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An clunky end to a bumpy campaign: paying the loser to leave the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

A big story this past week is that former Sheriff Marc Heckathorn got an $82,625 buyout from the county to leave office, not work the final seven months of his term, and that newly elected Jason Pollock is about to be appointed by the county commission to start in June instead of when his term would start in January.

The word out of both the county and the soon-to-be former sheriff was that the buyout was essentially to "mitigate risk" of future lawsuits. It's not uncommon for governments, and the private sector, to pay buyouts to employees that include agreements not to sue — but it's typically when the entity wants that individual gone but they fear there is a significant chance of a wrongful termination or hostile workplace lawsuit.

But the vote-counting machines had hardly cooled off before buyout talk began. It seems there was no effort to work up a transition plan, no effort to mitigate "risk" by, say, forging a plan that could have addressed potential risk factors.

Maybe this is only possible in the land of lollipops and rainbows, but for both sheriff candidates, the post-election mantra should have been: tuck the egos in the pocket for a few months and go to work for the county, department and community they both said they cared about so much when trying to be elected. That never appeared to be an option.

Heckathorn has said he felt there was no chance he would remain employed by the new sheriff, that he felt he was "not wanted" by the new administration. Apparently, the main potential lawsuit threat would have been Heckathorn's against the county for not remaining employed in the sheriff's office after his term ran out. So, the solution: give me the money now as if I had worked seven months, and you won't have to face the potential of me suing you in 2023 for not retaining a very well-trained, highly experienced law enforcement professional.

The former sheriff addressed this by saying "elections have consequences." That's true, they do. But when incumbents lose, the vast majority finish out their terms, especially when getting paid a real good salary. Or, sometimes, when the rejection is too severe or a situation too toxic, they might resign and walk away without a parachute.

I suppose $82,625 isn't a massive amount of money when figured against the multi-million dollar sheriff's office budget. Analytically, it may be the right, wise move by the county in the long run, to avoid seven months of apparently unavoidable conflict, and apparently the inevitable lawsuit the soon-to-be former sheriff would file once not hired by the guy who knocked him out of office.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's office routinely, it seems, has lawsuits erupting from disgruntled employees and election-connected personnel issues. Jefferson County took note and doesn't want anything to do with one. Collectively, it isn't a good look on our law enforcement agencies.

But it's the short run, how rapidly it all went down, that leaves heads spinning.

For a lot of the rank and file of our countywide community — who view $82,000 as what they'd get if they went to work five days a week, for two or three solid years — the consequences of this election, and what went down in the days following, seem more like lose the vote, win a lottery.

It may have been a smart move on several fronts and by all parties involved. Maybe it just needs to be in the county budget moving forward during sheriff election years. If two people within the department are running against each other, prepare the buyout for the one who gets the fewest votes, to reduce the risk of the otherwise inevitable lawsuit.


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