Showdown for sheriff

Simmons touts 27 years experience
by: Gerry Simmons,

Gerry Simmons wants to be your county sheriff. He is a quiet man, serious and dedicated to law enforcement.

'We have a mission to provide public safety,' he said. 'That means changing tires, moving sandbags, help the public, working with all agencies.'

'It's my job to serve the people of this county,' Simmons said. 'If someone needs a tire changed and I'm there, then it's my job to help.'

His roots run deep in Columbia County. His great-grandparents homesteaded in Woodson. He grew up in Clatskanie and knew he wanted to do three things with his life: be a Marine, gunsmith and cop.

Simmons graduated from Clatskanie High School in 1969 and joined the Marines. He served one year in Vietnam, two years in Japan as a security officer, and more than five years stateside on crash crews. Crash crews are aviation firemen who fight fires and perform rescues.

After eight and a half years as an active-duty Marine, Simmons retired from the military and moved back to Clatskanie. The first thing he did was join Columbia County Sheriff's Department as a reserve officer in 1978.

Simmons became a full-time deputy in 1980. He worked six months in the jail then moved out into the community as a patrol deputy.

Although he retired from active duty, Simmons remained in the Marine Corps Reserves and was activated for Desert Storm. His deployment was stateside as the ranking non-commissioned officer, gunnery sergeant, of a crash crew.

'This was a huge challenge,' Simmons said. 'I was supervising a crew of professional Marines and I was a reservist. I learned three important lessons - trust your subordinates, don't be afraid to ask questions and learn about the job every day,' he said.

In 2000 Simmons was appointed undersheriff. As the undersheriff, his job is to assist the sheriff and is second in command. He is an active member of the sheriff's department management team, dealing with personnel issues, developing policies and procedures, supervising the corrections department and patrol deputies; and working with the budget process.

He's performed every job in the department: patrol deputy, firearms instructor, detective, CENT team, supervisor, every job except motor carrier inspector and he's certified to do that.

Because Simmons has lived most of his life in Columbia County, he knows the biggest challenges facing the sheriff's department are meth and money.

'Meth is a huge problem,' he said. 'It's a communitywide problem that has to be addressed, not just by law enforcement but through community involvement.'

Specifically, he said though better communication with communities, letting everyone know how they can be part of the solution. Neighborhood watches are an important tool in combating the meth problem, with community coalitions such as Clatskanie Together Coalition.

Clatskanie Together qualified and successfully applied for federal grant money to provide more deputy patrol hours for Columbia County Sheriff's Department.

He's concerned that federal timber payments will be dramatically reduced or totally eliminated this year and that will have a severe impact on the county's budget.

'This could result in a loss of deputies,' he said. 'I've already started talking with the county commissioners about how we can deal with this potential loss of revenue.'

He said more industry is coming to the county, but it will be some years before property taxes from new industries are felt in the county budget.

There are about 640 square miles of county that is unincorporated and 26,000 people live in these areas. Warren, Chapman, Mist, Birkenfield, Port Westward, Prescott, Lindberg, Mayger, Quincy, Woodson, Marshland and Camp Wilkerson are all covered by the county sheriff's department.

There are seven patrol deputies that cover the county and all its unincorporated burghs.

'It's a long way from Mist to Warren,' he said.

Part of the funding issue results in inadequate staffing, Simmons said. 'Seven patrol deputies can't respond quickly to most calls,' he said. 'And that isn't good for the community, especially anyone who calls 9-1-1 and has to wait an hour or more for help to arrive.'

'Part of the funding solution is the jail expansion,' Simmons said. 'The department is working with the U.S. Marshall's Office to provide additional jail beds for federal prisoners.'

Columbia County Corrections Department has developed a proposal to expand the jail by 160 beds. The addition of these beds and the revenue they create would be a benefit to the sheriff's department. The proposal is in Washington, D.C., waiting final approval.

'It's possible and probable this project will result in additional patrol deputies on the road,' Simmons said.

Simmons' leadership style isn't flamboyant. 'I'm not a glory seeker,' he said.

Columbia County Sheriff's Department is a small department in a big county. Simmons acknowledges there have been comments about accountability in the department.

'A second sergeant position has been approved for supervising,' he said. 'The new sergeant has been working as the incident command for the floods.'

Simmons has worked through two failed levies to fund the department. 'I'm not a real fan of levies,' he said.

His thoughts on funding run more toward creating a taxing district that would provide stable and secure funding from year to year.

On day one as the new Columbia County sheriff, Simmons said he'd go to work and tackle the issues at hand. 'I'm not a believer in making grand and sweeping changes,' he said. 'Every change creates a reaction and I want to make changes that are positive for the department and the community.'

In his limited free time, Simmons enjoys spending time at home with his wife Suko, whom he married in Japan while serving there as a Marine. Their son Michael is a Marine veteran and attends Clatsop Community College.

He's even found time to tinker a little with guns, but wouldn't call it real gunsmithing.

Simmons is a simple man. He likes to make Japanese food with his wife and drink tea.

'I'm running for sheriff because I'm the best man for the job,' Simmons said. He seems uncomfortable tooting his own horn. He'd rather be out on the road taking care of business, enforcing the law and changing the occasional flat.