FARMINGTON — Since the June primary election, 11 employees have left or have announced plans to leave the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, a move expected to cost the county at least $125,000.
"Keep in mind these payments aren't out-of-the ordinary when it comes to law enforcement," County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said. "Law enforcement works a lot of extra hours."
Many of the 11 employees have accrued compensation, vacation and sick-leave time, which the county usually pays out when employees leave. Three of the employees hold high-ranking positions, one was a public information officer and another was a helicopter pilot.
Detective Connie Johnston resigned Friday after working for about a decade in the sheriff's office, and she said she will receive about $1,500.
Johnston left the sheriff's office to begin her next career, she said. She won Division 1 Magistrate Judge in the recent primary election, and on Monday, she will begin her two-week judge training.
Another detective, Ken Weisheit, has announced he will retire at the end this month after working in the sheriff's office for 15 years. He was unsure how much the county would pay him in accrued compensation, vacation and sick-leave hours. Weisheit was ordained in July last year and is retiring from the sheriff's office to join the ministry at Cross Roads Community Church, he said.
Earlier this month, helicopter pilot Lark Parsons also left the department, though he will not receive a payout because he was a part-time employee, according to county documents. Efforts to reach Parsons on Friday were unsuccessful.
Former Capt. Shane Utley retired from the sheriff's office in late July after 22 years. He said he is scheduled to receive about $26,000 in accrued compensation, vacation and sick-leave hours. His wife, Beth Utley, was a public information officer for the sheriff's office and resigned the same day, after working in the department for three years. She said she's set to earn about $14,000 in compensation, vacation and sick leave.
The Utleys are among a group of sheriff's office employees who have filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Ken Christesen, Undersheriff Ron Anderson and Capt. Brice Current alleging they were retaliated against for not supporting Christesen's re-election campaign.
Three other deputies who applied in July to work at the Farmington Police Department told The Daily Times in interviews that retaliation they witnessed or experienced was among the reasons they filed to leave the sheriff's office. The Daily Times is not releasing their names as the police department is still processing two of their applications, and the sheriff's office may be unaware they have applied.
Christesen could not be reached for comment on Friday.
"We hire people knowing that they're eventually going to do something else," Current said on Friday.
Many officers enter law enforcement without knowing if it's the right profession for them, he said. Often, he said, they look for other jobs, leave for better pay or retire. And sometimes, Current said, officers begin thinking of themselves, forgetting they serve the community.
"People also leave because they're malcontents," he said, speaking generally. "Malcontents go nowhere. Stay away from them, because they'll take you nowhere."
Employees the sheriff's office hires who don't have law enforcement experience must attend about nine months of training before they can function as deputies, said Dale Bode, director of the San Juan County Criminal Justice Training Authority.
This training does not carry an additional cost for the sheriff's office. The sheriff's office and the Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield police departments pay for most of the training authority's budget, covering training fees, Bode said.
Current said four empty positions in the sheriff's office is normal, and several qualified applicants already working in law enforcement are ready to move into those positions. They would require minimal additional training.
While the sheriff's office departures come as county commissioners cope with a $6 million budget deficit, the commission's chairman, Jack Fortner, said the financial loss from the employees leaving is minimal "in the scheme of the millions of dollars" in the budget.
"After every election, when there's people in the same place of employment, feelings get hurt, and sometimes people misread things," he said, adding that he is not commenting on the merits of any lawsuits.