Ore. sheriff known for standoff response to resign over chronic underfunding
Sheriff said he wasn't willing to continue operating a jail "that is not funded to meet the minimum standards required" or to stand by while more staffers are laid off
By Gillian Flaccus
PORTLAND, Ore. — A small-town sheriff who gained national attention for his leadership during a 41-day standoff with armed occupiers at a wildlife refuge in Oregon is resigning, citing chronic underfunding for his department and concerns about liability caused by an outdated and understaffed jail.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward announced his decision to resign on Dec. 31 in an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Burns Times-Herald. He said he was not willing to continue operating a jail "that is not funded to meet the minimum standards required" or to stand by while more staffers are laid off.
Ward was sheriff in 2016 when armed protesters angry about federal control of Western lands overtook the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the remote county and stayed there for weeks. Ward became the face of local government authority.
In the letter, Ward says Harney County faces a serious budget shortfall because of an accounting error — a deficit that he says has worsened the already woeful funding for the sheriff's department.
County workers already work 10 unpaid hours on furlough each month, he said, and the only way to address budget cuts to the sheriff's department would be layoffs.
The deficit in the general fund is more than $800,000 in the next fiscal year, according to county budget documents cited by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
"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. These are not frivolous expenditures; they are duties and responsibilities of the sheriff, mandated by law," he wrote.
The jail staffing levels in the county fall below the minimum requirements in Oregon, and the facility is severely outdated, with no hope of making repairs, he added.
Ward did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday.
Harney County Treasurer Bobbi Jo Heany didn't immediately return a call or e-mail seeking comment.
Harney County is about 300 miles (482 kilometers) southeast of Portland, nestled between three national forests.
Dozens of people, including leader Ammon Bundy, occupied the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from Jan. 2, 2016, to Feb. 11, 2016, to protest federal control of Western lands and the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires on federal land.
Members of the group were allowed to come and go for several weeks as authorities tried to avoid bloodshed seen in past standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. But authorities moved in Jan. 26 when key standoff leaders left for a community meeting, pulling over two vehicles and arresting the occupiers inside. Standoff spokesman Robert "Lavoy" Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police.
Most occupiers left the refuge after Finicum's death, though four holdouts stayed an additional 16 days.
Federal prosecutors tried to convict occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others in a 2016 trial but jurors acquitted them of charges of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs.
Federal charges were dropped in 2018 against the Bundy brothers and their father, Cliven Bundy, in a 2014 standoff in Nevada over a roundup of Bundy cattle.
The ranchers whose case sparked the standoff were pardoned by President Trump last year.