Opinion Columns & Blogs

SLO County leadership is looking up

Like most folks, when our phone rings in the evening we tense up a bit, expecting either a late telemarketer or bad news.

So when we got a call around 8 p.m. Monday night, we were surprised by a recorded reverse 911 call from the Sheriff’s Department asking us to be on the lookout for Felisa Lizada, a 62-year-old woman with dementia who had wandered off in Los Osos.

The recording asked us to check our backyards, sheds, cars — just about any place where someone may have sought safety or sanctuary. It was the first such call we’d ever received.

As we now know, a huge search and rescue effort led to excellent results for Lizada, who was found injured in heavy brush near a creek just east of Los Osos some 24 hours after she’d disappeared.

The credit for turning what may have been a tragedy into a miracle of sorts obviously goes to the Sheriff’s Department and all the dedicated volunteers of the search and rescue teams who carry pagers so they can mobilize at a moment’s notice.

So, here’s some background on how the incident went down:

The Sheriff’s Department got a missing person call around 2 p.m. Monday. An initial team of deputies checked with friends and relatives of Lizada, taking a description and any other information that might have led to clues to her disappearance and whereabouts.

From there, it was decided that a command post would be set up at Sunnyside Elementary School in Los Osos. It was then determined that mutual aid was needed from search and rescue outfits from Santa Cruz, Monterey, Kern, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. An FBI bloodhound was brought in; the Salvation Army arrived with food and water for the searchers; Cal Fire’s cliff rescue unit was called out. All of this required assessment of resources and precision planning.

Now, some may wonder what this may have cost. Well, once you find you can’t put a price on a life, how about no extra costs to taxpayers through the good graces of those volunteers.

So, some 55 people were marshaled to find one petite woman with dementia who may have been sharing terrain with cougars and bears. All involved deserve our thanks and gratitude.

That said, there’s one person who I’ll single out for kudos: Sheriff Ian Parkinson.

Since taking office 10 months ago, Parkinson seems to be everywhere. He’s held open discussions of needs and concerns of 14 communities across the county. He was in Arroyo Grande for a community symposium on hate crimes and spoke at the Interfaith Council’s gathering of Christians, Jews and Muslims on Sept. 11. He’s called for audits of the department’s property and evidence room and instituted a professional standards unit.

OK, big deal. Isn’t this what the county’s top cop is supposed to do? Indeed. Yet that hasn’t been the case in the past.

What makes Parkinson so effective — whether that’s been turning his department’s morale and policies around, or seemingly being at innumerable public discussions — is his transparency of words and deeds.

What a concept, huh?

I’m not alone in this assessment. Colleague Bob Cuddy sees him in action at Board of Supervisors’ meetings, impressing both Bob and the board with his willingness to be open while having a solid grasp of issues.

Another colleague, Nick Wilson, covers the courts and says Parkinson enjoys a good reputation in that arena simply because he’s straightforward and honest in his assessments and interactions.

It’s true that Parkinson took some negative hits during his campaign for sheriff — questions about breadth of experience and education were raised — yet he didn’t go negative in return. As to education, Parkinson teaches leadership classes at local law enforcement seminars.

In short, the guy’s an effective leader.

In contrast to others who have held his position, Parkinson actually seems to like interacting with people, he likes to hear what they have to say, and he likes to take action on that input — all while trying to leverage and multiply the department’s assets without increasing its budget.

I suppose the bottom line is this: If you dissect those qualities, you’ll find some good reasons why Felisa Lizada is alive and well today.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.