2 seek to replace retiring Thurston County sheriff

John Snaza, riding a float in the Tumwater Fourth of July Parade, also hopes to be the next Thurston County sheriff. While the race won't be desided until November, both candidates appear on this month's primary ballot.
John Snaza, riding a float in the Tumwater Fourth of July Parade, also hopes to be the next Thurston County sheriff. While the race won't be desided until November, both candidates appear on this month's primary ballot. The Olympian

The race to succeed Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball already is receiving a lot of attention, even though it won't be decided until November.

Two longtime sheriff’s deputies are running to replace Kimball.

If elected, Debbie Mealy would be the first female sheriff in Thurston County and the second female sheriff in the state’s history.

John Snaza, a Navy veteran and the SWAT team commander for the Sheriff’s Office, also is running. During his tenure, he has received the Sheriff’s Office Distinguished Service Award and twice has received its Lifesaving Award.

Both Mealy’s and Snaza’s names appear on the Aug. 17 primary ballot in what one election observer called “a free straw poll.” Both names will appear on the ballot again in the Nov. 2 general election.

The sheriff’s job pays about $118,000 annually.

Kimball decided last year not to seek a second term. He has said he plans to move closer to his mother’s home in the Port Townsend area to help her with her health issues.

Kimball, who earlier had said he would not endorse a candidate, told The Olympian this week that he had changed his mind and would support Snaza rather than Mealy, who ran his 2006 campaign for sheriff.

Kimball said the reason for his endorsement was Snaza’s decision to run as an independent. In Washington, sheriff’s races are partisan, meaning a candidate can claim his or her party affiliation on the ballot. Snaza has said he doesn’t think politics should be part of the sheriff’s race. Kimball also cited Snaza’s experience running the Sheriff’s Office community programs.

“I believe that John has the better vision for the future of the Sheriff’s Office and the better vision for the future of the community,” Kimball said.

Kimball ran in 2006 as a Democrat.

Mealy has a long list of endorsements of her own, including from current Thurston County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim, who is running unopp- osed as the Democratic candidate for prosecuting attorney.

Tunheim cited Mealy’s experience running the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien as a reason he supports her.

“It’s basically all the skills she’s demonstrated in her career, both from working in the Sheriff’s Office, the Training Commission, and her education,” Tunheim said. “She is a perfect fit for the office of sheriff.”

Kimball said the biggest challenge facing the new sheriff would be ensuring that the office continues to provide a high level of service despite the shrinking county budget.

The county’s budget problems have led to layoffs in the department that have made it more difficult to keep deputies on the road. Since 2008, the Sheriff’s Office has lost 28 positions.

Both Mealy and Snaza said in recent interviews that they are the right choice to lead the department through tough times.

Snaza touts his experience in a wide range of areas of the Sheriff’s Office – a stint as a narcotics detective, serving as the commander of the methamphetamine response team and his current position as community service deputy. In that role, Snaza works in crime prevention, putting out community notifications of crime trends and publishing the Sheriff’s Office newsletter.

“I have focused not only on being part of the Sheriff’s Office, but also the community,” Snaza said.

“We don’t work for a company; we work for the citizens of Thurston County,” he said.

Mealy says her educational background sets her apart. She has completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Saint Martin’s University; a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Chapman University; and a Ph.D. in knowledge and learning management at Walden University.

Mealy, a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office, is on loan to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, where she serves as deputy director. The state reimburses her regular salary to the county while she is on loan, working at the commission’s headquarters in Burien, where she has worked for three years.

The basic law enforcement academy in Burien is where all of Washington’s law enforcement officers except those in the State Patrol are certified. Mealy is second in command of the academy’s basic and advanced law enforcement training, in addition to the training of corrections officers and 911 operators. She also serves as the commission’s liaison with the Legislature.

“It’s given me experience managing a $22 million budget, and four very distinct divisions of operations,” Mealy said of her tenure with the commission. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with police chiefs and sheriffs across the state of Washington, and it’s allowed me to see there are many ways to do business and manage a sheriff’s office.”

Mealy, 43, started as a Thurston County sheriff’s deputy in 1995, made patrol sergeant four years later and was promoted to lieutenant in 2007, after earning one of the top scores on the civil service exam.

“My whole career up to this point has led me to running for sheriff,” Mealy said.

Mealy’s husband is Thurston County sheriff’s Lt. Chris Mealy, who is in charge of detectives and works with the media as a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. Chris Mealy said in a recent interview that if his wife is elected, he will take an early retirement in April 2011.

Snaza, 45, started as a Thurston County deputy in 1993, after working briefly as a police officer in Winlock and as a Nisqually tribal police officer.

Snaza said he is not afraid to make changes in the sheriff’s department.

He said he recognizes that tough economic times have forced agencies across county government – including the Sheriff’s Office – to make hard decisions about what programs to keep and what to cut.

In making any decision as sheriff, Snaza said the primary question he will ask himself is, “What will benefit the safety of the community, and the safety of the officers that are working the road?”

Snaza said he would put more deputies on the road by reorganizing the department and eliminating some executive management positions. He said he does not think every executive management position should be eliminated but added, “Do I believe that I can do this job with one less executive officer? I believe so. I guarantee you there will be a lot of changes.”

Mealy said she agrees with that plan and named an executive management position she plans to eliminate if she is elected: a captain’s position charged with running the sheriff’s training division.

Mealy also said it will be a priority to keep deputies on the street if she is elected sheriff. She said her other public-safety priorities would include fighting domestic violence and gangs, and protecting the community from career criminals and registered sex offenders.

Snaza has experience with economic hardship. In 2009, he and his wife declared bankruptcy after they defaulted on a $380,000 mortgage on a property in Hawley Hills. Snaza acknowledged his financial difficulties during an interview, citing “a bad investment in a house.” He said that his financial problems were compounded by the recent collapse of the real estate and stock markets. He said he has learned valuable lessons and added that having already made those mistakes, it would make him even more careful in managing the Sheriff’s Office budget.

Former Thurston County Sheriff Gary Edwards, a Republican, also has endorsed Snaza. He does not think Snaza’s personal finances should be a campaign issue, given the state of the economy the past several years.

Edwards described both Mealy and Snaza as “good people” but seconded Kimball’s reason for endorsing Snaza – his leadership in running for sheriff as an independent.

Snaza cited his military career – he worked as an analyst for the National Security Agency and served in the first Gulf War in Iraq – as providing him with leadership skills to be sheriff. He said that in his role as SWAT team commander the past two years, he has gained leadership experience.

Mealy stresses her experience in administration, working with budgets and developing relationships.

“The most important thing we have to do is restore our relationships with our other partners, with our elected and appointed positions, with other police departments and nonprofit groups,” she said. “During difficult financial times, it is imperative to work together and share resources in order to keep our community safe.”


Both candidates have high-profile endorsements.

In addition to Tunheim, Mealy has been endorsed by retiring Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Ed Holm. Her list of endorsements also includes state Reps. Sam Hunt, Gary Alexander and Brendan Williams, and Thurston County Clerk Betty Gould.

Snaza has been endorsed by Edwards, Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield, and firefighters unions in Olympia and Thurston County.

The Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the union for all commissioned law enforcement and support staff in the Sheriff’s Office, not including corrections deputies, has voted not to make an endorsement, union president Sgt. Dave Odegaard said.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 jpawloski@theolympian.com