Next San Luis Obispo County sheriff faces some big challenges

Trust, accountability, transparency: these buzzwords have become part of the stump speeches of the six candidates running in the June primary for sheriff, a position that’s been held by Pat Hedges since 1998.

The new sheriff will have a chance to restore the public trust. He’ll also have to figure out how to “do less with less,” as sheriff’s spokesman Rob Bryn puts it.

The 377-strong Sheriff’s Department has in recent years dealt with several high-profile issues — including an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office and a controversial secret-taping episode — that have caused some to question its leadership, effectiveness and openness with the public.

“We have high expectations that the sheriff is going to make significant changes not only to the organizational structure of the department, but that he will reach out to the community,” said Sgt. Dale Strobridge of the Sheriff’s Department, who is also president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association, a union that represents 155 employees, including correctional officers, dispatchers, property clerks, evidence technicians and 35 deputies. “The next sheriff … needs face time with the troops.”

Some of the difficulties facing the sheriff include a $1.9 million drop in projected revenue for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, Undersheriff Steve Bolts said.

Maintaining current staffing is also going to be a challenge. In the past two years, the department has lost 19 positions — all through attrition — including 10 deputies. There are currently 97 deputies — 75 of whom are on patrol — and 29 senior deputies, 11 of whom are on patrol, Bolts said.

There are also 11.5 vacancies in the department, which may increase to 13.5 with retirements in the next few months. At this point, the department doesn’t intend to fill any vacancies, Bolts said.

An additional five positions, including three deputies, are tied to state funds and could be cut, he said.

The department has also outgrown its headquarters, Bryn said. The sheriff’s administration building’s size hasn’t changed since 1971, some detectives work in a World War II-era building and the department doesn’t have its own morgue, Chief Deputy Rob Reid said.

However, the department has been able to reduce its overtime costs — to $965,000 at the end of the third quarter this fiscal year, from $1.83 million during the same time period in 2007-08, Bolts said.

Also, deputies are working to maintain their response time to emergency calls for service: 10 minutes for the coast and South County areas, and 15 minutes for the North County.

Six candidates are vying for the job, in which they would oversee a budget of $57.2 million. They are: Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Adams; Joe Cortez, former chief of the Pismo Beach Police Department; sheriff’s Cmdr. Ben Hall; Jerry Lenthall, a former county supervisor and former San Luis Obispo police sergeant; San Luis Obispo police Capt. Ian Parkinson; and retired CHP Sgt. Michael Teixeira.

The salary is $182,104. The department patrols about 3,200 square miles in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Here are profiles of the candidates:

Mark Adams

Adams said his perspective — as a deputy sheriff for 22 years, until recently working the night shift at the station in Templeton — will help him lead the department.

“I see what the top bosses’ decisions do and how that affects” the rest of the department, said Adams, 52. As sheriff, he would stay in touch with his deputies, and the public, by putting a vest on and patrolling in his free time. And he expects his command staff to do the same.

“We’re short-handed right now,” he said. “We’re jockeying people’s schedules, forcing the line-level guys out there and the people in the jail to do more with less.”

Adams said he would increase the number of deputies on the street by requiring upper-level employees, such as sergeants and commanders, to take reports and handle calls for service, freeing up deputies to spend more time on patrol.

Adams said he’s proved his leadership capabilities through the commendations he received in the Army as well as through informally helping younger deputies learn the ropes.

The employees “deserve someone who is always going to be their champion; they want a leader who is going to lead by example and, when times are tough, is going to stand up for them.”

Joe Cortez

Cortez’s top priority is getting more deputies on patrol and reducing response times to calls. To do so, he suggested giving county residents with nonemergency needs the ability to submit a report online or by phone, or training volunteers to take reports.

Currently, deputies respond to all calls. The Sheriff’s Department has not explored an online reporting system because officials think it’s important for residents who want to make a report to be able to interact with a deputy, Bolts said.

Both options would free up deputies to handle more serious calls, Cortez said.

He’d also save money by collaborating better with neighboring agencies to share equipment. He also wants to examine the idea of creating satellite holding cells through various city police departments on certain nights so that deputies don’t have to drive arrestees to the main jail in San Luis Obispo.

A former Pismo Beach police chief overseeing 23 sworn officers, Cortez, 56, has led police departments in Aspen and Brush, Colo. In Brush, where he oversaw a department of about 16 employees serving 5,000 residents, Cortez said he worked to restore trust in the police department and retain state accreditation.

“My experience is leading individuals,” he said. “Management is management. The size of the (sheriff’s) organization is much larger, the budgets are larger … but the success I’ve had in police departments is what they need in the Sheriff’s Department: accountability, people recognized for good work and being rewarded for good work.”

Ben Hall

Because the design of the department today has been molded by the loss of 19 positions in the past two years, Hall said employees should be recruited to create a new strategic plan to determine whether staffing changes should be made to guide the department’s direction.

Hall, 57, a patrol division commander who joined the department in 1975, stressed a need to focus on crime issues, including gangs, drugs — particularly methamphetamine — and financial abuse of elders.

To eliminate gang-related problems, Hall said, officials need to work with social groups and schools to target would-be gang members with early intervention programs.

He suggested eliminating the undersheriff position — the current salary is $170,476 — and possibly using the money to fund two more deputies or start looking into what he says are much-needed substations in Cambria and Nipomo.

Hall filed paperwork to run against Hedges in 2001 but withdrew after meeting with the sheriff to discuss some of his concerns with the department.

If elected, Hall said, “I will be on talk radio shows and let people hear the questions and answers. They want to hear from the sheriff himself. I think that’s a step in the direction (of) transparency and accountability.”

Jerry Lenthall

Lenthall, 59, said he could find enough ways to cut the department’s budget to afford to put five additional deputies on the street. The “best bang for the buck” would be to use those deputies to augment a couple of specialized units, such as a gang task force, he said.

“We haven’t seen any cuts to administration,” Lenthall said. “In the last two years, we’ve only seen deputies (cut). It seems to be low-lying fruit.”

Lenthall said he would have an evaluation of the department done to determine if resources are being used wisely — and part of that analysis would determine whether the undersheriff position is needed or not.

“We can’t afford to lose another deputy,” Lenthall said.

He also said he would re-examine the number of take-home cars driven by department employees, and expand the department’s volunteer organization using retired law enforcement officers who could handle some day-to-day activities, such as tracking and monitoring registered sex offenders working cold cases.

This could give deputies and investigators more time in the field to work on cases, he said.

Lenthall, a one-term 3rd District supervisor, said he’s received support for his sheriff campaign from those who didn’t like some of his land-use votes as a supervisor.

“My first love and passion is law enforcement,” he said.

Ian Parkinson

Parkinson would reassign a supervisor in the Sheriff’s Department to handle all citizen complaints. Before 1998, a sheriff’s sergeant was assigned to investigate citizen complaints; after Hedges was elected, he divvied up the work among a handful of sergeants and lieutenants.

Tasking one person with internal investigations would give the public someone to hold accountable and create consistency for department employees, Parkinson said.

If elected, Parkinson, 45, would examine the department’s structure to determine what changes are needed. He wouldn’t consider getting rid of the undersheriff job — which he called the sheriff’s “general manager” — until further study is done to determine whether reorganization is needed.

Parkinson is also interested in revamping the department’s property-evidence room and expanding its home detention program for certain inmates to relieve staffing at the County Jail.

As a San Luis Obispo police captain, Parkinson has moved up the ranks since joining the department in 1988. He takes two weeks off every summer to oversee a staff of 150 as chief of security for the California Mid-State Fair.

“It’s very similar to government because I have a fair manager I work for and a fair board, like a city council or board of supervisors,” he said.

Michael Teixeira

A retired CHP officer who spent nearly 29 years of his career in downtown Los Angeles, Teixeira said he’s seen random gang violence firsthand and has pledged to donate 20 percent of his salary as sheriff — about $3,000 a month — to gang-diversion programs.

“I envision the money going toward helping kids get into things like scouts,” he said.

Teixeira, 60, who was born and raised in the county, graduated from Morro Bay High School and Cuesta College. He spent the last six and a half years of his career at the Paso Robles Airport as a CHP pilot for traffic patrol, where he met a number of sheriff’s deputies. He retired in May 2009.

“It’s obvious they are hard-working guys,” he said, “but because of problems with management, the department kind of got a black eye, and I don’t think people doing the work really deserve that reputation.”

If elected, Teixeira would consider eliminating the undersheriff position to staff possibly two deputies. He’d also analyze where people are assigned, perhaps reshuffle some positions, create proposed budget scenarios and prioritize what programs could be reduced.

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

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