Close races expected for sheriff and DA

45% voter turn-out predicted for Tueasday's primary

editor@sierrastar.comMay 27, 2014 

After a series of debates, political signage plastered throughout the county, mailings, and newspaper ads, voters will head to the polls Tuesday, June 3, to cast their votes for state and county offices. Many of the races will see the top two finishers advancing to the Nov. 6 general election.

Madera County Clerk-Recorder Becky Martinez, who has been in her position for 41 years, anticipates voter turn-out (including vote by mail ballots) to be between 40 and 45% of the 52,817 registered voters in the county. The county turn-out in the 2010 primary election was 45.5%.

"Historically, that has been the turn-out in primary elections," Martinez said. "Voter turn-out seemed to peak at nearly 80% in the 2008 general election, which included the office of president. We seem to have more voter apathy in recent years for a variety of reasons including people getting fed-up with politics in general, as well as people being dissatisfied with current elected officials and candidates running against them."

That trend was not the case in District 5 four years ago, as 60.6% of those registered voted (42.3% vote by mail - 18.3% at the polls). There are currently 15,742 registered voters in District 5, the most of any district. District 4 (east side of Madera) has the lowest number of voters with 5,282. District 1 (O'Neals and Madera Ranchos) has 11,133, and District 2 (Chowchilla) and District 3 (City of Madera) have about 10,000 each.

To date, the county elections division has issued 31,300 vote by mail ballots county-wide, and at the beginning of this week, about 5,300 had been returned. About 10,100 voters in District 5 have received vote by mail ballots, and nearly 2,100 have been returned.

District attorney race

The race to be Madera County's District Attorney is between incumbent Michael Keitz, Oakhurst attorney David Linn, and Miranda Neal, an attorney in the county counsel's office.

Keitz, 58, 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 has said he is optimistic about the future, although the recent recession, countywide budget cutbacks, and the early release of inmates through prison realignment had brought unprecedented challenges to his office.

"Crime did not go down during the recent economic recession, in fact, it went up significantly," Keitz said. "In this time of ever increasing serious crime, my experience and track record make me uniquely qualified to serve as the District Attorney and seek justice for the people of Madera County."

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

"That's a total of 34 years of experience in law enforcement, with 19 years as a reserve deputy sheriff with Madera County," Keitz said earlier in the campaign.

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 city council members Donald Holley, Derek Robinson, and Andrew Medellin.

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

But Keitz is not without detractors. In a May 16 Madera Tribune story by Mark Smith, 10 former employees of his office came forward to voice their concerns about Keitz.

The accusations included Keitz practices inefficient management, operates under a "closed-door" policy, and that newer attorney's in the department are not properly trained.

The Tribune article stated that former prosecutor Karen Mitchell and Toni Lindsey, still currently working in the office as a secretary, filed a suit against Keitz and the county for retaliation and harassment in 2010 after publicly supporting another attorney in the office who planned to run against Keitz in 2010, although he never did. The suit was settled in 2012, with Mitchell and Lindsey awarded $350,000 and $520,000, respectively, for attorney's fees.

A similar suit for retaliation was filed by deputy DA George Fawcett, who eventually settled for $395,000, with an additional $657,944 going to attorneys.

Keitz said he and the county denied any wrongdoing

"Two of the lawsuits were settled, without admission of liability and insurance covered the costs of settlement and attorney's fees except for the $100,000 deductible in each case," Keitz said.

Earlier in the campaign, Keitz said we live in a very litigious society where lawsuits are common, which is why the county carries liability insurance.

"There have been numerous actions filed against managers, department heads, and other elected officials of Madera County over the years, including some which are currently being litigated," Keitz said. "Furthermore, over the past six years the district attorneys in nine other California counties, including Fresno and Tulare, were the subject of at least 14 lawsuits brought by employees."

Some of the DA office personnel issues were going on prior to Keitz becoming the DA. In a 2002 letter to supervisors, Mitchell wrote about the lack of salary adjustments, and warned the supervisors that more attorneys would be leaving the office due to low pay.

His opponents Linn, 65, who has practiced law for 38 years, and Neal, 55, who has been a licensed attorney since 1991, have criticized Keitz for the lack of inter-office and inter-department communications, high office employee turnover, and his actions to have a report allegedly critical of him sealed.

Known as the Rowley Report, the investigative report was ordered by the board of supervisors, but after attempts by the Madera Tribune to have the report release, Keitz sued the county to keep the report sealed. Madera County Superior Court Judge James Oakley ruled a year ago that the report was protected by attorney-client privilege and would remain confidential — a ruling that angered the board of supervisors and county Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming, who felt the county owned the report since it paid $30,000 to Fresno attorney Dan Rowley to have the report prepared.

At a Feb 28 debate at the Oakhurst Community Center, Linn called the suppression of the report a classic example of no transparency. Linn said the primary reason to suppress the report, as stated in the motion, was because the release of the report would cause irrefutable damage to Keitz.

At the debate, Keitz said the reasoning behind suppressing the release of the report was to save the county from a costly lawsuit and prevent a break in attorney-client confidentiality.

"The investigation was confidential and all the employees that participated were told the investigation would be confidential and their 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."

Neal said she would not second guess the ruling of the court, but she did not need the report because she talked to some of the same people who had spoken to Mr. Rowley.

"We don't need the Rowley Report to know that one after another deputy attorneys are completely disgruntled and horrified about the working conditions inside Mr. Keitz' office," Neal said.

Linn, in a Sierra Star guest commentary published prior to his announcement that he would run for the office, said Keitz has failed to prosecute DUIs in a timely manner, typically taking six to nine months to file a criminal complaint for DUI, and that a high ranking law enforcement official told him that sometimes the DA's office can not file a case because it missed the statute of limitations to file.

Keitz responded with a guest commentary of his own regarding drunk drivers, calling Linn's statements "intentionally and seriously misleading and diminishes the work to achieve justice for the people of Madera County by my dedicated and hard working staff."

At the time, Keitz pointed to three recent DUI convictions that resulted in a 35-year to life sentence for vehicular manslaughter, a four-year vehicular manslaughter sentence and a conviction for three counts of second degree murder related to a DUI accident that is pending sentencing.

In campaign debates, Keitz has defended himself by saying his record speaks for its self.

"The number of prosecutions and length of sentences are way up," Keitz has said. "Given the fiscal limitations, the decisions on which cases to plea bargain or which to take to trial are difficult ... In my first year as DA in 2009, this office conducted 26 jury trials. In 2013, we did 60 jury trials, However, the number of homicides, violent crimes and gang crimes are also up, with 20 pending homicide cases at present."

According to Keitz,a typical case load per deputy district attorney would be 350 cases per year, while Madera County Deputy DAs handle between 450 to 530 new cases per year.

Linn has been endorsed by Sheriff John Anderson, the Chowchilla Police Officers Association, and both the Madera County and Central California Correctional Officers associations.

Linn seems confident entering Tuesday's election.

"I believe that my year long campaign to become Madera County District Attorney has been very successful," Linn said. "I have been humbled by the support received from the Madera County law enforcement groups and Sheriff John Anderson. I am also thankful for the support that I have received from the majority of the citizens from all over Madera County. 100 years ago Stanley Murray of Ahwahnee was elected the first and only Madera County District Attorney from the mountains. On June 3, I will be the second elected with your support."

Neal feels she is the best person for the job.

"A vote for me is a vote for the best qualified candidate by education and experience ... I understand that integrity and professionalism are paramount," Neal said Monday via email.

She said she is a proven leader, and that when she took over child welfare cases for the county, she drastically reduced both appeals and reversals.

"I increased cooperation, streamlining the system to save the court's time and taxpayer dollars," Neals said. "Since the incumbent was appointed five and a half years ago, he cost the county approximately $1.5 million dollars for litigation related to his mismanagement. Of the almost 20 attorneys working for him at the time, one remains."

Neal said many people understand Madera County needs a new DA.

"I offer a choice that will provide capable leadership, stability and protect the community."

Keitz said the real issue facing voters in this election is the experience of the person tasked with the administration of justice to the victims of crime, as well as the people of Madera county.

"A comparison of the candidates' qualifications demonstrates a clear choice," Keitz said. "I have 34 years in law enforcement with 22 years as a Madera County prosecutor. I have personally prosecuted 78 criminal jury trials with an 89% success rate. I increased the number of criminal jury trials conducted by my office 130% from 26 in 2009 to 60 by the end of 2013. I increased overall convictions 17% above the conviction rate prior to my tenure in office, notwithstanding budget challenges."

Keitz further stated "no candidate in this race has anything near these qualifications, a proven ability to be a prosecutor, or manage anything larger than a two-three person private office not under the dictates of military law, 40 years ago, or civil service. On June 3, the voters of this county will either select a self-described "defense attorney," a civil attorney, or if they will select me, the best-qualified, tried and proven guardian of public safety."

The annual salary for the DA is $155,000.

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

County sheriff race

Sheriff candidates, who were featured in the May 15 and 22 Sierra Star, include Dennis Fairbanks (retired CHP, Frank Gauthier (former Madera County Sheriff's Lt.), Michael Kime (former City of Madera Police chief), Greg Noll (Fresno Police Department detective Sgt.), Madera County Undersheriff Michael Salvador, and Jay Varney (Chowchilla Chief of Police). Four-term Sheriff John Anderson is not seeking reelection.

The sheriff position pays $134,400 annually.

District 5 supervisor

The Madera County District 5 supervisor race has Fresno firefighter Paul Cliby challenging two-term incumbent Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler points to his experience in county government, his accomplishments over the past seven and a half years, and his common-sense approach to government.

Cliby has stated he is resistant to special interests groups and his priority list includes improving water conditions, urgent healthcare, keeping YARTS out of the county, widening Highway 41 on Deadwood Mountain to three lanes, and pension solvency.

Supervisors are paid $71,500 annually.

Auditor-controller

The Madera County auditor-controller race is between appointed incumbent Marcia Hall, and Oakhurst CPA Todd Miller.

Running for county assessor (after the retirement of incumbent Tom Kidwell) is Scott Runtzel and Gary Svanda.

County office incumbents who are running unopposed are County Clerk Rebecca Martinez, Tax Collector-Treasurer Tracy Kennedy Desmond, Superintendent of Schools Cecilia Massetti, District 2 Supervisor David Rogers, Superior Court Judge Ernest Li Calsi and Superior Court Judge Michael Jurkovich.

Polls will be open 7 a.m. - 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 3

Eastern Madera County polling places

The Grove, Ahwahnee Four Square Church - 42461 Highway 49, Ahwahnee

Coarsegold Community Center - 35610 Highway 41, Coarsegold

Madera County Fire Station No. 14 - 40601 Road 274, Bass Lake

North Fork School – Kennedy Hall - 33087 Road 228, North Fork

O'Neals Volunteer Fire Department - 47053 Road 201, O'Neals

Oakhurst Community Center - 39800 Road 425B, Oakhurst

Raymond Community Church – 32505 Road 600, Raymond

Yosemite Lakes Park Clubhouse - 30250 Yosemite Springs Parkway, Coarsegold

Vote by Mail deadline June 3

Voters who have received their ballots by mail are urged to vote and return the ballot not later than 8 p.m. on election day, Tuesday, June 3.

On election day, voters may return voted ballots to any polling place in the county. Vote by Mail ballots cannot be counted if they are received after 8 p.m. on election day.

The county clerk's office will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday, for the issuance and acceptance of Vote by Mail ballots. The office is located in the County Government Center, first floor, 200 West. 4th Street, Madera.

Voters can check the status of their Vote by Mail ballots online at votemadera.com.

NOTE: Election results can be seen Tuesday night at sierrastar.com.

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