Two of the three candidates for Wallowa County sheriff openly admit to having been arrested during their early adult years, a circumstance neither man believes is relevant today to his fitness for the county’s top law enforcement job.

Candidate Donnie Rynearson furnished the Chieftain copies of Circuit Court records from Benton and Umatilla counties for separate incidents occurring Feb. 2, 2001, in Corvallis, and Sept. 6, 2003, at the Pendleton Roundup. In the Corvallis case, Rynearson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief-2 and physical harassment, and attended a criminal diversion program to have the charges dismissed. At Pendleton two years later, the court dismissed a charge of furnishing alcohol to a minor.

Rynearson, who turns 33 on May 6, was 21 at the time of the Corvallis incident and 24 when accused in Pendleton. He said he has petitioned the court to have records of both incidents expunged.

Candidate Dick Bobbitt, 50, says his only arrest occurred in Enterprise when he was 19 “and everybody knows about it.” The charge was disorderly conduct. “A guy hit me, and I hit him back, and we both got charged with fighting in public,” he said. He thinks he was fined $160, but he’s not sure of the amount after 30-plus years.

Steve Rogers, 57, the third candidate in the race and Wallowa County’s current undersheriff, says he has never been arrested and that traffic citations are his own worst offenses. “When I was young I had a bunch of them,” he said. “I think the last traffic ticket I got was in 2006,” he added.

Joseph resident George Ballard raised the matter of sheriff candidates’ backgrounds during the Feb. 11 Lincoln Day Banquet in Enterprise. He decided to solicit the candidates’ agreement to sign forms authorizing release of their personnel records. Ballard said all three candidates at first agreed, but when he followed up with them several days later, one, Rynearson, balked at the plan.

In an interview last week, Rynearson said he had initially believed Ballard was representing the Republican Central Committee, but Rynearson later learned this was not the case. Sensing that his old court records were the specific item people were after anyway, Rynearson decided to bring those to the newspaper. The 11- and 8-year-old incidents, however, are “not relevant to facts of the election,” he said, adding that he’s anxious to inform the public about problems of over-budget spending and personnel management he says he sees at the Sheriff’s Office.

Bobbitt agrees that Rynearson’s dismissed charges have little bearing. “If it was relevant,... then the academy would’ve pulled his certificates,” he said, referring to various public safety officer certifications issued through the state’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST). Bobbitt says DPSST has grown “really, really strict” in regard to officers’ certifications.

More to the point, the Department also determines every prospective candidate’s eligibility to run for sheriff. Rynearson gained the required approval.

According to the Department’s website, eligibility determinations are based on criteria ranging from experience and education in law enforcement, to meeting a number of minimum standards for employment and training, taking a person’s criminal record and moral character into account, among other considerations.

Linsay Hale, DPSST’s compliance specialist and rule coordinator, explained that the Department’s police policy committee, the body certifying sheriff candidates, can exercise some discretion in what will constitute disqualifying circumstances. Certain types of offenses, however – domestic violence, for one – are never allowable.

In the state’s eyes, Rynearson’s past brushes with the law fall short of disqualifying him to serve as sheriff.

According to Rynearson, the 2001 incident occurred while he was a student at Oregon State University. He said his involvement started sometime after a friend of his had been in an altercation. Rynearson was at a residence with the friend when the friend’s adversary suddenly showed up, with confederates, presumably to resume the fight on a grander, brawling scale. Rynearson tried to remove the threat, though not without some physical contact. He said he had been gradually herding the adversary, partially through repeated pushes, back to the adversary’s own quarters several doors down. Rynearson’s friend ruined that effort, though, by jumping on both men, sending all three crashing through a picket fence. The adversary sustained a cut requiring stitches.

Rynearson initially faced an assault-4 charge, a misdemeanor, but the district attorney dismissed it. Rynearson said his friend was convicted of assault, however. Rynearson, facing criminal mischief and physical harassment misdemeanors, was ordered to pay an assessment and fees totaling $345. He also attended a six-month criminal diversion program as a condition for having the charges dismissed. The program involved 20 hours of community service and included alcohol treatment and anger control treatment components.

Rynearson said the incident at age 24 in Pendleton arose during a concert he attended. At the event’s conclusion, an Oregon Liquor Control Commission officer confronted him, alleging he had furnished beer to an underage drinker. The case later fell apart and the charge was dismissed, but Rynearson was nonetheless critical of his own behavior.

“I put myself in a bad situation,” he said. “I didn’t get convicted of it. It was a learning experience for me and it was a turning point in my law enforcement career.” He saw he would have to choose a path from there leading only one of two directions, either “party and have fun, or be a law enforcement officer.” He said he followed the latter route.

Alone among the three candidates, Rogers says Rynearson’s old court records are a valid consideration for voters. “It’s a judgment issue,” he said. “Also, people need to do background checks on all three of us, in my opinion... We all of us have some things we’re not proud of in the past... You’re talking about hiring the top law enforcement officer in the county.”

 

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