Update: Undersheriff appointment raises questions

Candidates for Pacific County sheriff worked to make their case to primary election voters at a fall forum. From left: Incumbent Scott Johnson, Robin Souvenir and Sean Eastham. Souvenir won the race.

SOUTH BEND — Ferrill “LeRoy” Johnson, 80, isn’t just Sheriff Scott Johnson’s dad. For the next seven weeks, he’s also Pacific County’s new undersheriff.

Sheriff Johnson appointed his father, a retired county road-crew worker, to his new job a week before losing his bid for a third term as sheriff. However, Sheriff-elect Robin Souvenir said the elder Johnson’s new law enforcement career will be a brief one — he intends to appoint someone else when he takes office on Jan. 1.

“We’ll probably change that one up,” Souvenir said on Nov. 8.

It’s not clear how long the decision has been in the works, because there are conflicting dates on the sheriff’s Certificate of Appointment, and his father’s Oath of Office.

The appointment and oath are printed on the same page. Scott Johnson dated and signed the appointment portion on Oct. 31. The oath portion originally said it was “subscribed and sworn” in October. However, someone scratched out the month and wrote in ‘November’ by hand. The sheriff filed the form at the Pacific County Auditor’s Office on Wednesday, Nov. 7. However, the same document says LeRoy Johnson signed his oath at the time of notarization on Friday, Nov. 9, two days in the future.

The undersheriff role pays $29.21 an hour in the first year. That works out to about $5,082 per month, or $60,984 per year, not including benefits.

The Chinook Observer reached out to the sheriff through email, phone and text message on Nov. 8. He has not responded yet.

The outgoing sheriff hasn’t had a second-in-command since former Undersheriff Ron Clark resigned to work at a hospital in June. When Clark left, the sheriff said he would wait until fall to make a new appointment. He did not give any indication of whom he might select, but most people in law enforcement predicted he would choose Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock or another veteran deputy who is already a member of his command staff.

According to a job description provided by the county, the undersheriff must have a minimum of five years of law enforcement experience and a Certificate of Basic Training from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. There is no upper age limit for entering police academy, Peace Officer Certification Manager Tisha Jones said. However, all recruits must pass a medical examination and a demanding physical ability test that involves a 300-meter sprint, sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run. Recruits also sign a form acknowledging they will be hit, kicked, punched, tackled and handcuffed repeatedly during academy.

The Observer is still trying to reach the new undersheriff to learn more about his qualifications.

Undersheriffs are at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of their sheriffs. According to the county’s job description, last updated in 1997, the undersheriff supervises patrol deputies and lower-ranking command staff, serves on boards, formulates and recommends new programs and equipment and reviews disciplinary matters. He or she also performs evaluations, creates policies and serves as the project coordinator for the Tri-Agency Narcotics Network, which has not existed for years. The undersheriff is commissioned to act on behalf of the sheriff and to carry firearms. Historically, Pacific County undersheriffs have also answered calls for service and supervised some investigations.

Speaking on background, a Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s staffer with knowledge of police recruitment practices said virtually all undersheriffs have experience in law enforcement. He called Johnson’s decision to hire an octogenarian relative with no known police training “a little unusual.”

“In government, nepotism is typically the practice of those with appointing authority giving jobs to relatives,” according to Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit organization that provides guidance to small governments in Washington. Hiring family members is not illegal. State law says almost nothing about nepotism, but many cities and counties have their own guidelines about when it is and isn’t acceptable to hire a relative.

It can be ethical to hire a relative if he or she is qualified for the job, hired through the standard procedure, and given pay that is commensurate with that of their peers.

County employment policy 2.2.2 says “No person of the immediate family should be employed in the county’s service in the same department or office.” The county’s definition of “immediate family” includes parents. The PCSO policy manual defines nepotism as “the practice of showing favoritism to relatives in appointment, employment, promotion or advancement by a public official in a position to influence these personnel decisions.” PCSO employees are prohibited from supervising, or being supervised by anyone who is a relative. They are also prohibited from evaluating, disciplining or making other types of personnel decision about relatives.

Most incoming sheriffs make significant changes to the command-staff lineup after taking office. When Scott Johnson took office in 2010, he demoted then-undersheriff Clark, and replaced him with Todd Fosse, a long-time reserve officer who helped run his campaign. Johnson abruptly fired Fosse in 2015 and reinstated Clark. Earlier this year, Fosse filed a wrongful termination suit against the sheriff. That case is ongoing.

This is a developing news story. Check back later in the week for updates.

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