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Harney County Sheriff Who Led Community Through Malheur Occupation To Resign

<p>Armed occupiers have disrupted community life for residents in Burns, Oregon, said Harney County Sheriff David Ward.</p>

Amanda Peacher

Armed occupiers have disrupted community life for residents in Burns, Oregon, said Harney County Sheriff David Ward.

UPDATE (12:33 p.m. PT) — In a blistering public letter about unlawful jail conditions and an underfunded department, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said Wednesday he intends to resign from office at the end of 2019. The letter comes amid a recent discovery of a budget shortfall in the county's general fund.

Ward was the public face of law enforcement and led the community through the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which lasted 41 days and put the sheriff front and center of a community fractured over its support for occupation leader Ammon Bundy and his followers. After the occupation concluded, one sign in Burns read "Dave Ward for President."

Ward said in an email Thursday: "My letter pretty much sums up everything I have to say on the topic." In his letter, Ward said the only way to deal with budget cuts at the county was to reduce staff.

"If a person needs to be eliminated from our sheriff’s office, then I choose for that person to be me," Ward wrote in an op-ed published in the Burns Times-Herald.

The sheriff said the community isn't staffed or funded to provide search and rescue services and what he described as adequate law enforcement. He also told residents the jail runs the risk of being shut down because it fails to meet basic standards outlined in Oregon law.

"... Our severely outdated county jail is not only underfunded, but is out of compliance with the standards required by law, and has been understaffed for years," Ward wrote. "Our jail staffing levels fall below the lawful minimum staffing levels per shift for the state of Oregon."

Harney County Judge Pete Runnels thanked Ward for his service in a statement Thursday. He said the county learned of Ward's resignation in the newspaper's op-ed and said nothing official has been presented to the county at this time.

The county is facing a more than $800,000 budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, according to county budget documents. Ward said the shortfall, the result of a reported accounting error, won't allow fixes to the jail and makes the agency's situation worse.

"I am no longer willing to accept the civil liability associated with the failure to appropriately fund/staff our jail, search and rescue, or law-enforcement services to our community," he wrote. "These are not frivolous expenditures, they are duties and responsibilities of the sheriff, mandated by law."

Counties across Oregon have been confronted with similar public safety funding challenges. In recent years, several counties across the state — including Jefferson and Wasco — have tried and failed to pass public safety levies to maintain staffing and in some cases update antiquated jail facilities in some corners of the state. In 2017, after years of trying, voters in Josephine County finally approved a public safety levy.

Harney County's budget negotiations are ongoing. Currently, nonunion employees and elected officials who are paid out of the general fund are furloughed 10 hours per month.

"We have challenges ahead of us that will take everybody working together to ensure we will continue 'business as usual' for all of Harney County," Runnels said in his statement.

The county's budget must be adopted before July 1.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.