The fourth round of the Madera County District Attorney debates and Madera County Sheriff's debates hosted by the Oakhurst Community Chamber of Commerce got off to a spirited start Thursday, April 17, in front of an engaged audience of more than 150 community members who filled the Oakhurst Community Center.
The night combined District Attorneys and Madera County Sheriff's candidates in a single question format which gave candidates a two minute window to respond to questions submitted by members for the community and judges.
Each question was reviewed by members of the commerce who decidedly chose the most appropriate questions for each candidate to answer. The questions were delivered by a panel of reporters consisting of Brian Wilkinson, of the Sierra Star, Chuck Doud, of the Madera Tribune, and two Yosemite High School students Brittney Hughey and Allie Boyer who are both currently enrolled in a government class.
The candidates were given equal time to answer each of the submitted questions. Many of the questions for the DA were previously addressed questions and exposed little new information throughout the night but some questions presented to the sheriffs candidates ignited new debates between some of the candidates who did not necessarily see eye to eye on certain subject matters.
The nights event gave many Eastern Madera County citizens their first look at the sheriffs candidates for this year's Madera County Sheriff race which has been left wide open after current officeholder John Anderson announced his retirement from the Sheriff's Department earlier this year.
Sheriff candidates include: Jay Varney, current Police Chief of Chowchilla; Frank Gauthier, Air Force veteran and former county deputy; Greg Noll, current Fresno Police Sergeant; Dennis Fairbanks, retired CHP officer; Michael Salvador, Madera County Undersheriff; and Michael Kime, former Police Chief of Madera.
When asked how each candidate plans to utilize resources and programs to increase the number of deputies on force Varney responded with his current successful fundraiser he uses as Chief of Police in Chowchilla for the K-9 units.
"One of the things I would do is I would use ideas we have been using in Chowchilla for over 10 years now, we have a public-private partnership with the K-9 unit that helps support the funding for that.....the other thing I would do is use grant funding. I would start a Sheriff's Foundation and we would use the same principles that we currently use with the service club," Varney said.
Fairbanks addressed the issue of limited resources by acknowledging the counties large growth rate and the likely increase in population facing Madera County over the next 5-10 years.
"I would never use a grant for personnel unless its sustainable, if you use a grant for personnel and that grant runs out, what do you do with the people you hired?" Fairbanks said. "My idea to supplement the lack of deputies is volunteer programs. If you can't afford to hire new deputies then you need to go to a plan B. I would like to see our reserve program, our citizens on patrol program and other volunteer services extended to help supplement what we need for service in the Madera County Sheriff's Department."
Kime was in agreement with Fairbanks and Varney noting the need for grants and a sheriff's foundation. However, Kime took a noble approach saying, if hired, he would relinquish 75% of his sheriffs salary to combat staffing issues and employ more deputies on the streets.
"Upon my election I will relinquish 75% of total compensation provided to the sheriff's office during first term four years that accounts to about $700,000 to hire more deputies. The current shortage of deputies is 13-14 depending on who you talk to but this plan will reduce that number by just a little over 50%," Kime said.
Noll who was one of the first candidates to address the need for sheriff's foundation supported grant funding clarifying that currently the sheriff's office is at 20% grant funding. Noll made it clear he would be seeking additional grants at the federal and state level.
"I put out a press release about how serious I am about starting the sheriff's foundation. I know it works. Fresno Sheriff's Department has one, it is very successful. The use it for community outreach, they use it for ballistic vests for their K-9's. We recently received over a $200,000 donation to that foundation. That is a huge amount of cash that allows us to work for diligently in the city I currently work in."
Other issues discussed during the three hour debate included the implementation of technology into the sheriffs department, the ongoing homeless issue in the park and questions about how candidates would handle the ongoing issues with the sovereign nations Indian reservations.
The new sheriff, who will take office Jan. 1, 2015, has large boots to fill as they will proceed Anderson who had remained in office for more than 17 years do to his ability to combat crime and maintain order throughout one of the states largest yet scarcely populated areas which, has in recent decades, has been home to some of the hardest criminal elements and drug trafficking cartels in the country.
District Attorney candidates which include Miranda Neal, David Linn and Michael Keitz also addressed specific questions throughout the night in regards to their qualifications, their stance on the legalization of marijuana and improvement on internal communication.
Current DA incumbent Keitz continued to do his best to subdue the bombardment of questions stemming from accusations of his internal legal battles, staffing problems and significant overturn throughout his current office.
Linn and Neal continuously focused on Keitz supposed inability to maintain a workable environment for his staff noting 100% percent turnover during Keitz' time in office including accusations of losing a Deputy District Attorney a recent as one week ago.
In response to these questions Keitz explained the importance of understanding the hardships and large workloads that encompass being an Deputy District Attorney and the assurance that he is doing everything within his power to maintain a workable environment and productive team of attorneys.
The last debate to be held before the June 3, primary elections is set for May 1, at the Elk's Lodge in Oakhurst. The candidates for sheriff will also debate that night.