The Mineral County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on Nov. 20 to offer Stewart Handte, a probation officer who lived in Reno

Steward Handte is congratulated by Mineral County Undersheriff Patricia Thyne after the Board of Commissioners offered Handte the Sheriff’s position on Wednesday. Handte will be sworn in as Sheriff after he passes a background check. (C.W. Wilkinson photo)

The Mineral County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on Nov. 20 to offer Stewart Handte, a probation officer who lived in Reno before he was offered the job, the position of Mineral County Sheriff.

He will take the oath office in a few weeks, after he passes a background check.

“As a leader of law enforcement agency you want to make sure your community’s safe. That’s paramount,” Handte said during his interview. “If you don’t have a safe community, what’s the attraction to people that potentially want to come here, not just to live but to open up a business.”

Handte holds a bachelors degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in criminal justice, and served on the Nevada Highway Patrol for 19 years.

Handte said several times during his interview that he was a “proactive” officer, and he hopes to confront the enforcement issues, like drug use, which are rampant in Mineral County, he said during his interview.

Handte was one of 10 men who applied for the position after Mike Dillard’s unexpected resignation earlier this month.

On Nov. 13, the board narrowed the field down to five candidates and asked them all to come back for a second interview.

Before the interviews, the board took up a procedural matter.

Nevada county governing boards are very strictly limited in the powers they can excessive. Those powers are explicitly spelled out in Nevada law (Nevada Revised Statutes).

But the laws describing who can be appointed to an office appear to be contradictory.

The relevant laws are NRS 245.170 and 245.180.

The first law requires that a person appointed to fill a vacancy, among other thing, be an “elector of the county” where he or she will fill a position. The second law, NRS 245.180, gives county boards the authority to appoint “some suitable person” temporarily to a position.

Under that law, temporary appointments last until someone else is appointed, or the next election.

“These two individual statues have distinct histories, each of them was developed and has been amended without reference to the other one,” said Sean Rowe, district attorney.

These statutes create “some question” about who the board could appoint to fill the position, Rowe said. The only legal opinion about the statutes is from 1914 when George B. Thatcher, then Nevada Attorney General, released a non-binding opinion that counties could use either statute to appoint a sheriff, Rowe said.

“This is one of the interesting things that we find ourselves, the quandary that jurists and lawyers in the state of Nevada frequently find ourselves in,” Rowe said. “When we find ourselves in when there is a significant ambiguity or gap in the legislative and legal materials that we consult. And absent any further guidance other than what the attorney general’s opinion from 1914 gives us, we are left with a position where perhaps this board can fill the position of sheriff from either section 170 or 180.”

After some discussion, the board voted 2-1 to use the broader law as justification for making the appointment. Vice Chairman of the board Cliff Cichowlaz was in the minority, and advocated for using the more restrictive law to appoint a new sheriff.

Rowe also said because any decision the board took on Nov. 20 would conditional on the appointee passing a background check, whomever the board supported would have time to move to Mineral County and become a qualified elector.

The requirement that applicants move to the county caused John Wood, an investigator for Rowe’s office, to withdraw his application.

After each interview the commissioners scored each candidate on a secret ballot. The scores were totaled, and the candidate with the highest total was offered the position.

Jim Bagwell, a Hawthorne native and former Sheriff of Humboldt County, was the initial selection, but he later withdrew his application because of a conflict with his retirement.

Because Bagwell has already achieved the rank of sheriff, and retired, the county could only hire and pay him if the board declared a critical shortage for the sheriff’s position.

Critical shortages are usually declared for positions when there are no suitable candidates. Because there were four candidates interviewed that day, the board was unwilling to declare a critical shortage, and Bagwell withdrew his application.