Editorial: Parkinson should look at four critical areas

In a matter of days — on Jan. 3, to be exact — Ian Parkinson will be sworn in as sheriff of San Luis Obispo County, a position that puts him in charge of a department with about 370 members and an annual budget of $57 million.

Parkinson takes over for Pat Hedges, whose tenure was marred by scandal, secrecy and an obstinacy that put him at odds with county administration.

Parkinson has pledged to promote “transparency and impartiality” in the Sheriff’s Department. We look forward to the change.

We also look forward to seeing the new sheriff implement many of the specific items on the ambitious agenda he outlined during his campaign — plans that range from cracking down on gangs to increasing the use of hybrid vehicles.

We recognize, however, that some of these changes will take time — and additional sources of revenue — to implement.

For the time being, there are a few critical areas that need to be addressed immediately.

Those include:

The budget

How grim is it? County staff has predicted a shortfall of “at least” $9.2 million for fiscal year 2011-12. That’s after budget gaps of $18 million, $30 million and $17 million over the past three years.

Given that, we urge Parkinson to set the tone for his administration by stressing fiscal conservatism from the outset. One way he could do that: Do without an undersheriff, at least until the economy improves.

Public outreach

Parkinson has promised to be a visible presence in communities throughout the county by continuing to attend and participate in meetings of community advisory councils, community services districts and, of course, the Board of Supervisors.

We strongly encourage that. It will be an excellent way to stay on top of any problems and concerns; will help the new sheriff define priorities; and will restore confidence in the department.

Expanding the women’s jail

The level of crowding at the women’s jail is unacceptable. The jail has a rated capacity of 43, yet between 2007 and 2009, the population averaged 73. The county has qualified for a $25 million jail construction grant from the state, but the Board of Supervisors delayed the project until February, in order to take a more comprehensive look at the local criminal justice system. At the time, Supervisor Adam Hill said he did not want the County Jail to be “a standard lock ’em up.”

We agree, but this project should not be put on an indefinite hold while officials debate.

As the county’s top law enforcement officer, we urge Parkinson to insist on moving the project forward in a timely manner. The county simply cannot afford to miss out on the opportunity to take advantage of a $25 million state grant.

Promoting volunteerism

This sounds like a no-brainer, yet a recent Grand Jury report found that the Search and Rescue team was understaffed and underfunded — but was not allowed to hold its own fundraisers. Hedges denied that was the case, but if the relationship between the sheriff and the organization had been a sound one to begin with, such accusations would never have surfaced in the first place. Parkinson has pledged to continue to support the outstanding work of the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, Sheriff’s Auxiliary Volunteer Program, Sheriff’s Posse, Dive Team and Aero Squadron. We’re glad to hear it. These volunteers provide invaluable assistance during emergencies and save the department significant money. They deserve the utmost support from the department’s top administrator.

Parkinson faces some tough challenges, and he won’t be able to make changes overnight.

However, we believe he laid a strong groundwork for progress in his campaign, and we look forward to seeing his political promises translated into action.

Parkinson’s agenda

Here are some of Ian Parkinson’s campaign pledges, as outlined in campaign literature, interviews and candidates forums.

Sheriff’s Department operations and oversight

Appoint a professional standards supervisor to audit all areas of operation, in order to provide transparency and accountability

Develop a long-term strategic plan that spells out goals for the various communities

Re-establish an internal affairs investigation unit

Audit the property evidence room

Crime prevention

Obtain additional funding for the gang task force through state and federal law enforcement grants

Ask each agency in the county to supply one officer to participate in periodic gang sweeps and gang identification

Start a GREAT – Gang Resistance Education and Training — program and a countywide Police Athletic League

Work to restore Megan's Law investigators furloughed due to state budget cuts

Continue to partner with Alcoholic Beverage Control to reduce availability of alcohol to minors

Expand rural deputy program by adding volunteer staff and providing rural crime training to all employees

Improve local correctional facilities

Make use of city- and town-centered “holding facilities” to reduce the number of trips sheriff’s deputies must make to the County Jail

Increase use of closed-circuit television to monitor inmates in County Jail

Expand home detention program

Protect the environment

Use hybrid vehicles wherever possible

Encourage recycling and waste reduction programs