The clash between Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston and his deputies came to a head on Thursday when 98 percent of those who turned out for a “no confidence” vote gave the sheriff a thumbs down.
About 70 percent of the 213 deputies eligible to vote as union members turned out to express their displeasure with Houston, whose 14 months in office have been marked by numerous controversies.
Houston did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but issued a statement via email dismissing the no-confidence vote and saying his No. 1 priority is to serve the county’s citizens.
“For 146 of the deputies who voted, transition and change has been difficult,” Houston wrote. “Accountability has also been difficult. But change and accountability is what I promised the citizens in Bernalillo County and I am committed to that every day.”
Among the deputies’ concerns, which were laid out in a news release from the Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff’s Association:
♦ Houston’s recent changes to the BCSO hiring process, which the union has characterized as a lowering of standards for prospective deputies. The changes followed a call to Houston from the County Commission chairman about a man who had failed his oral interview during the academy process.
♦ “Multiple violations” of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, including changes Houston made to the way deputies are assigned to the field.
♦ The “apparent retaliatory behavior toward deputies who have been vocal against some of these violations, including forcing them into new shifts and schedules that have caused hardships on the deputies’ home lives, professional careers and reputations on the department.”
♦ Spending decisions. “There are many examples of new badges being made, non-sworn personnel being added to existing staff, uniform changes, and vehicle lifts for the sheriff’s vehicle only, that don’t seem to have any logical reason to be purchased other than to change something.”
♦ The sheriff’s unwillingness to discuss proposed changes with deputies before making them and a lack of trust in the department’s rank and file.
The sheriff defended his decision to change the assignment process, saying it has put more deputies on the street.
“The argument that deputies now have to work Saturday and Sunday is not acceptable,” he wrote. “Criminals do not take the weekend off.”
Union officials contend that the change has put fewer deputies on the street and that Houston’s reorganization has caused overtime to go up.
Houston’s statement did not address the hiring changes or what the union called retaliation against deputies who have disagreed with him. It also did not address the union’s concerns about trust and communication.
The union’s news release says Houston has indicated he believes the no-confidence vote won’t have any lasting impact on the department.
“We believe it does,” the union’s statement says. “Even if the public loses interest, it should concern him that an overwhelming majority of his sworn deputies have no confidence in his ability to run the department.”
Houston was elected in November 2010 election.
A few months after taking office, he moved two BCSO helicopters and various tactical equipment from centrally located facilities to a hangar on the far West Mesa owned by his top campaign contributor, John Bode.
Next, Houston changed the way deputies are deployed in the field. Instead of bidding for shifts, deputies were required to work in a preassigned “squad system” that Houston said would put more officers on the streets.
The union filed a grievance, which was settled on the condition that deputies would be able to bid for shifts once a year.
And most recently, a Jan. 30 call from the County Commission chairman to Houston on behalf of a man who had failed an oral interview as part of the BCSO hiring process prompted the sheriff to change that portion of the process. Three deputies, including union President Kyle Hartsock, were reassigned after Hartsock publicly criticized the decision.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal