Character first. That’s the motto that Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has decided to stress during his tenure as sheriff.
And he says the most rewarding thing about his job is that his department has really embraced the concept. Describing the word “character,” Pelle says that of the many times he has had to discipline or fire employees, it has never been about their skills, it has been about their character, about things like lying or cheating.
Character, he says, is about his deputies going above and beyond, helping someone change a tire, or giving someone with a minor injury a ride to the hospital.
“How would you want your relatives treated?” he asks.
Pelle’s “Character First” initiative may be one of the reasons why a group of his employees, led by Undersheriff Tom Shomaker, wrote a letter to the county commissioners requesting a ballot question to give the sheriff four terms instead of three. Other groups wrote similar letters to the commissioners, including the Democratic Women of Boulder County.
It’s something that Pelle didn’t ask for, but he acknowledges that it would be nice to have the option to run for sheriff one more time once his third term ends, three years from now. He’ll be 55 at that point, and if he were elected to a fourth term, it would let him sail into the sunset of retirement.
While the extension of term limits ideally should be based on what makes sense in the structural big picture and not on the particular person in the position at the time, some say that ballot question 1A is as much a referendum on Pelle’s performance as anything else.
The sheriff allows that it wouldn’t be on the ballot if he were doing a poor job, but he says the ballot question goes beyond his performance. While he says his staffers’ letter was gratifying, Pelle points out that “employees like predictability and stability in the workplace.”
He won’t campaign for the ballot question because he says it would appear self-serving, but he agrees that strict term limits are better-suited for politically charged positions where new blood is needed regularly. Many agree that the sheriff, like the coroner, is a skill-based position that should stay occupied by a single person for a long period of time if that person is doing a good job.
“It can be political getting the job, but doing the job is not political,” says Pelle, who is a Democrat. “We protect Republicans, too. We treat everybody the same. It’s not a partisan office.”
Besides, he says, the citizens can always vote a sheriff out of office if he or she is not doing a good job.
“I think a person could be here too long, and I’m aware that some people have,” Pelle says. “Things get stale, and it’s good to have new leadership and new ideas. But I’ll tell you that I’m a long way from there, and this proposal still keeps a cap on how long you can serve. You don’t want to wear out your welcome.”
As he lists his various duties, it becomes clear that three terms may not be enough time to master it all.
“It’s a broad range of things, and it takes a little while to figure out,” Pelle says.
He is in charge of about 400 employees and a $29 million budget, and his staff process 10,000 inmates a year. His responsibilities include overseeing the 911 call center, the jail, prisoner transportation, bailiff duties and other court security, detectives, patrol for the county’s rural areas, animal control, a drug task force and emergency management for major natural and manmade disasters, from floods and fires to riots on University Hill.
“And I get sued once or twice a month, usually frivolously,” he says.
* * * *
It was his performance during the Fourmile Fire last year that is commonly mentioned among his standout achievements.
“During the Fourmile Fire, Joe was so clearly the right person at the right place, doing what he was born to do,” says Commissioner Will Toor. “It was really remarkable to watch.”
Toor confirms that it wasn’t Pelle who pushed for the ballot question extending a sheriff ’s possible tenure to 16 years.
“We were definitely hearing from folks that we were coming to the end of his time,” he says, calling Pelle “the perfect sheriff for Boulder County.”
Among the sheriff ’s accomplishments, Toor cites his ability to be ensconced and respected in the law enforcement community while understanding the broader public interests of the community, like treating people appropriately and respecting civil liberties. Toor also says Pelle has an appreciation for getting offenders the help they need, whether it’s mental-health care or addiction treatment, which may be part of the reason that Boulder County has the lowest incarceration rate, per capita, of any county in the Denver metro area.
“He gets the idea that his job isn’t to fill the jail, it’s to protect public safety,” he says.
Toor adds that Pelle has trained his deputies to avoid issuing tickets for piddly infractions, focusing instead on significant violations that present danger.
“As Joe would say, he doesn’t want his officers to do the bullshit stuff,” he says.
But aside from Pelle’s performance, Toor supports the general concept of extending term limits beyond two or three terms.
“It takes awhile to understand how agencies and institutions function,” he says. “Just as you hit your stride, it’s time to go.”
According to Toor, the commissioners believed an initiative extending the sheriff ’s limits by one term was more likely to pass than lifting the term limits altogether.
Commissioner Cindy Domenico echoed Toor’s sentiments about Pelle.
“He’s doing exemplary work here in the county,” she says. “It’s a perfect fit for him. He has the professional skill set and has a wonderful way of working with people. … He can articulate a vision and inspire people to achieve it.”
Like Toor, she supports extending term limits on principle.
“Where else, in a professional position, at the height of your career, would you be asked to step down?” Colorado voters approved two-term limits in 1990, but in 2005 Boulder County extended those limits to three terms for the clerk and recorder, assessor, treasurer, coroner, surveyor and sheriff. Voters narrowly agreed to do the same for the district attorney two years ago — by only nine votes, according to Brad Turner of the clerk and recorder’s office.
* * * *
Pelle, who was born in Burlington but raised in Boulder, attended Fairview High School and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Colorado. He started as a cadet in the Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office in 1974, became a deputy sheriff in 1980 and then spent nearly two decades with the City of Boulder Police Department before running for sheriff in 2002.
Pelle says the most challenging parts of his job include managing major disasters and crimes, dealing with employee issues and the aforementioned lawsuits.
“It’s a people business,” he says. “We deal with emotions and bad decisions. Every once in a while you get frustrated with the decisions people make. But it’s also extremely rewarding to see the department respond to leadership initiatives.”
One recent initiative involved relocating the entire sheriff ’s office east, from the Boulder County Justice Center to a new 76,000-square-foot facility near 55th Street and Flatiron Parkway.
Among the benefits of the move, Pelle says, is that the additional space means he no longer has to use off-site storage units for locking up evidence. And deputies will likely drive several hundred thousand miles less per year, since they are so much closer to the jail, he explains. The facility, a renovated warehouse that was at least $3 million less than it would have cost to build on the jail property, features a historical exhibit, natural light, a weight room, large locker rooms and even bunk beds for deputies to sleep in when they are stranded by a storm or need a few hours of shut-eye between a night shift and a meeting.
But perhaps the most striking initiatives Pelle has shepherded have occurred at the jail, where inmates tend an expansive garden under the tutelage of master gardeners from the Colorado State University Extension who volunteer their time. There is a sign on the property that reads, “Better Jails and Gardens,” and Pelle says the inmates raise between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of vegetables a year. The produce is used in the jail’s own kitchen, resulting in discounts from food provider Aramark, and any remainder is donated to Community Food Share. Often, the garden volunteers become mentors to the inmates.
“It’s kind of a nourishing thing,” he says.
In addition, the jail features a vibrant GED program taught by retirees.
“We graduate more people out of our GED program than the Boulder Valley or St. Vrain Valley school districts,” he says. “They leave the jail with a tool they didn’t have when they got there.”
* * * *
Pelle says he spends the vast majority of his time in administrative meetings, serving on statewide commissions and speaking to community groups.
But he’s a law enforcement officer first and foremost. He still carries a gun and a badge and stays current on all of his certifications. And Pelle says he still pulls people over two or three times a month, usually on his drive to and from work.
“I think the deputies respect that I still can do the job,” he says. “That’s my roots.”