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by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Spokane County Commission chairman is concerned about "game-playing" among candidates interested in replacing Sheriff Mark Sterk, who retires March 31.

The commissioners hope to meet all three candidates for interim sheriff -- whose names were forwarded by the Spokane County Republicans -- at public Q-and-A sessions scheduled for early April. Undersheriff Larry Lindskog will be the interim sheriff until a choice is made.

There's criticism that Sterk is unfairly pushing his prot & eacute;g & eacute;, Cal Walker, to be interim sheriff and get a leg up on any rivals in the GOP primary next fall.

"There's a lot of little game-playing going on," County Commission Chairman Todd Mielke says, citing Walker's sudden appearance in televised public service announcements that normally are handled by the sheriff.

Walker is the captain in charge of the Valley precinct and, by default, chief of the City of Spokane Valley Police Department. (The city contracts with the Sheriff's Office for local police coverage.) Walker was head of the investigative task force when serial killer Robert Yates was captured.

After Sterk, a Republican, announced last fall that he'd be retiring nine months before his second term was to expire, the county GOP precinct committee officers last December forwarded the names of three people -- all current Sheriff's Department officers -- to the commissioners for review.

In addition to Walker, the candidates are Lt. Jim Finke, patrol shift supervisor in the Valley and previous candidate for sheriff, and Sgt. Ozzie Knezovich, the department's training supervisor and union head.

The county commissioners have tentatively set aside the afternoon of April 10 to interview all three candidates, beginning at 2 pm. Mielke has set up a process with about 25 minutes for each candidate -- five minutes of prepared remarks and 20 minutes of Q and A. Fellow commissioners Mark Richard and Phil Harris, as of Tuesday morning, had yet to check off on the details, a commissioner staffer says.

The interviews will be open to the public, Mielke says. "All three are insiders, so they have relationships inside the department," that commissioners can weigh, Mielke says. "The message I'm receiving is that all three are good people with unique strengths."

On Dec. 7, the Spokane County Republican precinct committee officers forwarded the three names to the county commissioners, rating Walker first with 48 votes, Knezovich with 24 and Finke with 14. At the same meeting, Sterk was elected chair of the GOP central committee.

Meanwhile, there's been growing criticism that the deck's being stacked for Walker. Knezovich said the precinct committee officers heard only three-minute statements from each candidate and asked no questions.

Former three-term Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, who hired Walker as a rookie deputy in 1983, contends in letters to county officials that Walker has advanced more because of political connections rather than policing skills.

But Walker has shown impressive leadership skills from the beginning, Sterk says, and is a natural choice to become interim sheriff.

Mielke says the commissioners will weight Bamonte's criticisms as part of the process. "Tony Bamonte was Cal Walker's direct superior, so he's in a position to know," Mielke says.
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