For the first time, the two candidates for San Luis Obispo County sheriff shared a stage for a debate, in front of a standing-room-only crowd on Wednesday.
It quickly dove into the core issue of the election: the need for change at the County Jail after the death of a mentally ill man who'd been confined in a restraint chair for 46 straight hours, one of 12 inmates who've died at the jail since 2012.
"The torture and death of Andrew Holland was completely avoidable, and the cover-up by the sheriff is an insult to the people of this county," said Greg Clayton, who intends to "carry this narrative" to election day. "It's time for new leadership, it's time to restore public confidence in our sheriff's department."
Clayton, a private investigator who worked as a San Luis Obispo police officer for 13 years, is challenging incumbent Ian Parkinson, who has 34 years in law enforcement and was first elected sheriff in 2010.
"As difficult as some of the topics that we have going on ... I have the ability and I have the track record to step up and make the change that is needed over the next four years," Parkinson said, later adding, "The No. 1 focus is not the campaign. My No. 1 focus is making change in our community."
In one of the testier exchanges of the evening, Parkinson criticized Clayton's law enforcement experience as limited to being "a line-level police officer" with no management experience, to which Clayton responded by asking, "How have all those years helped you when Andrew Holland died. ... What kind of management and judgment was there when that occurred?"
The candidates answered dozens of pre-screened questions during the event, which was hosted by the Latino Outreach Council in collaboration with the League of Women Voters.
While the crowd was passionate and applauded vigorously for their candidates at the beginning and end of the event, there were no major disruptions and signs that were carried into the event — including some that said "LIES" — were not raised.
Candidates discussed sanctuary city laws, re-entry programs for former inmates, gangs and homelessness.
A 14-year-old asked what was being done to make schools safe.
Parkinson spoke to the department's gang-resistance education program that encourages nonviolent communication and anti-bullying, as well as a new program that will bring a panic button and a mapping program to 32 schools.
Clayton said he would maintain school resource officers and look into a Shot Spotter program new to Fresno that pinpoints a shooting location and instantly alerts dispatch, reducing response time by half.
In response to questions about the assessment of gangs in the area, Parkinson said, "Our county is surrounded by severe gang problems" in Fresno and Santa Maria and "those gang problems are migrating to us." With "a priority to keep them out," his office deployed street units solely focused on contacting gang members and established an anti-gang program in schools.
Clayton agreed that gangs surround San Luis Obispo County and said MS-13 has a stronghold in Santa Maria. He would maintain the gang take force and work with probation to protect the county.
Candidates responded to several questions about the details of potential reforms in the jail and for mental health services, while the Holland family sat in the front row. Both agreed that mental health services are severely lacking in the community.
Parkinson touted changes already made: that he created the position and has hired a new chief medical officer to oversee medical and mental health care and that he wants to build a 10-bed psychiatric facility within the jail, a concept that Clayton also promoted.
Clayton said his No. 1 priority in office would be "full-time reforms in the jail."
Parkinson responded that Clayton's ideas "aren't new ideas," and although "it's unfortunate it took a tragedy to bring this about," many ideas have been in the works for months. The top challenge he faces now, he said, is the never-ending cycle of people going in and out of the jail.
Clayton proposed that the Sheriff's Office "separate the coroner's function from the sheriff's position," arguing there is a conflict of interest. For example, he said,Holland's death was determined as natural, while "there was nothing natural about his death."
"I don't have an objection to having the Coroner's Office removed," Parkinson said, noting that the county's structure is the norm in the state and the department recently opened its first coroner's facility using no taxpayer money.
In his closing statement Parkinson said focusing on effecting positive change consumes him every day. He said he's "not finished" and that doubters should "wait and see, because we have made change at record speed."
Clayton wrapped up emphasizing his own message of change.
"We don't need to torture and kill our inmates," he said. If elected, he said, "everyone will be treated with respect and dignity."