Editor’s Note: Look for coverage on the debate between Lewis County commissioner candidates Scott Brummer and Harry Bhagwandin in an upcoming edition of The Chronicle.
The Packwood Improvement Club, which runs the community hall, held a candidate forum on Thursday night with the candidates for Lewis County commissioner in District 3 and Lewis County sheriff.
Far from the personal jabs and spars of recent presidential debates in America, the candidates spoke calmly and intentionally on issues sent to the club by constituents ahead of time and the crowd held applause or other disruption until the end of the debates for each race.
Clad in a vest he’s made a signature style, candidate Tracy Murphy sat beside incumbent Rob Snaza at the sheriff’s candidate table.
Both candidates are Republicans with long tenures in law enforcement. Their platforms Thursday seemed to differ more on specific issues than ideological matters. Both expressed a deep care for their community and a love of its people.
Candidates were given three minutes for an opening statement, addressing when and why they chose to run for office before being asked six questions and giving a closing statement.
Murphy went first, beginning with a summary of his 32 years in law enforcement. He began training at the age of 16. Currently, he is a K9 trainer and detective sergeant for the Centralia Police Department.
“I didn’t actually think that my career would end with running for sheriff,” he said.
After recent state laws changed the parameters of law enforcement, he said, the Centralia Police Department has been able to adjust and adapt training and practices while still accomplishing their missions.
“And that mission is investigating crime, getting criminals off the road and putting people in jail where they need to be, not out in our communities,” Murphy said.
He was roused to action when Snaza announced during a Board of County Commissioners meeting last year that anyone who thought they could do the job of sheriff better than him was welcome to step up and run.
“My wife and I thought about it and prayed about it to discuss the pros and cons. The cons seem to outweigh the pros, but at the end of the day, I’ve said I was a public servant for all my life serving the community. What I know is I know law enforcement and I know people,” he said, adding that Lewis County is his community and where he intends to stay into retirement.
Next, Snaza spoke about beginning his career in law enforcement with the Napavine Police Department.
“When a crime occured in Napavine I actually took it personally,” he said, adding he spent time during his tenure there doing ride alongs with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) in hopes of joining the ranks as a deputy. He was hired by the office in 1995.
He ran for office in 2014, as his twin brother, John Snaza, had been serving as the sheriff of Thurston County, saying, “We’re both blessed to be where we’re at.”
He spoke about experience as a deputy in East Lewis County, including spending late nights out on U.S. Highway 12 and teaching the D.A.R.E. program at Packwood Elementary School and later doing the same when the school was closed and transferred to White Pass School District.
Questions were then posed by moderator and Packwood resident Mindy Brooks. The candidate questions and answers are as follows:
“East Lewis County is dealing with frequent speeding, increased burglaries and drug-related crimes. How will you address these issues specifically in East Lewis County?”
Snaza was asked to answer first.
East Lewis County, he said, is 1,300 square miles, with the farthest towns from the Twin Cities, namely Mineral, Glenoma, Morton, Randle and Packwood, having one deputy to cover them at all times. When he first started at the LCSO, there were more staff members available along with coverage by Washington State Patrol — which used to have a station in Morton — a Mossyrock Police Department and more staff working at Morton’s department. He said he will be asking for more funding and staffing from the Board of County Commissioners soon.
In addition, he said the office now has a mobile unit and traffic unit better suited to addressing these issues in the east end.
However, he said the Blake Decision, a Washington Supreme Court move that changed the way drug possession is prosecuted, was also to blame for increased east county crime.
“We’re allowing criminals to get away. And we need to work with our legislators to change that. We also need to change the laws regarding the Blake Decision that make drugs basically legal,” Snaza said.
Murphy was asked for his answer next, promptly responding to the last thing Snaza said.
“Let’s deal with the drug problem, first of all. The decision didn’t make drugs (legal). The drugs are still illegal and can’t (be) possessed, and the police have the authority by statute to take those drugs away from people,” Murphy said, adding that the decision changes the penalties after arrest.
He said the drug problem is the biggest problem Lewis County is facing and that it’s affecting every aspect of society by increasing crime, mental illness, homelessness, deaths, burglaries and impared driving.
To take an active role to eradicate the problem, he said, the first step he’d take, if elected, would be to reinstate LCSO participation in the Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET), a unit he currently directs in Centralia. The task force includes representatives from federal, state and local agencies. Snaza previously removed the sheriff’s office from JNET.
“The sheriff's responsibility is to every single citizen of this county, whether you're in an incorporated area or unincorporated. And the only way for us to be successful in our job and our mission is to work together,” Murphy said.
“How will you increase the police presence in east county?”
Murphy dove in with his plans for an East Lewis County sheriff’s substation, which was disbanded by Snaza in 2017.
While his idea includes housing sheriff’s office resources and equipment, Murphy said he’d like the substation to have a holding or jail area, which would allow deputies who make an arrest to stay in the east end longer instead of driving back to the jail in Chehalis.
“Obviously staffing levels are low. We need to look at increasing those,” he said.
He added that there may be opportunities for federal or state funds to be put toward training and hiring as well with the decreased presence of state patrol and law enforcement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Asked to go next, Snaza began by saying he agrees with Murphy’s stance that the LCSO needs a footprint in the east end and said the closure of the substation was “not by choice, that was by need.”
Since, he said, he’s been working to get a substation reestablished, with he and the late commissioner Gary Stamper having eyed the Kiona Shop, a Randle-area public works building.
When presenting that to the commissioners, Snaza said they agree it’s needed, but that the proposal was apparently going to cost $1.5 million.
He said compromise on the building’s capacity is being made in order to make the project financially feasible.
“What will you do to increase transparency at the sheriff’s office?”
Going first, Snaza said while the sheriff’s office has prided itself on its presence at community events where staff can spend time with the public, the COVID-19 pandemic decreased their opportunities for engagement. He is encouraged by the county having hired a public information officer and believes his work will increase the visibility of the office.
“We need to be telling people our story. We need to do a better job with that. We do have partnerships. We work with DEA. We work with the federal government. We work with FBI, U.S. Marshals. We work with all the agencies,” he said. “I want everybody to be assured. Transparency — we have nothing to hide. In fact, I am proud to boast about the men and women at the sheriff’s office.”
Next, Murphy said while law enforcement is made up of humans who make mistakes and always will, a key aspect to the execution of an agency's work is having the public’s trust.
Having transparency, he said, allows for the public to hold leader’s accountable.
“How does the public know and trust? Well, social media. I want to bring back the social media platforms that the sheriff’s office used to have to make them bigger, better to where we are putting things out there on Facebook,” he said, slightly chuckling while adding he isn’t very savvy with social media but “I do know the people who are.”
He added that the public has a right to information on their elected officials and that he doesn’t want to lose sight of the fact that he is a public servant, “not a king.”
“How will you coordinate with all of the policing entities, at least in Lewis County?”
Brooks listed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service and others.
Murphy was asked to answer first and he began with a statement on the importance of building relationships between agencies, saying that work would be a priority for him if elected.
“We can't do it all by ourselves. If there is a major incident in this county, we need more resources. We have to build those relationships prior to the big incident happening,” Murphy said.
He referred to issues with staffing from the Forest Service, suggesting there could be opportunities for funding deputies whose full-time job is to assist the work the agency does. He again spoke on his participation in JNET as an example of the interagency collaboration he’d like to see from the LCSO.
“We would like to see that expanded,” Murphy said.
Answering second, Snaza said this kind of collaboration is already happening, citing frequent meetings with local police departments, offering coverage for those when they’re short-staffed, and meetings with Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service. He said the office has been recognized by the Forest Service for its work in the past.
“This is a partnership. We all work together. Now we have different philosophical ideas of how things should go. But at the end of the day, we're all in this together. … I think if you guys were around for the forest fires or you're here when we're going through events, natural events, you'll see those partnerships,” Snaza said.
“What are the most pressing issues at the jail and how will you address them?”
Snaza was asked to go first, listing mental health along with drug addiction and homelessness.
“More and more we are seeing those individuals with a mental health crisis,” he said, adding that the atmosphere and approach at the jail has changed drastically over his career alongside an increased visibility of mental illness.
When he started with the sheriff’s office, it took about 36 hours for people being booked to see a mental health professional. Now, there are seven mental health providers and other medical providers who are at the jail within a few hours of their arrival, he said.
The professionals talk with the new inmate on what kinds of medications they take, if any, and what they might need. If they are on drugs, he said, the providers may start them on Suboxone, a medication that reduces the side effects of opiate withdrawal.
“Today, our goal at the Lewis County Jail is that when we release them, we try to give them an opportunity to get off drugs, to get medications, to get housing, affordable housing if at all possible. To get them actual care. You know, we look at this holistically,” Snaza said.
Murphy was asked to answer next. He began by listing four major issues with the jail as a building that need to be addressed: the roof, HVAC system, electrical system and updating all the light fixtures. He said based on a recent study of these issues, the cost to fix them will be between $6 and $9 million.
When the facility was built in 2004, Murphy said then-sheriff John McCrosky said the building would be obsolete in 20 years.
“Well, folks, that’s less than a year and a half away,” Murphy said. “And we have to have a plan for what we’re going to do with our criminals. I understand that there’s mental health issues that need to be done, that’s other collaboration with other people to try to get those programs in the jail to fix it. But we have to have an ability, when somebody commits a crime on the street, to be able to arrest them and put them into a facility to get them off the streets and out of our communities.”
He added he’s a fan of using K9 units to search the jail for drugs and added the dog could be used in local schools as well to prevent contraband from being brought to school.
“How will you prevent people who don't live here from accessing the areas behind the roadblocks (during an evacuation)?”
The candidates both cited their experience with emergency situations when addressing this question, with Snaza listing the Goat Rocks Fire and flooding in the county and Murphy listing his work during many floods in Centralia.
Murphy went first, saying the Centralia Police Department’s approach has been to recruit volunteers to act as patrols at roadblocks, saying that if there is only a sign, people drive around it, but if people have to provide ID to pass, they are deterred.
He said the sheriff’s office could use reserve officers, search and rescue and others to perform this task on that kind of occasion.
“From the standpoint of the sheriff’s office, we have to rebuild its programs,” Murphy said.
Snaza next mentioned his office’s high presence during the Goat Rocks Fire, saying deputies where there throughout the evacuation order to help people get out safely and to assist in work after evacuation, such as retrieving medications or items for traveling families.
“When we had the floods, we found that there are actually bad people out there that like to take advantage of people who were out of their homes,” he said, adding that deputies were manning neighborhoods and had firefighters and community members patrolling the evacuated areas.
“I haven’t had a complaint yet. But that’s the great work of the men and women at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and our first responders,” he said.
Snaza went first with his closing statement, calling back to the conversation about the jail and saying there is no way Lewis County is going to afford to rebuild the jail entirely without a huge sales tax. He added the facility issues are being worked on as individual projects rather than as a rehaul of the entire building.
Murphy’s closing statement was on long-term strategic planning, saying, “If that means that we have to build another jail facility that will house one hundred people, then at least if one gets shut down for a time, we have a place to take someone. There (are) realities there.”
He added he’d look for federal funding related to COVID for that project.