Round two

Perry Reniff prepares for a second squaring off with his boss—Sheriff Scott Mackenzie

MAN WITH A PLAN <br>Perry Reniff is on a temporary assignment in the District Attorney’s office. He returns to the Sheriff’s department in January.

Perry Reniff is on a temporary assignment in the District Attorney’s office. He returns to the Sheriff’s department in January.

photo by Sara Sipes

Life of a cop: Perry Reniff has worked as Butte County’s chief criminal investigator, chief deputy coroner, watch commander, detective sergeant, patrol sergeant, administrative sergeant and chief hostage negotiator. He’s a graduate of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

It may be a little melodramatic to compare them to David and Goliath, but there are distinct similarities between that classic tale of might and right and the epic rivalry between Perry Reniff and Sheriff Scott Mackenzie.

Think about it: Mackenzie is the powerful and well-funded incumbent. Reniff is still trying to fill his campaign coffers. Mackenzie runs one of the county’s largest departments. Reniff was demoted from his second-to-the-top position there when Mackenzie was elected.

Reniff, 50, lost the sheriff’s office to Mackenzie in 1998. While that was, by any stretch of the imagination, a hotly contested race, the battle he’s gearing up for now will probably be even more fiery. It has all the makings for one: a powerful, well-entrenched incumbent, a scrappy opponent, and (by all accounts) a divided department.

Perry Reniff is a soft- spoken man, and he looks very much like your prototypical cop. His skin is weathered, he tends to lean on one knee and smoke when he’s talking, and you get the sense that he enjoys police work a lot. He talks about cases and investigations sometimes like they’re old friends of his ("Oh, been working on that old thing forever,” he joked once, in response to a question about a particular cold case.)

In a lot of ways, he’s very different than Mackenzie. The current sheriff tends to be far flashier than Reniff, who has a mellower, behind-the-scenes personality. Mackenzie tends to seek out the spotlight, to relish major challenges, to make a point of attending high-profile events, and to ensure that he’s given credit for successful projects.

Reniff, on the other hand, is good at behind-the-scenes investigations, administrative duties, and writing (and sticking by) budgets.

Their differing personality traits were never more obvious than in their 1998 sheriff’s race. Mackenzie, who was a department sergeant at the time, made a name for himself by criticizing the closed-door “good old boys” network that he claimed was fostered by his boss, then-Sheriff Mick Grey. Reniff, who was Grey’s assistant sheriff and second in the department’s chain of command, ran with Grey’s hearty endorsement.

Mackenzie was criticized a lot during that campaign for being under-qualified for the job. He lacked the administrative experience necessary to running such a large department, Reniff said. Three years into Mackenzie’s administration, Reniff points out that many of his election-time criticisms of Mackenzie’s lack of experience seem to have come to fruition.

The Board of Supervisors openly chided Mackenzie last year when he spent $1.3 million more than he had in his department budget. The Sheriff’s Department, Reniff said, has suffered from a serious problem with low morale. Administration costs have ballooned, while several deputies have been taken off of rural patrols and placed into administrative duties or Lake Oroville patrol, when the lake is already patrolled by state officers.

Reniff, who’s worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Butte County for 29 years, said he wants to do things differently. He wants to “trim the fat” from the department’s bloated administration and put more deputies back onto the rural patrols several of them were taken off of earlier this year. He plans to commission a study of the department’s management structure to determine which structure would be the most cost effective and responsive. (In fact, Mackenzie promised to commission this same study but abandoned the plan months into his administration, saying that it would cost too much and take too long.)

Reniff also wants to emphasize the eradication of methamphetamine in Butte County, as opposed to Mackenzie’s hard-line emphasis on the eradication of marijuana gardens.

“I think [Mackenzie] has his priorities all mixed up,” Reniff said. “Methamphetamine is the drug that’s killing our children and our families, not marijuana. We need to get serious about getting rid of the meth.”

He’s vowed to all but eliminate the department’s heavy use of helicopters in marijuana surveillance and wants instead to pour money into paying the salaries of his deputies.

“What he’s done to so many of these rural residents is punish them and hold them hostage by taking away their deputies, for his own bad budget decisions,” Reniff said. “It’s not right.”

Reniff said that several people inside the department asked him to run, citing low morale and a “lack of leadership and direction” from the top. He also said that many of the rank-and-file deputies who supported Mackenzie’s campaign as a breath of fresh air for the department are now disillusioned with him.

Still, Reniff knows he has a tough row to hoe if he wants to win, given that Mackenzie already has $35,000 in his campaign war chest.

Mackenzie couldn’t be reached for comment about this story, but his predecessor, Grey, had nothing but good things to say about Reniff’s candidacy. Reniff was Grey’s assistant sheriff for several years. Grey, who served as sheriff from 1990 to 1998, said that he agrees that Mackenzie has spent too much on his administration, over-emphasized marijuana eradication and taken too many deputies off of rural patrols.

“I’ve known Perry for 20 years, and he’s immensely qualified for the position,” Grey said. “He’s the most honest, hard working, trustworthy guy I’ve ever worked with. He’s the best police administrator I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

Grey also said that while he’s had only peripheral contact with the department since he retired, he’s heard from “several disgruntled deputies” that support for Mackenzie is fading fast.

“I think the department needs someone like Perry to lead it in a different direction," Grey said. " … It doesn’t sound like [Mackenzie] has carried through on his campaign promises."