Steamboat Springs The election for Routt County sheriff is a repeat of the race from four years ago, and both men are drawing on their experiences since 2006 to prop up their own candidacies while attacking that of their counterpart.
Incumbent Democratic Sheriff Gary Wall and Republican All Crimes Enforcement Team Commander Garrett Wiggins have used their strong, often polarizing personalities to drum up support for law enforcement philosophies that don’t sound very different at their core.
Both men said that they appreciate the benefits of officer discretion and that a warning can often discourage future illegal behavior more effectively than a fine or ticket. Wall and Wiggins both say they want to work to keep Sheriff’s Office deputies happy and decrease turnover. And both say their stumbles in their current jobs have provided valuable lessons they have used to improve their performances.
Wall defeated Wiggins in 2006 with 55 percent of the vote. He succeeded Republican Sheriff John Warner, who chose not to seek re-election after 12 years in office.
Both men have extensive law enforcement experience.
Wall was a police officer in Aspen from 1967 to 1973. He was chief of police in Vail from 1973 to 1979. He spent much of the ensuing two and a half decades as a self-employed private investigator.
Wiggins was an officer for the Quincy (Fla.) Police Department from 1986 to 1989. He left for three years to become a plant manager for Swisher International, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies. He returned to the Quincy Police Department in 1993 and worked there until 1998. He was hired by the Steamboat Springs Police Department in 1999 and then joined the Routt County Sheriff’s Office for a couple of years. He returned to the Steamboat Springs Police Department in 2004, and although he is commander of the ACET drug task force, Wiggins technically remains an employee of SSPD.
During his four years as sheriff, Wall has clashed with the Routt County Board of Commissioners on issues such as the Sheriff’s Office budget. Wall says his disputes with the commissioners are simply an effort to defend the constitutional autonomy of his office while ensuring he meets the public safety needs of county residents. As an example, he went before commissioners on multiple occasions with requests to exempt his staff from furloughs and for equipment such as automatic external defibrillators for all Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
Wall also suffered backlash for his 2007 arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence after being pulled over for failing to dim his headlights. He refused a blood-alcohol test, fought the arrest in court and eventually was found guilty of driving while ability impaired. Wall says he had only one glass of wine that evening and made a mistake by not submitting to a blood-alcohol test to prove his innocence.
“I choose not to comment further on a situation which, all things considered, has made me a better sheriff,” Wall writes on his campaign website.
Like Wall, Wiggins has not been immune to controversy in recent years.
Two officers under Wiggins’ command at ACET were found guilty of acting improperly in their roles as drug task force investigators, and the task force itself was reprimanded for poor management of cash used to make drug buys and not consistently following protocol relating to the monitoring of confidential informants.
An independent investigation commissioned by the city of Craig determined that Wiggins didn’t act on possible officer misconduct until “serious performance-related issues surfaced.” However, a response to that independent investigation by two former officials of the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office defended Wiggins and credited him with pushing for an investigation of the two officers, who later were found guilty of varied offenses. The two former officials have endorsed Wiggins in his run for sheriff.
Wiggins says the ACET audit helped put in place better policies that he embraced. He also said he played an instrumental role in ensuring that the wayward officers were brought to justice.
Wiggins is using his campaign to call for better relationships with other county and state agencies, and he says he’s the best candidate to build them.
“Especially with the county commissioners, if I have something I think is necessary, I’ll have my plan ready and I’ll go in and articulate why” it’s important, Wiggins said. “I’m not going to go in and demand something when I know there’s no money in the bank.”
Wall said his occasional conflicts with other agencies are part of the job and, ultimately, worked themselves out. Although there were initial concerns that he may have exceeded his office’s budget by thousands of dollars one year, he has come in under budget each year in office.
He remains in a legal dispute with the commissioners about who should pay Wall’s outstanding legal bills related to his disagreement with commissioners about furloughs for all county employees, including Sheriff’s Office deputies. Wall says the commissioners directed him to obtain his own legal counsel because the county’s staff attorney could not represent the commissioners and the sheriff. He subsequently hired an outside lawyer and continued to receive counsel from that attorney.
“If the same situation came up tomorrow, I would have to do the same thing,” Wall said.
Wall said that he’s also not surprised he has upset some other local law enforcement officials but that he makes no apologies. In one case that angered Steamboat Springs Police Department officials, Wall directed a Sheriff’s Office investigation into allegations of embezzlement after he decided the Police Department wasn’t acting quickly enough, even though the alleged crime occurred within city limits and would typically fall under the jurisdiction of city police.
Wall also withdrew Sheriff’s Office support for the regional drug task force commanded by Wiggins because he said it and its officers often intruded on the civil liberties of residents and employed questionable tactics. He has not backed down on either issue.
Wiggins said it’s that kind of action by Wall that has soured relations with other agencies. On his website, Wiggins lists the Moffat County sheriff, the 14th Judicial District attorney, the Steamboat Springs chief of police and the Hayden and Craig chiefs of police among his supporters.
Wall said Wiggins’ law enforcement support doesn’t bother him. He chalks some of it up to Republicans simply supporting their party.
“I don’t go around and beg people who work for the county to support me; I don’t need that,” he said. “I know I have a lot of support here.”
Wall’s listed supporters on his campaign website include a Steamboat Springs City Council member and several county residents.
Turnover and staff morale
Wall points to decreased turnover in the Sheriff’s Office as one of his biggest accomplishments since taking office in 2006. The Sheriff’s Office and Routt County Jail once were regarded as training ground for officers who would eventually move on to the Steamboat Springs Police Department, but Wall boasts that he has lost only one deputy to the Police Department during his tenure. He has dismissed several deputies and staff members and lost others to retirement — changes he says helped increased the overall quality of the Sheriff’s Office. Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said the turnover during Wall’s tenure has been about standard for the department and an improvement from the months before Wall took office.
Wiggins counters that deputies aren’t as happy as Wall suggests. Wiggins said he will make it a top priority to be a “hands-on” administrator and better regulate and check in on his investigators and deputies.
Wall said his guiding philosophy is first and foremost to help the residents of the county. He preaches giving his deputies discretion in how they handle incidents. He thinks a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement is wrong.
“They’re there, and they see it, and if they think a ticket needs to be written, they write it,” he said. “I don’t see the Sheriff’s Office as a big revenue-generating agency where we go out and generate as much money as we can from the citizens in fines.”
Wall said warnings can be just as effective as tickets in many cases.
Wiggins said he largely agrees with Wall.
“When it comes to the minor offenses, traffic offenses, petty offenses even some misdemeanors where we have the option of using officer discretion, I agree with Gary,” Wiggins said. “Written warnings, verbal warnings can be just as effective or more effective.”
Wiggins said his reputation of being more aggressive on prosecutions is largely because of the type of work he does with the drug task force.
“When you focus on major crimes, especially the felonies, you have to step up the enforcement,” he said. “You can’t give a written warning for a guy going out selling drugs.”
Wiggins has not announced who would serve as his undersheriff. He says he will accept applications for the position if he wins the election.