Sheriff Mark Sterk's decision to retire on March 31, nine months before the end of his second term, has touched off a rarity in Spokane -- some bare-knuckle fisticuffs over who'll become the next leader of law enforcement in the county.

Sterk's early retirement, coupled with his aggressive push of prot & eacute;g & eacute; Cal Walker as his replacement, has transformed a normally obscure succession process into a drama that attracted a standing-room only crowd to a county meeting room for more than four hours on Monday.

The Spokane County Commissioners spent all of Monday afternoon quizzing the three people -- Capt. Walker, Lt. Jim Finke and Sgt. Ozzie Knezovich, whose names were sent over last winter by the county's Republican precinct committee officers. Normally, this is how it works: the party of the departing elected official forwards three names, ranked in order of preference, to the commissioners and a change is made with little fuss or public awareness.

Sterk raised eyebrows, however, when he pushed for a replacement by Dec. 7, nearly four months before he would retire. Walker came out as the runaway top choice. It was later revealed the precinct committee officers heard a three-minute presentation from each of the three candidates and asked no questions.

"The door was closed on this awful early," County Commission Chairman Todd Mielke said Monday, citing a number of prospective sheriff candidates who came to the commissioners and asked: "Is this a done deal or what? If it is, I'm not going to waste my time."

Walker, at one point during his remarks Monday, made reference to the December vote: "The party has spoken," he said.

Commissioners scheduled Monday's interviews with Finke, Walker and Knezovich to counter any whiff of insider gaming. The meeting was moved from their cramped chambers to a bigger room in the county's human resources building, but even there all 50 seats were taken and an overflow crowd stood in the corners of the room as more listeners leaned in through an open door from the hallway.

The commissioners posed largely the same questions to each of the candidates, but there were some differences.

Walker has taken some major flame-throwing from a former boss, local historian Tony Bamonte who, as three-term Democratic sheriff in Pend Oreille County, first hired Walker in 1983. In letters to politicians and journalists, Bamonte has leveled harsh criticisms that Walker bungled an investigation into allegations of molestation at two boys ranches, then quit the county without doing much work on the case.

Asked Monday to respond, Walker turned red and said, "One of the things I will not do is lower myself to a mud-slinging attack." He offered these defenses: "I can't even tell you how long I worked that case -- it was 23 years ago. ... I was a brand-new rookie cop, and I did the best I could. ... The allegations made against me are just not there -- the prosecutor has never told me I dropped the ball."

Bamonte was sitting mere feet behind Walker in the crowded room and the two maintained an intense eye-lock as Walker slowly walked out at the end of his session.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & nezovich has also drawn criticism for his role as union president. This month, he has taken a leave of absence from that role. The Spokane County Sheriff's Deputies' Association endorsed its leader, Knezovich, over Walker by a wide margin after a lengthy session in which they grilled all three candidates.

Walker and Knezovich differ sharply on whether property crimes detectives should be assigned by district or work from a central office -- an issue keenly watched by the rank and file.

Knezovich is an advocate for returning to the old method of locally assigned detectives. This builds familiarity and trust, resulting in more crimes being solved, he says.

Walker notes the good points of the old scheme, but says that research revealed an overall drop in crimes solved by that method and that the stretched sheriff's office makes the best use of personnel with a central assignment desk.

Commissioner Phil Harris tossed one of the day's tougher questions at Knezovich: If he were to be named interim sheriff, and the city of Spokane Valley wanted to keep Walker as commander of the Valley precinct (and de facto chief of Spokane Valley), would Walker get to keep that job?

Knezovich said he would consider the wishes of Spokane Valley officials, but also said a sheriff has the prerogative to organize his own command staff.

"One of my philosophies would be education," said Knezovich, who alone among the three candidates has a college degree. "I have made it clear to everyone, including Chief Walker, he is eligible for any position on my command staff."

There is no requirement that the county sheriff, in an elected office, should possess a college degree. But Mielke says a strong argument could be made for college-educated cops, since law enforcement takes up nearly 70 percent of the county budget and because management issues are often complex.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & ll three candidates were generally on good behavior. Walker sounded the themes of his good working relationship with Sterk, and his recent experience as chief of the city of Spokane Valley when he stressed stability as well as budget experience: "All three candidates want to serve, so it comes down to: 'What do you bring to the table?' What we need right now is stability, not an experiment. You know what you are getting with me."

Finke, who will have served 32 years with the sheriff's office come May 1, stressed his long experience and his role as a shift commander.

Knezovich noted his support from rank-and-file officers as a clear signal to leadership qualities. He also stressed awareness of larger management issues by noting the most recent union contract was the first one in 10 years to avoid arbitration.

All three candidates were asked to define the job of sheriff.

Finke: "The sheriff is the person responsible for the vision, direction and leadership of the organization ... responsible for providing the equipment, manpower and resources and training for all the people who actually do the work here."

Walker: "The sheriff has to be able to grab ahold of a proven leadership team, ask clear strategic questions and deliver answers to employees so they have clarity on what we expect as a management team in the delivery of public service."

Knezovich: "The job is to make sure public safety is performed and that people who commit crimes go to jail."

On the overcrowded jail, all three essentially said the county would be short-sighted to build a multi-million addition when it will be filled to overflowing in roughly 10 years (based on population projections).

They cautioned commissioners to wait until two committees studying the issue make reports. Finke said he'd like to see a campus that could be shared by a new jail, courts, cops, prosecutors and defenders.

UPDATE & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ate Tuesday evening, Spokane County Commissioners chose Sgt. Ozzie Knezovich (pictured) as interim sheriff to replace Mark Sterk, who retired March 31.

Knezovich will serve out the remainder of Sterk's term, which expires at the end of the year. The decision is something of a rebuff for Sterk, who had pushed Capt. Cal Walker to be his replacement.

Walker and Knezovich, both Republicans, have each indicated they will run for sheriff in the September primary no matter who is appointed in the interim.

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.