The six men vying to replace 16-year Madera County Sheriff John Anderson were asked their opinion on topics from gun control to combating the "extinction" of female deputies during a public forum this week. All six candidates come from long law-enforcement backgrounds and, if elected June 3, will take over the sheriff's office at the end of December from the retiring Anderson.
The candidates, in order of their opening statements March 17 were: former CHP officer Dennis Fairbanks of Coarsegold; Frank Gauthier also of Coarsegold, a private security project manager and former Madera County sheriff'c deputy; Michael Kime, resident and former City of Madera police chief; Fresno Police Department Sgt. Gregory Noll of Oakhurst; Chowchilla police chief Jay Varney and Madera County undersheriff Michael Salvador.
Questions posed by The Madera Tribune and the Madera Chamber of Commerce, the forum's hosts, started off broadly and asked each man what they felt was the most significant issue facing county law enforcement.
Inside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall on Granada Drive, more than 100 Maderans heard their answers, including several prominent politicians seeking election in other offices.
For Gauthier who is out of the country and spoke through Skype, an online videoconferencing service, the clear focus was Assembly Bill 109, California's controversial prison-realignment law.
"The most concerning thing I've heard is they look to release a lot of parolees from prison back into the community under this plan," Gauthier said. "That brings a dynamic back to the community we haven't seen since the mid-90s and is certainly something I will focus on."
Kime said the most glaring problem was cutback in staff from diminished resources.
"As it currently stands, the department is 13 deputies short," Kime said. "I have a plan to increase that number by 50% that will improve response times and the service you've come to expect."
Noll said his main concerns were the problems that stem from drug abuse.
"The issues are a little bit different but they're all centered around one thing," Noll said. "Drugs, and the influence drugs have on our community. It's going to be very, very important for the next sheriff, and I'm prepared for this, to impact gangs, impact drugs and deal with our fiscal issues."
Faster response times to trouble calls and the protection of citizen rights to bear arms were atop Varney's priority list.
"I have ideas that will improve response times and improve citizens' feelings of connection to the sheriff's office," Varney said. "Most of the folks I talk to feel very disconnected from their deputies, they don't know who their deputies are. I want to connect folks back to the sheriff's department and to make sure things that need long-term follow-up get the attention they need."
Salvador mentioned several issues shared by his opponents but also pointed out the need to plan for future growth along State Route 41, where land developments to add thousands of homes have already been approved by the board of supervisors.
"It's coming, it's real, and the next sheriff needs to be prepared for that growth," Salvador said. Salvador also mentioned the importance of combating crime that affects agriculture and tourism, the county's top two industries.
Fairbanks finished the round of answers by agreeing with Salvador and argued his time on the Madera County Grand Jury gave him a unique perspective on financial issues.
"I believe the two biggest issues are budget and community growth," Fairbanks said. "In the next four to eight years, we can see a doubling of population here in Madera County. We have to be ready."
The candidates agreed on several points including a need for an increased number of deputies, the importance of protecting the Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms, including concealed weapons permits, and keeping the office open to all employees regardless of race or gender. Though they differed on several items, such as the importance of substations in areas like the Madera Ranchos or how best to improve school safety, the men remained civil and friendly throughout the two-hour discussion.
Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli praised the candidates for their professionalism and said that to him, three of the men proved especially impressive, though he wouldn't say which.
"As an elected official I know it's hard to answer questions people may have," Farinelli said. "I think they all did a fantastic job tonight. The sheriff we have in the next eight years is going to have to be the best we can find," he continued. "There's going to be so much dramatic change in California we're going to need the absolute best, and that's why we're here."