sheriff’s deputies passed 2 votes to 1 in precinct 130, which is located southeast of Hermiston city limits.

But the measure to add jail staff and bolster other sheriff’s operation lost 359 to 254 in the same precinct. The disparity came about because only a few voters (three to be exact) were located within the precinct but outside city limits. The first measure appeared on every ballot in the county outside city limits and off the Umatilla Indian Reservation; the second was on every ballot except those on the reservation.

Sheriff Terry Rowan returned to work Tuesday after having no luck elk hunting. He said he’s still reeling a bit from the outcome of Nov. 5.

“I was actually shocked,” he said. “There was such public outcry concerning violent crimes the sheriff’s office handled, I think it was a given there would be support.”

Much of that outcry came in the wake of the violent assault on Joyce Key at the end of January in her home in Umapine, a rural community near Milton-Freewater. Key died months after, and three men are in the Umatilla County Jail on murder charges related to her death.

On election night, proponents wondered if Milton-Freewater voters supported the measures — and they did not. Precincts 131-133 cover the city of Milton-Freewater, and precincts 119-121 and 123 cover the surrounding area, including Umapine.

The measure failed in all seven, though the votes were close to even in half of those precincts.

Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering of Hermiston campaigned with Rowan for the local option taxes. He said he is working to get the county’s public safety committee rolling again. There are 10 people on the body, he said, and they should be able to meet in a couple of weeks.

Leaders of the tea party groups of Pendleton, Hermiston and Milton-Freewater gave Elfering some input on the matter last week. The conservative political groups opposed the levies, but Pendleton Tea Party Patriots coordinator Eli Stephens said they also consider public safety the county’s top priority. Other services are not as important, he said, and so perhaps the county can shift money from some programs and departments into the sheriff’s budget. The groups plan to meet with Elfering again, Stephens said.

Elfering explained that moving money around may not be practical. The public budget process helps determine spending priorities, he said, and state and federal dollars come with strings. Even so, Elfering said he is open to ideas from all constituents.

In the meantime, the county goes without 24/7 patrols, and Rowan said the vote affected morale at the sheriff’s office. He said perhaps the levies failed because the message wasn’t clear enough for voters, or the timing was bad considering property tax bills that went out before election night.

Rowan said he and the other committee members will examine those questions, go over the break-down of the results and figure out the next steps.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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