Sheriff’s promotions called politically motivated

The race for Butte County sheriff may have been decided months ago, but the politicking apparently hasn’t stopped.

Specifically, outgoing Sheriff Scott Mackenzie recently filled several prime management positions with some of his most ardent supporters, a move that has many insiders, and Sheriff-elect Perry Reniff, fuming.

In deciding who will fill six vacant positions—those of a captain, a lieutenant, and four sergeants—Mackenzie angered a number of veteran cops by picking a few candidates who have little or no experience supervising investigations over some with substantially more experience in the department.

Mackenzie said he made the promotions on the basis of past and current performance and chose people who he felt were “well-qualified and dedicated to the people of Butte County.”

“Everybody on the list has taken the promotions exam,” he said. “[Those picked] are the best fit for the position they were promoted into.”

Still, deputies and administrators within the department, most of whom insisted upon anonymity, called the promotions everything from “cronyism” to “a slap in the face.” One source, a 10-year veteran of the department who would not give his name for fear of administrative reprisal, labeled the promotions “[Mackenzie’s] last act of defiance.” He said at least one of those promoted to a middle-management position was widely thought to be unqualified for the position, causing a number of deputies whom he would be supervising to put in for transfers.

While some of the intra-departmental grumbling can likely be chalked up to resentment over a few popular deputies being passed over for consideration, there is no ignoring the fact that two of Mackenzie’s picks for middle-management positions—Dave Panchesson and Mike Lydon—appeared with him in a TV commercial in support of his campaign. Others Mackenzie tapped were widely known and often vocal supporters of his, including Vicki Coots, current president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association, who was offered but turned down one of the positions for personal reasons.

In interviews, five separate sources within the department questioned whether the abilities of some of the candidates had been proven. It was often mentioned, for example, that Gary Keeler, Mackenzie’s pick to run the troubled Butte County Jail, had been with the department for only three years and had no experience supervising jail activities. Others pointed to the fact that, although Keeler, a sergeant until his recent promotion, passed his captain’s exam, he failed an earlier attempt to pass an exam qualifying him to be a lieutenant.

In an interview, Keeler, who came to the department with 11 years of experience in the Oroville Police Department, disputed the notion that he was picked for anything other than his abilities. While he admitted he had no experience running a jail, he said he looked forward to the assignment and would give the job his all, no matter who was sheriff at the time. Regarding the lieutenant’s test, he confirmed that he did not pass but said that his results on the captain’s test qualified him for that position.

Perry Reniff, whom voters in March picked to lead the department but who won’t take office until January 2003, said he was not part of the process that resulted in the promotions. While he praised the abilities of some of the candidates, he also charged that Mackenzie was indulging in “political payback” for his defeat in the sheriff’s race.

“People have to know that the deck is being stacked,” he said. “Some people gave him a hand in his campaign, and he’s giving his handouts out now.”

The promotions were timed so that all of those promoted would be past their six-month probationary period by the time Reniff took office, meaning they could not be demoted without the county’s being obligated to pay them the higher salaries they were given when they were granted the higher positions. Reniff said he would not make any demotions—as Mackenzie did when he was elected—but said without elaborating, "There’s a possibility I could fix part of it."