Since taking office in January, Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton has lost fifteen pounds and his trademark goatee.

A big man with the broad-shouldered build of a former EMU football player, Clayton lost the weight working overtime: from January through April, he and his top aides worked seven days a week. His team is now taking weekends off, but the sheriff is still putting in six days and three or four nights a week.

He lost the goatee because he finally took time off before Memorial Day to get fitted for his sheriff’s uniform–and the department’s regulations are strict about facial hair on uniformed officers.

Clayton started in the sheriff’s department as a part-time corrections officer in 1981 and rose to first lieutenant before retiring in 2006. Just a year ago, few thought that he would ever wear the uniform again. The father of three was very much the underdog in last August’s Democratic primary.

The incumbent, Dan Minzey, had defeated Republican Ron Schebil in 2000 and had been re-elected unopposed four years later. Though he’d angered county leaders with his budget overruns–in the red by an average of $1 million a year, mostly because of overtime pay–Minzey had made friends in the townships his deputies patrolled, as well as among the deputies themselves.

And while Minzey was a gifted schmoozer, Clayton at first seemed uncomfortable as a politician. Interviewed in the spring of 2008, he talked about “a void in leadership” and “engaging in partnerships with the people in Washtenaw County.” But he spoke with no more passion than someone reading topics from a PowerPoint presentation-which they may well have been. At the time, he was doing a lot of such talks as a consultant on racial profiling.

When asked why he was running, however, Clayton’s voice got much more intense. “I spent twenty years in the sheriff’s department, and police service is in my blood,” he said. “I’ve been a resident of Washtenaw County for twenty-five years, and I feel a real sense of commitment to the county and loyalty to sheriff’s office.” He decided to run, he concluded, because “I looked at the state of the sheriff’s office, and I knew there was another direction to go.”

That intensity drove Clayton when he started campaigning. He showed up at neighborhood meetings and candidates’ debates across the county, while Minzey retreated to the safety of parades and photo-ops. With endorsements from Democratic county officeholders fed up with his former boss, Clayton won a three-way primary then brushed past a token Republican opponent in the November general election.

That quiet intensity continues to drive Clayton, forty-six. “I’ve pushed myself and my team pretty hard the last six months,” he says, “because I have an aggressive agenda I want to implement.”

So far, implementing that agenda has mostly meant going to a lot of meetings. While Minzey had little contact with the county government, Clayton and his staff are constantly engaged in planning and policy issues. They’ve successfully tackled the overtime problems that baffled Minzey. And in the aftermath of the Clifton Lee case–in which an Ypsilanti Township man died while being manhandled by deputies–they’ve focused on building relationships with the community.

It’s no surprise that Clayton and his team get rave reviews from the county leaders who found Minzey so frustrating. “To have a sheriff who is engaged is such a relief,” says prosecutor Brian Mackie. “Jerry Clayton’s a strong partner in county government,” agrees administrator Bob Guenzel, “and a strong partner with the community.” And he’s praised by all four Ann Arbor county commissioners. “He engages in genuine and forthright debate,” says commissioner Jeff Irwin, “and he engages at a high level.”

More impressively, Clayton’s “attend and engage” strategy has also won over Ypsilanti Democrat and board chair Rolland Sizemore (“If Jerry’s got something to say, he says it to you”) and Republican commissioners Mark Ouimet of Scio Township (“He’s spent a lot of time listening to the concerns of the townships and the villages”) and Jessica Ping of Saline (“He’s been going out to my municipalities and making his presence felt”).

“We’ve met with every regional group in Manchester, Lodi, Dexter, Scio, Lyndon, and probably some others I can’t think of right now,” Clayton says.

He forgot Superior Township–but he’s been there, too. “We can’t ask any more of him than what we’ve been getting,” says supervisor Bill McFarlane. “He wants to be involved, wants to make a change, and wants to make a difference.”

In Scio, Derrick Jackson, Clayton’s community relations liaison, put together a proposal to use federal stimulus money to hire three more deputies. Township supervisor Spaulding Clark expects to hear by September whether the township has won the grant–but either way Clark, too, has become a fan of the new sheriff.

Clayton’s been especially visible in Ypsilanti Township, particularly the West Willow neighborhood, where Lee died three years ago after interfering with a traffic stop. One deputy pled guilty to federal civil rights violations, two others were acquitted, and the county paid almost $5 million in wrongful death suit awards and legal fees.

“We’ve met with community members and leadership in West Willow,” says Clayton, “and with a new guy [as sheriff], people are more open to conversation.” It probably helps that Clayton, like Lee and many other West Willow residents, is African American. So is Jackson, whom Clayton hired away from the county clerk’s office because of his background as a community organizer and because Jackson and his five-year-old daughter live in West Willow.

“Sheriff Clayton gave us his promise that we’d have his support all the way,” says Robert Harrison, president of the West Willow Neighborhood Association. “We get more patrols in, and we get better response when we call 911. The deputies don’t come in and do whatever they want anymore, and so the people don’t have to be afraid anymore.

“He’s at our disposal at all times, and he gave me his personal number. I can’t ask for no more.”

Clayton is even winning friends in the police unions, where Minzey’s support was deepest. “We’ve met with both unions and told them we have to be partners,” says Clayton, “because the alternative is the demise of the sheriff’s department.”

“The sheriff and his team come to our union meetings, and we turn it over to them for question and answer,” says Harry Valentine, president of the Patrol Officers Association. “They’ve been received very well. Everyone who’s spoken with him says he sounds sincere and honest. You’d be hard pressed to find someone right now to find fault with the sheriff’s performance.”

That could change as the county struggles to close a projected $26 million budget gap. “The county’s looking for five to ten percent reductions from everybody,” says Clayton, “but my goal is to deliver the same level of service without laying anybody off.”

When Clayton took office, Guenzel asked him to cut half a million from his budget. Guenzel says Clayton not only has cut that amount from this year’s budget already but “he’s working on cuts for next year.” Overtime has yielded the biggest savings.

“Our dispatch was bleeding overtime hours,” explains law enforcement commander Dieter Heren. “We’re not fully staffed there – five positions out of a staff of eighteen are open. But we’re seeing what we can do to get people in the door and train them, and we’re putting controls in place on overtime that have helped us realize a reduction of over $400,000, and we hope to get to a million by the end of the year.”

How did they do it? According to director of administration Greg Dill, “Some supervisors are covering floor time, handling incoming calls and dispatching. Plus, we’re making sure that supervisors and department heads are signing off on overtime and that the proper approvals have happened beforehand.”

Valentine says the union membership “doesn’t like controlling overtime, but they understand it’s key. If we can show [county leaders] we can control overtime, they’ll give us more control of the budget, and the guys realize this will make things easier for us down the road.”

Clayton got a pass on another potentially ugly issue in January, when the county board voted to delay negotiating the next police services contract for a year. Last time, the disagreement over how much the townships should pay to use sheriff’s deputies as their local police force got so bitter that some townships sued the county–and so did Minzey, charging the county was trying to usurp his authority. None of the suits succeeded, but Clayton’s grateful for the extra time. When the talks resume, he predicts, things will be different.

“The costs are going to go up,” he says. “The costs are never going to go down. But I see small, incremental increases–increases large enough for the county to support, because we don’t want the county to get out of the law enforcement business, but not so large that the contracting jurisdictions want to get out and form their own police forces.”

The other big problem facing the sheriff’s office is the chronically overcrowded jail–which Minzey complained about but was never willing to expend any political capital to fix. Guenzel and the commissioners finally found a way to expand the jail without his help, and a new 120-bed wing is now rising outside Clayton’s window.

The sheriff is under no illusion that it will be a permanent solution, however. “We’ll be full again in a couple of months,” he warns, “if we don’t change things.”

Clayton has specific changes in mind. “We need to identify low-risk offenders and assess them and get them out under community service. It’s all about sanctions and services. If you’re not a risk, you should not be in jail. I’m supported in this effort by the judges and Brian Mackie.

“What I’d like to see in three or four years is what I call a social justice campus, a coordination of the criminal justice system with human services.” For instance, many offenders need treatment for substance abuse problems or help finding jobs when they leave jail.

“The social justice campus that he’s been here talking about is the right message for the right audience, my audience, the Ann Arbor audience,” says commissioner Conan Smith. “Portraying his office as part of a holistic system of justice is just what people in Ann Arbor want to hear.”

It’s a sign of Clayton’s broad approval that he’s equally admired by a predecessor. Not Minzey–who stopped returning media calls the day he lost the primary–but Ron Schebil, the Republican Minzey defeated nine years ago.

“I have all the confidence in the world in Jerry and his team,” says Schebil, now director of safety and security at Washtenaw Community College. “I’m sure they can do it. I’ve talked with some of the deputies there, and they can already feel the effect–that they’re paying a lot more attention to day-to-day operations of the department and that they’re getting it under control.”

Reviews from other police chiefs around the county are equally positive–particularly since Clayton a few months ago began sending his deputies to help write traffic tickets in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

“Me and [AAPD chief] Barnett Jones and all the chiefs agree this jurisdictional stuff makes no sense,” explains Clayton. “We have money from the state for a secondary road patrol that can be used in the whole county, so we’re using it for traffic enforcement.”

“I greatly appreciate the sheriff’s desire to work in partnership on this,” says Matt Harshberger, Ypsilanti’s former chief who now is Pittsfield Township’s. “There are more than enough traffic problems that we can all work on together.”

And the chiefs hope that this is just the beginning of their cooperation. “We’ve had meetings with the sheriff’s department and other police departments on regionalization,” says Jones. “We’re talking about things like the SWAT team, the hostage negotiation team, the K-9 team and so on. For law enforcement and other governmental agencies, this is a time to consolidate things and work together.”

In Jerry Clayton, the chiefs finally have a willing partner.