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Respect and morale restored, sheriff says

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Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2005 10:00 pm

Sunnier weather is back in the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department, the man appointed earlier this year to restore morale and respect to the beleaguered office said.

"I didn't have any agenda coming back," said Sheriff Bob Heidelbach, 59, who spoke at the Tracy Kiwanis Club's morning meeting Tuesday. "It wasn't about me, it was about the office."

San Joaquin County supervisors appointed Heidelbach, a retired sheriff's deputy and former Tracy police officer, in January to take over the seat vacated by Baxter Dunn. Dunn, who'd been sheriff since 1990, resigned after pleading guilty to mail fraud in connection with a federal corruption investigation.

Dunn's arrest, the death of a Stockton man killed in custody at the county jail, and a long-standing feud with deputies over a new contract sapped the department's morale. Heidelbach said Tuesday that it has since improved.

"The morale is higher than it's been in years," he said. "Everybody was under a cloud of suspicion, even though they hadn't necessarily done anything wrong."

He said Dunn's departure -- and a new labor contract for deputy sheriffs, which county supervisors OK'd Tuesday -- helped.

Heidelbach discussed the variety of issues, including vocational classes for inmates and deputy patrols in Lathrop and Mountain House.

The department still faces employee challenges, he said, noting that the pay hike in the new contract will allow San Joaquin County to keep pace with other departments, but he's still had to fight to add deputies.

"We're always struggling to put people on the street," he said.

Looking ahead, he said, some of those deputies will be serving in Mountain House as the town grows and eventually incorporates as a city of its own. After his talk, he said, he's also hoping to leave the department in good shape for whoever is elected sheriff next year.

Steve Fowler, a Kiwanis club member and deputy who works as a bailiff at Tracy's branch of the San Joaquin County Superior Court, evoked meteorology to describe the difference in the department since Heidelbach came on.

"There's a cloud lifted off us," he said.

Contact Associate Editor Ben van der Meer at benvan@tracypress.com

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