Mineral County was stunned on Monday, Nov. 13, when Sheriff Tom Bauer turned in his letter of resignation to County Commissioner Chairman Roman Zylway.
Just hours before a scheduled meeting to discuss the future of the county’s detention center, Bauer handed Zylawy the letter and walked out the door.
The letter simply read, “To whom it may concern, I Tom Bauer resign my position as Mineral County Sheriff.”
“He just handed me his letter and walked out the door,” said Zylawy, who has no idea what prompted Sheriff Bauer to quit. “He was dressed in camouflage fatigues like he was going hunting when he left.”
No one has seen him at the courthouse since his Monday afternoon departure. Most of his equipment including his badge, gun, and uniform has been turned in but a final inventory had not been completed as of Nov. 17. Bauer told a reporter on Tuesday, Nov. 14, that his resignation stemmed from the department’s lack of funding but more so his disenchantment with county commissioners.
Bauer was elected as the sheriff of Mineral County in 2014 and his department has had a history of being at odds with the county commissioners. Last summer, deputies, dispatch and detention employees went on strike due to low salaries. The department also has a serious issue with its turnover rate. Along with the low pay there is little incentive for longevity, and the department has been accused of being a “training ground” for employees to gain experience and get required training at the county’s expense before moving on to jobs with better benefits.
“It’s been a revolving door, and it’s been like that since I was a deputy here in the ’90s,” Bauer had said in an earlier meeting.
Problems continue to plague the department and at the beginning of the month, two detention officers quit and one was fired. This left only two jailers and as a result the facility had to be temporarily closed. Prisoners were sent to other county jails and a committee was formed to come up with a plan to get the center back open. The officers who quit cited low pay and one walked off the job. His reason was poor management.
A commissioners meeting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 to discuss the matter. Instead of the first agenda item being a discussion about the jail, it turned to Undersheriff Mike Boone, who agreed to step in as acting sheriff.
“I’ll do my best to take care of the people of the county,” Boone said at the meeting. He will receive the sheriff’s salary while in the position. Bauer was earning about $53,000 annually. The median salary for Montana sheriffs is $49,370, according to Montana Legislative Services.
Boone will remain as acting sheriff until the commissioners appoint a new sheriff or another one can be elected. County Attorney Ellen Donohue explained to a packed room on Monday that interested parties had to file for the position in January 2018. Elections would then be held in November 2018 and the new sheriff would take office in January 2019.
Boone has not decided as to whether he will run in the election, “I will need to discuss it with my family,” he said. He’s been with the department for 12 years and has been the undersheriff for seven. He never ran for the sheriff’s position because after four years he would have to run for re-election.
“If I don’t win then there goes my 20-year retirement. It’s too much to lose and not worth the gamble,” he said. “Most people who run are at the end of their term or they are retired from something else. I’m getting close to that point so there is a possibility of running.”
After the Monday meeting Boone said he had not spoken to Bauer and didn’t know why he had tendered his resignation.
On Friday, November 17 a former Mineral County Deputy, Mike Toth threw his hat in the ring for the acting sheriff’s position at the commissioners meeting. Toth ran against Bauer in the 2014 election and lost. He is currently working as a private investigator in Billings.
He was a county deputy from 1999 to 2004. After that he moved to Seattle to work as a Seattle police officer and worked his way up to detective. He was an officer in the bar district at night which he said was a busy and educational assignment.
From Seattle, he was recruited to work for the Renton, Washington police department and worked as a detective on major felony property crime cases, as well as helped with personal crime scenes. From Seattle he moved to Billings and became a private detective and worked part-time as a federal security guard at the federal courthouse.
There he joined the union and was hired as the Union Director for the United Government Security Guards of America union in Denver. In that position, he traveled around the country and worked with local unions with contract negotiations.
“There’s a whole host of problems and I’m surprised someone would want to step forward. Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” Zylawy asked.
“I believe I do,” said Toth. “Obviously this is something that can’t be fixed overnight. But I’m a team player and it will take the county attorney, commissioners, and the community to set things right.”
Commissioner Duane Simons commented that, “it’s not going to be an easy job no matter who fills those shoes. It’s the same problems as always. Obviously you don’t scare easily or you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Toth said he’s matured a lot since his days as a deputy and is more seasoned, “I’ve mellowed a lot and believe in transparency and that community comes first.”
Anyone interested in the position on interim sheriff will have until Dec. 6 to submit an application. If more than one person wants the job, then a selection committee will be put into place and a decision will be made in December.