District attorney candidates tangle over leadership skills and experience

Dan Dow and Tim Covello meet at candidate forum Wednesday night

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 23, 2014 

While the two candidates for district attorney noted some clear differences in priorities Wednesday night, their third debate focused mostly on leadership abilities and experience.

The debate, sponsored by The Tribune and the League of Women Voters at the San Luis Obispo Library, featured similar themes as past debates but with strong words at times.

Both are vying to replace Gerry Shea, who opted not to seek re-election.

Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow noted that he has the support of most of the office’s attorneys, which shows he’s better suited to lead them.

“This community needs a leader who can rise above office politics and build relationships that get things done,” said Dow, adding that he had past leadership experience in the Army and California Army National Guard.

But Tim Covello, currently the assistant district attorney, said Dow is not qualified to lead prosecutors because he does not have enough experience as a prosecutor and has no management experience in the District Attorney’s Office.

In the military, Covello said, leaders do not rise through the ranks because the enlisted staff supported them.

“You have to prove yourself at each stage,” he said.

Many deputy district attorneys in the office have claimed that Covello, who has been in management for six years and is second in command in the DA’s office, is unapproachable and exercises a top-down style that hurts morale.

“People want positive leadership that they know is going to be there for them,” Dow said. “The climate of an organization flows down.”

Covello said the deputies, who are involved in a union dispute with the county over pensions, represent less than half the staff within the Office of the District Attorney. While Dow suggested Covello was the cause of morale problems at the office, Covello said some deputies have caused morale problems with staff by not carrying their weight.

“They need to make sure they’re there the whole day,” he said, suggesting some deputies have been known to leave early, causing problems for other staffers. “Everybody should be working a full day.”

Covello also suggested that several other deputies in the office had more courtroom experience than his opponent — which, he thinks, would hamper Dow’s ability to advise and lead them.

“I know of one felony jury trial that he’s done,” Covello said, challenging Dow to list any others. “Mine are well-documented.”

Dow said he has handled thousands of cases, including difficult sex crimes often involving children. But, he added, the district attorney position entails more leadership than courtroom work.

And his experiences in the military and business — as a former tech industry salesperson — make him well-rounded.

“My style is going to be a lot more open, a lot more approachable,” he said.

On priorities, Dow said he advocates a domestic violence court, for which one judge would offer uniformity.

“A domestic violence court will invest in someone who knows these cases inside and out,” said Dow, who spearheaded an effort to start a veterans’ court, now in use.

He said law enforcement officers should be trained to recognize gang members so that gang enhancements could more readily be added to their sentences when they commit crimes.

And he thinks his office will have to address an increase in cyber and financial fraud cases along with an increase in heroin dealing.

Covello said workloads at the office need to be better balanced, and there need to be fewer plea bargains.

“Our sentencing guidelines will be changed,” he said, based in part on work he’s already done.

Neither said they’d legalize marijuana. Dow said he thinks pot can be a gateway drug for heroin.

“Mexican cartels are importing heroin into California, and it is killing our young people,” he said.

While marijuana laws have changed, Covello said, drug trafficking and driving under the influence involving marijuana are still crimes that need to be prosecuted.

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