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Sheriff candidates, residents talk about issues at local forums

About 100 people attended the Sheriff Candidates Forum Sept. 28 in the San Juan Community Theatre
About 100 people attended the Sheriff Candidates Forum Sept. 28 in the San Juan Community Theatre's Gubelman Theatre. Top photo: Candidate Brent Johnson. Second photo: Candidate Rob Nou. Third photo: Ken Norris of Friday Harbor tinyRadio 1650 AM broadcasts the event live. Bottom photo: Lori Stokes of Friday Harbor meets the candidates after the forum.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

Editor's note: The League of Women Voters of the San Juans will host the following forums for candidates for Congress, state House of Representatives, San Juan County Council, and Sheriff:

— Oct. 15, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Shaw Island Community Center.
— Oct. 15, 6:30-8:30 p.m.: Friday Harbor Middle School Commons.
— Oct. 16, 10 a.m. to noon: Orcas Island Senior Center, Eastsound.
— Oct. 16, 4:30-6:30 p.m.: Grace Episcopal Church, Lopez Village.

Here's what sheriff candidates had to say at a forum held exclusively for them Sept. 28:

Those who had hoped to find a sharp contrast between the two candidates for San Juan County sheriff may have come away disappointed.

With the Nov. 2 election just four weeks away and ballots slated to be in the mail even sooner, about 100 islanders took time out to get a closer look at the two men running for sheriff — Lead Detective Brent Johnson and Deputy Rob Nou — as part of a 90-minute question-and-answer session Sept. 28 in the San Juan Community Theatre. The forum was sponsored by The Journal.

For Mark Forlenza, having the candidates under the same spotlight and hearing their responses to questions helped him to draw a distinction.

“I’d never met either one of them, though I’d read about their positions,” said Forlenza, self-described as undecided on the eve of the forum. “I think one of the candidates seemed to have a more concrete concept of what it would take to be sheriff.”

David Dehlendorf remains undecided, however. Even though the forum proved valuable, he said he’s still trying to decide between two candidates whose positions on the issues seem to be more similar than not.

“There’s not a whole lot of distinction between the two,” he said. “They’re both very strong and worthy candidates. It’s going to be a very hard decision.”

Difficult, perhaps, but it’s a decision that will usher in a new era at the Sheriff’s Department beginning next year. With the retirement of six-term Sheriff Bill Cumming, the reigns of the department will be in the hands of someone else for the first time in 24 years.

Johnson — a former Albuquerque, N.M., police sergeant who joined the Sheriff’s Department eight years ago — believes Cumming will leave behind a department with a “good foundation.” He believes there are areas, however, such as standard operating procedures and training, in which the department can improve. Johnson would like those SOPs to be retooled into what’s known as “best police practices.”

Similarly, Nou — a former Oregon police chief who joined the Sheriff’s Department in 2008 — maintains the department would benefit from a five-year strategic plan that sets out the improvements it expects to make and the goals it intends to achieve. Such a plan, Nou said, would be crafted in consultation with the department’s allied agencies and public safety partners, with input from the public. It would be a yardstick by which to measure the department’s performance and would be “transparent.”

With the county strapped for cash and budget cuts looming, Nou and Johnson agree state or federal grants, or other outside sources of funding, will need to be secured in order to avoid cuts in personnel. The sheriff manages 36 full-time employees and a budget that in 2009 totaled $2.3 million, which at that time included $719,219 for dispatch; $472,888 for Enhanced 911; $398,920 for the jail; and $209,615 for Emergency Management.

Both believe the community benefits when there’s a friendly relationship between law enforcement and the schools, students and teachers. They agree there are opportunities in which students can get to know officers on a more personal level, such as in the classroom or on the street, rather than simply as authority figures.

Johnson said a traffic stop can turn into a “teachable moment” for a young driver that makes a mistake: “We don’t have to always give out a citation.”

Both agree that busting drug offenders will be a top priority should either be elected.

“If we catch ’em, we’ll charge ’em,” Nou said. “Then we let the system do its job.”

The issue of compensation is one area where the candidates differ. Earlier this year, the Citizens Salary Commission recommended lowering the sheriff’s annual salary by $10,000 to bring it more in line with those of sheriffs in counties similar in size and population. The commission later rescinded its recommendation because of a conflict in timing with the candidate filing date for the Nov. 2 election.

Still, Johnson vowed that he would voluntarily donate 3 percent of his monthly salary back to the county if elected.

In contrast, Nou said that comparing San Juan County, with its unique geography and location, to counties of similar size may not be the best way to determine how much its sheriff should be paid. He noted that sergeants and deputies, whose wages are determined by a collective bargaining agreement, could end up earning more than the leader of the department by working overtime.

Mike Fleming said he paid special attention to each candidate’s response to the question of compensation.

“I think what made the biggest impression on me was their demeanor more than anything else, and their experience. My conclusion about it is it depends on which one will really be capable of community policing, which is the key to a small community like this.”

Meanwhile, Lee Sturdivant left the forum better informed — and with a sense of relief. The department should be in good hands no matter which candidate wins, she said.

“We have two good candidates there. I felt relief. Who knows who’s going to win it, but I think I’ll be happy with either of them.”

— On IslandsSounder.com: Orcas residents question sheriff candidates at forum

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