TWIN FALLS • The race for Twin Falls County Sheriff began in earnest well over a year ago when Cliff Katona announced in January that he would challenge Tom Carter.
Katona announced his candidacy before any of the presidential hopefuls and a full two years before he would be sworn in, if he were elected.
“I’m starting early because I know I have a lot of work to do,” Katona said last March.
But Carter made it clear from the beginning he didn’t plan to roll over: “I’m going to stay here until they chase me out.”
True to their promises, both men are now running in what could end up being one of the most hotly contested races in the Magic Valley, which pits a two-term incumbent against a challenger who says it’s time for a change.
Carter started out as a Twin Falls Police officer, has been with the sheriff’s office as a deputy since 1992, was elected sheriff in 2008, was re-elected four years later and is now seeking a third term.
Katona has never been a sheriff’s deputy but worked seven years as an officer with the Pocatello Police Department before moving to the Idaho State Police, where he was a trooper for three years and a detective for 19. Since the first day he announced his candidacy, he’s preached the importance of being a visible sheriff.
To that end, moving his office to the first floor of the old county courthouse would be Katona’s first priority, he said during a meeting with the Times-News editorial board in April.
“Where it belongs,” Katona said. “I believe the sheriff should be very visible and very approachable … everyone should have the opportunity, at any time, to come in and visit with the sheriff one-on-one.”
In community appearances, Katona often touts his plan to start a youth program within the sheriff’s department.
Katona said it’s fair to assess his campaign as being critical of Carter for not being visible enough.
Carter believes he’s as visible as he needs to be and isn’t worried about the location of his office. His focus, he said, is on improving the programs he’s already built and established.
“I got a list of No. 1 (priorities),” Carter said during his meeting with the editorial board. “We’re improving our drone program, we’re enhancing our narcotics program, and I suppose the best one I got is the records management system, which is new. Because that’s one thing I’ve been harping on since I’ve been in office, is the ability for the city and the county — well, all agencies really — to converse … It makes it safer for the officers on the street.”
The record system makes it easier for patrol officers to access background checks and criminal records to ensure they know who they’re dealing with in the field, Carter said.
Katona said he’ll have no issue finding the balance between being a visible sheriff and doing the administrative work necessary for the job.
“Sheriff has to have a solid senior staff, and a solid chief deputy,” Katona said. “The chief deputy runs the day-in and day-out operations. The sheriff has to have a staff that he can trust … The sheriff oversees.”
But having a solid senior staff and trusting his lieutenants, captains and sergeants is something Carter does already, the sheriff said.
And just as Katona critiqued Carter for not being visible enough, Carter offered his own critique about Katona’s relative lack of leadership and training.
“Training is the backbone of any agency, as far as I’m concerned,” Carter said. “My opponent says stripes don’t mean nothing, and certifications are just a piece of paper. That’s because he has neither; in 25 years in the business, he never achieved either one. I wholeheartedly disagree with that. I’ve got my executive certification and I’ve got about 2,000 hours of training … As far as I’m concerned, you cannot have enough training and education.”
The sheriff said that extends to his command staff, who are all obligated to get advanced supervisory and management certificates as their careers advance.
Katona said if he were elected, he wouldn’t come in and clean house right away, calling that the “worst thing he could do.” But he does believe the office has become stagnated, that everyone should change positions at least once every five years, that Carter has become “too comfortable” and that morale is low among the employees he’s talked to.
The challenger also says he wants to create a respectful workplace inside the sheriff’s office and points out several sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful injury suits filed against Carter and the sheriff’s office during his tenure.
“Lawsuits go with the territory,” Carter said. “The jail is the biggest liability.”
He said he couldn’t comment on the open cases, but referenced an excessive-force lawsuit the county was forced to pay out when one of the video cameras inside the jail malfunctioned and couldn’t help prove what really happened during the incident.
“There is just absolutely nothing I can do about people filing lawsuits,” Carter said.
Other issues Carter and Katona disagree on include the size of the office, creating substations around the county and combining the Twin Falls Police and Twin Falls County Sheriff’s SWAT teams into one team.
Katona says there needs to be about double the amount of deputies on duty, and he wants to create sheriff’s substations in Murtaugh and Castleford. His plan to pay for the expansion isn’t fully developed. Katona also opposes combining the city and county SWAT teams because of differences in styles.
Carter said the office wasn’t fully staffed when he took over, but he’s built it up to where it needs to be by working with county commissioners, who oversee the sheriff’s department budget. He said the call volume in a place like Castleford doesn’t support putting a substation there and that he won’t put a tax-burden on the county by creating substations that aren’t needed. He supports combining the city and county SWAT teams to “increase efficiency of training” and provide “better availability.”
Both men agree that drugs are one of the most important issues the county is dealing with and both say they are committed to fighting drugs and drug crimes.