Last weeks in the showdown for sheriff of San Luis Obispo County

With just two weeks before voters decide who will become the county’s next sheriff, candidates Joe Cortez and Ian Parkinson have spent their days crisscrossing the county, attending meet-and-greets, fundraisers and forums.

During that time, some themes have emerged: Cortez, a retired Pismo Beach police chief, has played up his leadership abilities and fiscal responsibility with police department budgets, and criticized Parkinson for never having led a department or finishing his bachelor’s degree.

Cortez, 56, says the county needs “someone with experience turning around departments.”

Parkinson, a San Luis Obispo police captain, has stressed his longevity in the county while working up the ranks at the department, and said his 18 years of heading up a 150-strong security force for the Mid-State Fair has familiarized him with the agricultural community and its needs.

Parkinson, 46, maintains that he’s worked the No. 2 spot at a larger department and helped manage a larger budget than in the cities Cortez worked as police chief.

In Pismo Beach, Cortez led a department of 23 sworn officers and about 50 total employees. He’s also served as chief in Brush and Aspen, Colo. Parkinson supervises about 45 sworn officers; the police department has about 80 employees.

“I think I have more depth of knowledge of the county and the sheriff’s office,” Parkinson said.Both candidates have resonated with some voters for different reasons.

Arroyo Grande resident Chris Kohler, a teacher at Santa Maria High School, said he’s voting for Cortez because he likes what Cortez accomplished as chief at the Pismo Beach department.

Parkinson “seems more smooth politically, and I think everyone is sick of smooth politics,” Kohler said.

San Luis Obispo resident Dennis Wizemann said the Sheriff’s Department needs strong leadership from the top down, and that Parkinson would give the department the direction it needs.

“I feel that Ian being young and having fresh ideas, would be a great start for the Sheriff’s Department,” said Wizemann, who retired as a senior deputy from the department in 1998. He’s known Parkinson about 20 years and always “had a favorable impression professionally.”

Leaders of the two unions representing sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers said Cortez has criticized the department throughout his campaign without spending time at its different divisions, meeting with employees and learning about the agency.

“You can’t walk into a department that you haven’t taken the time to learn,” said Correctional Sgt. Mike Thompson, vice president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association. Parkinson “has the ability to mend the department,” he said.

The DSA and the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs have endorsed Parkinson.“We’re backing the candidate who has done a comprehensive job of understanding our culture and the complex issues that we face,” said Sgt. Aaron Nix, a member of the ASLOCDS executive board.

That union represents about 110 deputies, senior deputies and sergeants. The DSA represents about 26 deputies, 120 correctional officers and 10 dispatchers.

Cortez and Parkinson will face each other in the Nov. 2 election because they were the top two finishers in the June primary.

The county’s top law enforcement officer oversees the 368-member Sheriff’s Department, which has a $57.2 million budget. Deputies patrol about 3,200 square miles in the unincorporated areas of the county. The annual salary is $182,104.

On the issues

Cortez has mentioned during candidate forums that under his tenure, the Pismo Beach department attained national accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies — something he says the Sheriff’s Department should also attain.

On accreditation, Parkinson said the Sheriff’s Department has already contracted with an Aliso Viejo-based risk-management resources company, Lexipol, to review its policies.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Brian Hascall said the department has an ongoing contract with Lexipol that has updated department policies — covering everything from how evidence is booked to how to take a domestic violence report — and will notify the department of necessary changes to the policies on an ongoing basis.

Parkinson said that with solid leadership and Lexipol, “We can move the department forward without the expense of accreditation.”

When asked for examples of accomplishments by current Sheriff Pat Hedges — who is retiring after 12 years with the department — both candidates named the same programs: Training depu-ties to focus specifically on rural crimes, and having deputies work on campuses as school resource officers.

Both candidates are concerned about gang problems in the county. Parkinson said collaboration between agencies is key to controlling gangs, as well as using programs to deter youth from participating in them.

Cortez said he wants the gang task force members to use “intelligence-based policing” to target gang leaders and recruiters. Cortez, who headed up a gang task force while working with the Napa Police Department in the early 1990s, said this approach would allow officers to establish a rapport with gang members.

As to addressing crime issues in the county’s more rural areas, Cortez said he would meet frequently with residents to learn “what they need to raise their quality of life.”

“The best way is to get out of the ivory tower and out of our cars and engage people,” he said.Parkinson said he wants to expand the rural deputy program by adding volunteer staff to reach out to residents and have all employees undergo rural crime training.

Both said the Sheriff’s Department needs to look for ways to collaborate with other law enforcement agencies to potentially cut costs.

Cortez suggested working out a deal with local police departments — especially in the North and South County cities — to hold arrested suspects until Sheriff’s Department personnel can pick them up and take them to County Jail, so that local officers can stay in their communities.

Currently, local officers drive arrestees from their cities to book them in the County Jail.

Parkinson said using unpaid reserves and volunteers are vital to providing better service.

Volunteers already serve a number of functions, Parkinson said, including on search-and-rescue and dive teams and on the citizen’s patrol, where volunteers drive around the county’s unincorporated areas and act as another set of eyes and ears for deputies.

The programs have personnel who oversee them, and are also assigned a liaison from the Sheriff’s Department.

On issuing concealed weapons permits, Cortez said he believes personal safety is cause for issuing permits to residents who live in areas of the county where the response time is lengthier.

Parkinson said there must be a reason for an issuance, and that the department would review an applicant’s residence and any threats he or she has received before a permit may be given.

The candidates were asked at a recent forum whether they would enforce the letter or the spirit of the law overall.

Parkinson said in some cases deputies have to follow the letter of the law; however, in cases where the law is ambiguous or left to interpretation, it is important that officials “do their homework.”Cortez said he would enforce the spirit of the law.

“I never want to have letter of the law trump common sense,” he said. “I want to live in a community where we enforce the spirit of the law.”

Amounts raised

Both candidates have raised more than $100,000 since the beginning of the year, a review of their most recent campaign statements show. The latest filing deadline was Oct. 5.

So far this year, Parkinson has raised $127,104, including $10,481 in non-monetary contributions. Cortez has received $125,394, including $21,027 in non-monetary contributions and $20,000 in loans.

Parkinson has $8,395 in cash on hand; Cortez has $20,861.

From July 1 through Sept. 30, Cortez raised $53,433 in cash from more than 220 contributors, about 75 percent of whom live in the South County, 8 percent from San Luis Obispo and 5 percent from North County.

Parkinson has raised $42,182 during the same time from about 100 contributors, 44 percent of whom live in San Luis Obispo, 33 percent in North County and 13 percent in South County.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCounty Beat on Twitter.