Our View: Christianson is The Bee’s choice for Stanislaus County sheriff

04/26/2014 12:00 AM

04/27/2014 6:57 PM

Adam Christianson has a lot to answer for in his years as Stanislaus County sheriff.

There are lawsuits that have cost the county $9.4 million to either defend or make go away.

There was the death of a deputy and friend of Christianson’s, whose administration was faulted along with the deputy for failing to heed warnings before serving an eviction notice, contributing to his own death and that of a locksmith.

There are ongoing morale issues, evidenced by $5 million in lawsuits filed by the sheriff’s own staff.

There is the issue of plummeting “solve” rates for crimes.

There is his decision to greatly increase the number of concealed-carry permits issued by his office, arming 2,300 more Stanislaus County residents at last count.

These are all serious issues. Regardless, The Bee is recommending that voters return Sheriff Christianson to office when they vote on June 3. With only two candidates in the field, Christianson is the better qualified to lead the department.

We asked the sheriff and his opponent, deputy Tom Letras, about these issues in a recent session with The Bee’s editorial board. We also asked about policy questions, budget issues, the staffing crisis, the new jail and even the unusual use of the department’s helicopter.

Deputy Letras offered a fresh perspective on many issues, and was exceedingly forthright. We appreciate his views on reopening a training facility in the area, on closer scrutiny for concealed-carry permits and improving morale. But we think he is not yet ready for the job. Relying on employee input to solve serious issues – some created by the employees – will not be sufficient. He decried Christianson’s lack of leadership, but offered few specifics of how he would do better, especially under the duress of a plunging budget. His lack of experience in administration and budgeting are worrisome.

Still, we admire his willingness to look his boss in the eye and spell out problems. We expect Sheriff Christianson to keep his commitment that Letras’ future will be as bright the day after the election as it was the day before, no matter the outcome. We also expect the sheriff to address many of those shortcomings.

That said, some are not even remotely his fault.

When the Board of Supervisors was forced to slash the Sheriff’s Office budget during the Great Recession, it was a certainty that the “solve” rate would fall.

When pay was cut to meet that budget, it was just as certain that many deputies would pursue better opportunities elsewhere. And when your pay is cut and your workload increases, morale is bound to suffer.

Simply put, said the sheriff, “We don’t have enough resources.”

When we brought up the small number of applicants who can pass the screening process, Deputy Letras suggested lowering standards. We agree with the sheriff that standards should stay put.

Some experts told The Bee that the number of lawsuits brought against the SO is not unusual. Others say it’s a warning sign. We hope the sheriff heeds some of Deputy Letras’ ideas about open doors.

Sheriff Christianson told The Bee that “no representatives of the (Deputy Sheriffs Association) stood with me” when he went to the Board of Supervisors “and begged the board not to eliminate any more positions.” He should ask himself why they weren’t willing to be there. Still, those deputies gave Christianson their endorsement this time after not having endorsed him in a previous election.

This sheriff has worked closely with the Governor’s Office to secure a new jail, opening in 2016. He has helped get the department a new morgue and a “crisis stabilization center” – which we believe offers a far better alternative than jailing everyone in the midst of a crisis.

But there is the issue of that helicopter. The sheriff defended using it for a charity golf-ball drop, saying “it’s not illegal, immoral or unethical.” But it was unwise. He’s not the first sheriff to dispatch the helicopter on a silly mission; we hope he is the last.

Adam Christianson has not been a perfect sheriff. But he has led the department through one of its most difficult periods ever, and even has a new jail to show for it. We look forward to seeing how he will address the Sheriff’s Office’s problems as the county comes out of recession and as more resources become available.

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