Good turn-out for district attorney debate

awileman@sierrastar.comMarch 4, 2014 

The debate between incumbent Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz and challengers Miranda Neal and David Linn was held last Friday evening at the Oakhurst Community Center before nearly 150 interested citizens. The good turn-out, despite a heavy rainfall, showed people want to learn more about the candidates before casting their vote in the June 3, primary election.

The night, sponsored by the Oakhurst Democratic Club, was moderated by Peter Cavanuagh.

Candidates were asked to address several topics in a two-minute style debate including issues about each candidates qualifications, the functions of the district attorney's office, and how to make the DA's office more cost effective.

The debate also touched on public criticisms of the district attorney's office including high internal turnover, district attorney collaboration with the sheriff's department, and necessity of jury trials versus negotiated settlements.

Other issues discussed during the two-hour long debate included the rise in elder abuse cases, possibility of gang-injunctions for the Oakhurst Community Park, and the legalization of marijuana, opposed by all three candidates.

Oakhurst attorney Linn addressed concerns over the ability of the current DA's office to properly prosecute criminals and distinguish between everyday citizens in troubled situations and the real street criminals who deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Linn also discussed the inefficiencies with the current DA's office and gave several suggestions as to how he would address those inefficiencies.

"Everyone has a reason for running for a political office — my reasons are very simple — I want to do justice — I want to see justice done in Madera County — I want to protect the people, my friends, my family and the people that live in Madera County," Linn said.

Neal addressed several issues pertaining to the importance of inter-department communication and focused on discussing the importance of having close staff relationships.

"In the 20 years I have worked in Madera County and Fresno County I handled hundreds of court trials," Neal said. "I feel that I can bring out the best in people, I am a peoples person, I can communicate and I feel that is one thing we are lacking at this time in Madera County."

Keitz addressed several issues that loom over his current administration and said turnover is a common thing in the Madera County DA's office due to lower wages than surrounding counties and heavy workloads. Keitz made statements about his qualifications and his passion for serving the people of Madera County as their district attorney.

Keitz said his office currently handles between 8,500 and 10,000 cases per year, with fewer than average number of office personnel and attorneys.

"We live in uncertain times ... realignment has placed a lot of challenges on us," Keitz said. "Violent crime is up, as is regular crime — don't risk your public safety on someone who is not qualified and does not have the years of experience I have."

During the debate Linn was asked about the Rowley Report, a report prepared more than two years ago, allegedly critical of Keitz, that he (Keitz) sued the county to keep sealed. Madera County Superior Court Judge James Oakley ruled last May that the report would not be released to the public.

Oakley ruled the report was protected by attorney-client privilege and would remain confidential.

An attorney for the county felt at the time that the county owned the privilege, not Keitz, because the county hired Fresno attorney Dan Rowley to prepare the report and paid $30,000 for it.

Oakley ruled that Keitz and the county were both protected by attorney-client privilege and the report was exempt from public disclosure through the California Public Records Act.

"Mr. Keitz filed an action to suppress that report — this is the classic example of no transparency — In that motion they said one of the reason the report was should be suppressed, the primary reason, was because release of the Rowley report would cause irrebuttable damage to Mr. Keitz political career," Linn said. "That's what we are talking about and that's why I got into this race. I am not going to sit by and let somebody use my tax dollars because he (Keitz) paid his attorney out of DA funds."

Keitz responded by informing the public of the reasoning behind suppressing the release of the report. Keitz said the motion was filed to save the county another costly lawsuit and prevent a break in attorney-client confidentiality.

"That investigation was confidential and all the employees that participated were told the investigation would be confidential and there answers would be confidential," Keitz explained. "California has a right of privacy — if we were to disclose the contents of that report we would subject the county to a lawsuit ... I gained nothing personally from this lawsuit, the amount I was paid went to the reimbursement of the attorney's fees and that's it."

Neal rebutted by expressing her concern about the DA's office employee turnover and the environment inside the office.

"Personally I am not going to second guess the ruling of the court, but we don't need to go to the Rowley report to talk to people who talked to Mr. Rowley which I have done," Neal said. "We don't need the Rowley report to know that one after another of deputy district attorneys who are completely disgruntled and horrified about the working conditions inside Mr. Keitz' office ... It is a hellish place to work. No one wants to be there. Experienced attorneys are leaving cause they can't stand what's going on there."

Cavanaugh praised the crowd for their respect for each of the three candidates and was utterly surprised at the relative calm and attentive behavior throughout the entire night.

Keitz started his career in law enforcement in 1980 when he became a Madera County volunteer reserve deputy sheriff.

Keitz became a county deputy district attorney in 1992, and was appointed district attorney by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in January 2009. He was elected to the position in 2010.

Keitz said his accomplishments and track record as a prosecutor have enabled him to be endorsed by the author of the Three Strikes legislation Mike Reynolds, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, State Senator Anthony Cannella, Madera Mayor Robert Poythress, and Madera city council member.

Neal was born in Westwood and attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in music and also competed on the women's rowing team, completing a successful season by making the National Finals Regatta. She went on to obtain a masters degree in performance from the California Institute of the Arts. She entered Loyola Law School in 1989.

Neal said she has spent about 80% of her time in litigation and 10% of her time has been spent in administrative work.

Neal feels the justice system provides an important forum for litigants to argue about government rules.

Linn served in Vietnam aboard the USS Virgo ammunition ship. Later, while still on active duty, Linn was trained and certified as a Terrier missile systems officer by the Department of Defense. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Purdue University, a master's degree in business administration from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a Juris Doctorate from Pepperdine University.

He is a past president of the Oakhurst Community Fund and has been a member of the Oakhurst Community Park Association since 1984. He is a former president of the Oakhurst Sierra Rotary Club, the Eastern Madera County Bar Association and the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. He was named Man of the Year by that organization in 1989.

He is married to Betty Linn, publisher of the Sierra Star.

The DA candidates will face-off again in a debate sponsored by the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce at 6 p.m., April 17, at the Oakhurst Community Center. The candidates for sheriff will also debate that night.

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