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Sheriff: Nou is top finisher in primary, second candidate 'too close to call'; links to other results here
San Juan County Sheriff's Deputy Rob Nou held a commanding lead in the race for sheriff Tuesday, leading the five-candidate field with 1,495 votes to advance to the Nov. 2 general election.
The two top vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election. But who that second candidate will be was not clear Tuesday night when polls closed at 8 p.m.; Auditor Milene Henley said the race is "too close to call" between Sheriff's Detective Brent Johnson, 1,066 votes; Adult Probation Officer Brad Fincher, 956 votes; and Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Asher, 945.
Henley said the election was over for Sheriff's Deputy Felix Menjivar, who received 618 votes.
Ballots placed in drop boxes Tuesday on Lopez and Orcas islands won’t be counted until Wednesday. As of Election Day, 1,593 ballots from Orcas Island had been counted, 859 from Lopez Island.
All told, 11,490 ballots were mailed out in this election.
County Councilman Bob Myhr had 363 votes and Lopez Port Commissioner Jaime Stephens had 337 to lead in the primary for the Lopez/Shaw seat on the San Juan County Council. Jerry Gonce, a retired city manager, was third with 249 votes.
On Orcas Island, voters were rejecting a $27 million bond measure for improvements to the elementary and high schools and for construction of a new middle school. The vote was 716 yes, 858 no.
The sheriff earns $97,514 a year and manages a staff of 36 full-time employees and a budget of $2.3 million, which includes: $719,219, dispatch; $472,888, Enhanced E-911; $398,920, jail; and $209,615, Emergency Management.
Nou, a former administrative sergeant and police chief who was endorsed by The Journal and The Sounder, was at an EMS drill on Lopez Island when election results were posted.
"I'm trying to keep some sense of normalcy in my life and not get twitterpated," Nou said before the election.
But on Election Eve, he was "feeling confident" based on feedback he was getting on the islands.
Nou joined the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy after four years as police chief in Burns, Ore., and has 29 years of law enforcement experience, much of that as an administrative sergeant with the Yamhill County, Ore., Sheriff’s Department. He’s managed or supervised drug-abuse awareness programs, a multi-agency traffic accident investigation team, traffic safety enforcement grant projects, and a city police department.
In Oregon, Nou lobbied for state funding for Healthy Start and Early Head Start programs, saying tough law enforcement is essential “but we’ll win a victory over crime only when our commitment to putting dangerous criminals in jail is matched by our commitment to investing in our children.”
Nou knows the challenges of running a tightly-funded and tightly staffed department. As police chief, Nou and four full-time officers provided law enforcement in the county seat of the largest county in area in Oregon. His 911 center served the entire county.
Nou moved to Lopez Island in 2008 and has been active there as an EMT and with the Lopez Island Prevention Coalition. He worked hard to become known to voters on other islands, presenting himself as being "thoughtful, reasoned, and prepared to do the job."
"I've kind of put myself out there, tried to get the message out there with the time and resources I had to work with, and tried to offer an option to folks. If that message was resonant, the outcome will be one way."
The top concern among voters on the campaign trail: "One of the overriding questions concerned drug issues and how to deal with the drug abuse problems within the islands. That's the No. 1 question," he said.
A personal concern: He'd like to see the standards raised for candidates for sheriff in Washington state. Although he didn't mention anyone by name, one candidate for San Juan County sheriff is not a sworn officer with law enforcement experience. If elected, the candidate would have to attend the academy within a year, taking him away from the job.
In Oregon, where Nou served as a sheriff's sergeant and police chief, a candidate for sheriff must obtain a letter from the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training certifying that he or she meets qualifying requirements before being able to run.
"It strikes me as kind of ironic in a way, that to choose a sheriff, you go through this electoral process that may or may not have much to do with somebody being qualified to do the job," Nou said. "Until jumping into this, it never really struck me that that was how this process works. The office of sheriff requires a pretty broad body of knowledge in order to do the job and to be effective."
Johnson's first run at elected office was an eye-opener for him. He said he was pleasantly surprised at the number of islanders who took time out to ask questions about issues that affect the Sheriff's Office, about the ideas he has for managing the department, and who were genuinely interested in knowing more about each of the five candidates seeking to fill the position Sheriff Bill Cumming has held for 24 years.
"As a whole, the people have been grand," he said. "They came up to us and shook our hands at so many different events, and there were so many people who wanted to know who I am and the ideas I have about running the department. I think a lot of people were amazed about all the things we have to do to follow the law. That was one of the interesting parts."
During the campaign, Johnson, lead detective the past eight years, noted that the budget woes that plague the county could diminish the amount of resources the department has available to properly train its officers and support staff, such as dispatchers. He advocated bolstering those resources through greater use of the sheriff's work crew, boosting the ranks and duties of volunteer reserve deputies, partnering with other law enforcement agencies and aggressively seeking state, federal and foundation grants.
Combating drug and alcohol abuse appeared to be on the minds of many over the course of the primary campaign, which, he said, turned out to be a mostly civil one.
"It started to take a turn and there was a cloudy, negative part for a while," he said. "But the department as a whole is sound, and I will continue to be a part of it however this thing turns out."
With little experience in political campaigning to draw on, Johnson said the day before the primary that he was unsure which two candidates would advance to the general election. He has a booth set aside at the San Juan County Fair, however, and will be busy campaigning there should he be one of the top two.
"I'll be there if I'm one of the top two," he said. "After that I'll be trying to make contact with voters who supported another candidate and let them know they're welcome in my camp and that I'd like to speak with them."
Fincher believes that he made the most out of his first-ever run at political office.
He said that by utilizing campaign posters and yard signs, by participating in candidate forums and meet-and-greets, and by going door-to-door, he and his campaign team were able to get their message out to voters. And he said he's been impressed by the amount of support those efforts generated over the course of the primary campaign.
Fincher, the county's adult probation officer, touted safety and security as top priorities should he win the sheriff's race. In particular, Fincher, recipient of Washington state's 2008 Probation Officer of the Year award, noted that his concerns about drug and alcohol abuse, and the steps he would take to combat that abuse, such as increased support for prevention, intervention and education programs, appeared to resonate strongly with voters.
"The issue I promoted the most was the drug and alcohol issues in the county," he said. "I got a lot of head nods. I think the community realizes there's more that can be done."
Fincher said the day before the primary that he felt confident about his chances of advancing on to the general election. But if not, he said it won't be from a lack of effort.
Still, Fincher added that the sheriff's race is a countywide election and that trying to connect with voters on all the islands is a challenge for any candidate.
"It's hard to get a feel on what all 11,000 voters are thinking," he said. "I think the precinct results will be interesting. It'll show you were you need to spend more time."
Asher, who ran for sheriff in 2002, was confident the election results would validate his call for higher standards — and repudiate the letters from six fellow officers, including the undersheriff, questioning his leadership abilities.
"I think people were not happy with those letters," Asher said, adding that he didn't read the letters because "I don't want to get sidetracked about garbage being said about me." He responded to those letters on his website and in the local media, however, but said he did so based on his campaign's study of the letters.
He said he would directly respond to future attacks. "We're going to have to respond to it. Some of the stuff was slanderous. Falsehoods put out there can't be tolerated."
Asher said voters saw that what was written about him didn't jibe with his experience as a law enforcement officer and dive rescue team leader.
"People who know me know what I'm about. They know I'm not the evil person they've made me out to be." His opponents downplayed his leadership of the dive team. "The dive team is composed of 12 people. That's more than anybody in the department supervises. I've led the team in the worst of the worst conditions and brought everybody home, and I've done this since 1994."
Asher is confident that if he wins in November, the wounds from the campaign will heal. He said he is "forgiving" and that any change will be gradual. "I think that within a couple of months, everyone will be saying, 'Wow, I didn't believe we'd come this far."
Among the changes he proposes: Building a corps of reserve officers (the department currently has two); regular squad meetings and after-action reviews; and eliminating overtime. "You have to polish it so you can get better," he said of squad meetings and after-action reviews. "To have squad meetings, you need more time and you need volunteers."
Winning appointment to a Friday Harbor Town Council vacancy is one thing. But for Menjivar, launching a countywide campaign in a bid to be elected county sheriff was quite another.
"This is the first time where I've actually had to campaign," said Menjivar, who joined the Sheriff's Department eight years ago. "It's nice to get out of your comfort zone. That's what this campaign has done for me."
In addition to participating at candidate forums and deploying campaign posters and yard signs, Menjivar embraced new media, such as Facebook, blogging and a campaign website, in an effort to reach as many voters as possible.
"I feel confident that I"ve done everything I possibly can to meet the voters," he said. "I've tried to use every single media I know of and to put my best effort out there."
Before the election, Menjivar said the biggest challenge facing the department is having adequate resources to fulfill its mission. He said the department has no city police agencies or state troopers to partner with or to rely on, and that the fractured geography of the islands can make it difficult to move resources quickly to where they are needed most in an emergency.
With budget cuts looming this fall, Menjivar said that if elected sheriff, he would be a strong advocate for the department maintaining its current level of staffing. The department must also pursue state and federal grants to help bolster its resources, and look to cut costs and to be more efficient where it can, he said.
Looking ahead to advancing to the general election, he said, "I'll go and meet more people. That's the key in the islands. What really does it here is the one-on-one and making that connection."
And if he didn’t get past the primary? "I guess I'll go out and continue to do the job I love."
-- With reporting by Scott Rasmussen and Richard Walker