SOUTH BEND — When Sheriff-elect Robin Souvenir takes over in January, he’ll keep most members of the current command staff. However, he is making a couple of changes, including one that is already proving controversial.
Pacific County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Ron Davis will serve as undersheriff, taking over for outgoing Sheriff Scott Johnson’s father, who was appointed undersheriff in early November. Emergency Communications Director Tim Martindale and Emergency Management Director Scott McDougall will keep their jobs. Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock will keep his job, but his duties will change somewhat to allow him more time to focus on drug enforcement.
Souvenir is ousting one member of the command staff: Chief Civil Deputy Denise Rowlett, who has worked for PCSO for 19 years. Souvenir will replace Rowlett with his brother-in-law Matt Padgett, who recently resigned from the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Police, just as Washington State Patrol concluded an internal investigation about his alleged conduct.
Searching for balance
Sheriffs are politicians first, cops second. As such, they have broad legal authority to give commissions and make appointments. Nearly all sheriffs use this power to surround themselves with people they trust. Current Sheriff Scott Johnson did so when he took over in 2011. So did his predecessor, John Didion.
In a late-November phone interview, Souvenir said he tried to strike a balance between keeping veteran command staff members like Matlock who have a lot of institutional knowledge, and appointing new people who share his vision for the agency.
Davis, 53, brings a wealth of experience to his new role. Born and raised in Pacific County, he first joined PCSO as a reserve deputy in 1987. While attending reserve academy, he was hired to work as a corrections officer at the county jail. After about two-and-a-half years of working in corrections and communications, he joined Raymond Police and went through the more rigorous academy for career officers. Around 2007, Davis returned to PCSO as a road deputy. In 2010, he was primary investigator in one of the county’s most notorious crimes, after 16-year-old Devon Moore murdered his father, Timothy Moore.
“[Davis] has the understanding of what the guys need, but he also has the understanding of why some decisions are made,” Souvenir explained. “He knows what’s working and what’s not working. The other thing is, he is a really good guy. He has a heart and his goals and vision are aligned with mine.”
Davis said he will meet with Souvenir over the coming weeks to plan. One of his top priorities will be improving morale and cooperation.
“I want to work on unity,” Davis said. “I want everyone to feel that their voices and ideas are gonna be heard and it’s a group effort — you can’t do it without the guy standing next to you.”
Davis may find it challenging to create that sense of unity because Souvenir’s decision to replace Rowlett with Padgett, who is his wife’s brother, is already drawing ire. After news of the appointment spread through the county, the Chinook Observer received numerous calls, emails and letters expressing concerns about Souvenir’s decision.
Some said hiring a brother-in-law for a leadership role smacks of nepotism. Some feel misled because Padgett and Souvenir both previously said Padgett would not move to PCSO. Others feel Rowlett was displaced after years of service simply because Padgett needed a job.
Souvenir said he hired Padgett because they work well together.
“Matt’s been my lieutenant for the last eight years,” Souvenir said. “I know what to expect. I know what his abilities are.”
Chief civil cop?
Souvenir also wants the chief civil deputy to be a law enforcement officer. Chief civil deputies are not required by law to be certified peace officers and the majority are not, but Souvenir thinks it could make the office more efficient. Rowlett brings a deputy with her when she handles potentially dangerous tasks like evicting people and removing children from dangerous homes. Padgett could go to those calls alone, freeing up a deputy to handle other calls, Souvenir said. He said Padgett generally would not answer calls for service, unless he was already in the area, or a major incident was underway.
“If there is a call on the board and he is on his way to work or going home, he can help with that,” Souvenir said.
“Anyone that knows Robin would not make the mistake of thinking he would allow any kind of nepotism, let alone participate in it,” Padgett wrote in a July 11 Facebook statement. Padgett made it clear that he planned to stay on at Shoalwater PD. At that point, he was still viewed as Souvenir’s likely successor. However, Padgett gave notice in late November, as the internal investigation was wrapping up. Soon after, the tribe asked WSP to close the investigation. Last week, they also abruptly released Souvenir, who is now burning up his remaining sick time.
“I told them that I would help until Dec. 31 and they decided Dec. 7 was my last day,” Souvenir said.
Currently, there is little trustworthy information available about the investigation. The Chinook Observer made a public disclosure request for the investigation file several weeks ago, but State Patrol has not released it yet. Padgett said he resigned voluntarily. He said he has “nothing to hide” and offered to provide documents that support his version of events.
Is it nepotism?
Even though Padgett himself called it nepotism, it’s more complicated than that. Hiring a relative is only nepotism if the relative is not qualified, or receives special pay, preference or advantages. It’s not clear yet what Padgett will be paid. Souvenir says Padgett is qualified. He points out that Padgett has years of supervisory experience and has completed courses for business and personnel management.
Padgett would hardly be the only local emergency responder to work with his family members. There are numerous cops in the county who are related by blood or marriage, including two PCSO deputies who are cousins. One fire agency has both a father and son and a husband and wife working together. Souvenir’s wife has been a 911 dispatcher for years — she plans to continue working for the county, with 911 Director Tim Martindale as her direct supervisor.
And hiring Padgett does not actually violate either the county or PCSO’s nepotism policies. The county prohibits staff from hiring or supervising members of their “immediate family.” However, while parents-in-law are included in the definition of “immediate family,” brothers and sisters-in-law are not. The PCSO policy prohibits employees from supervising or being supervised by any other employee who is a relative. But that policy doesn’t mention in-laws either, and Souvenir is an elected official, not an employee.
‘Very emotional time’
The technicalities are a cold comfort to Rowlett.
“I’ve literally given my heart and soul to this place for 19 years,” she said. Since joining PCSO as a clerk in 1999, Rowlett has worked her way up through the ranks, doing everything from bookkeeping and grant administration to supervising staff, handling evictions, helping with financial crime investigations, working with the drug task force and preparing the county for natural disasters.
Rowlett was appointed as chief civil deputy in 2014. While she is not a law enforcement officer, she has job duties that require specialized skills, including filing legal notices, managing a roughly $3 million budget and handling civil forfeitures and property sales. Over the years, she’s completed courses in civil service, management, financial crime investigation, emergency management, incident command and leadership, among other things. She says she’s improved services to the public, making it easier for people to get concealed pistol licenses and fingerprinting.
Rowlett doubts Padgett will have any time for law enforcement.
“I always have a to-do list,” she said. “I can tell you the civil work in this position over the last couple years has increased significantly.”
In the short-term, the departing civil deputy is busy wrapping up that to-do list and planning for the transition. Rowlett could have “bumped” the person immediately below her in the hierarchy and taken their job, forcing that person to decide between resigning and bumping the person below them. She decided it would cause too much disruption for the office and the affected staff. In January, she will take a new half-time job in the communications division, doing the kind of work she was doing a decade ago.
“It’s been a very emotional time, I guess you could say, and not just for me,” Rowlett said.