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Christianson face of agency, but it's no one-man show

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson is the face of his department.

Christianson spent his first year in office restructuring the department's management team, unifying a divided staff after a bitter election and developing a work environment that would lure deputies away from higher-paying jobs in the Bay Area.

His mission: to steer the department in the right direction. The department had 35 deputy vacancies, overcrowded jails and thinning patrol coverage in some of the outlying areas.

His strategy focused on key words such as "pride," "family" and "efficiency." Christianson even had the furniture in the investigations unit rearranged to provide more space for his detectives.

When he took office a year ago this Wednesday, the sheriff knew his role would be as "ambassador to the community."

"In law enforcement, we're often viewed as the bad guys," Christianson said about the public's perception. "I want to change that."

Christianson was prepared for his public role before his election win. Shortly after the victory, he was overwhelmed when he walked into a conference room that sits adjacent to the sheriff's office.

On the second floor of headquarters on Hackett Road in an unincorporated area of south Modesto, the room serves as a small museum dedicated to past sheriffs.

Trophy cases filled with antique law enforcement tools stand on each side of a long table, honoring 150 years of law enforcement.

Just above one of those cases are two rows of portraits of every Stanislaus County sheriff, dating back to John Myers in 1856.

Christianson said he was humbled when staffers placed his portrait on this wall of sheriffs.

"How do you fill these shoes?" Christianson asked, pointing to the portraits. "It's somewhat an intimidating and an overwhelming experience."

Always in touch

Christianson arrives at the office each day about 6 a.m. when it's still quiet. It gives him an opportunity to get a jump on the day.

Christianson's office is adorned with items fitting of his law-and-order personality and his department pride.

A traditional helmet worn by a British bobby, given to Christianson by a visiting police of-ficer, sits on top of his cabinet.

One of his walls features a framed poster of the movie "Tombstone," to display Christianson's admiration for Wyatt Earp's historic struggle against crime.

He said a second framed poster for a deputy recruitment campaign shows images of what his department is all about.

The sheriff even made room on a wall for a red, white and blue quilt made by his mother.

He reviews the previous day's patrol watch report and adult detention report. The sheriff won't be reviewing any reports on major crimes and jail incidents because he gets those reports from his managers immediately after they happen.

With his BlackBerry and laptop computer, Christianson expects to be briefed on any major incident 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The sheriff meets every Monday with his executive team to discuss issues related to policy or the department's budget.

Putting in place an executive team he could "trust" was a big factor in establishing a foundation for his administration, Christianson said.

He appointed Undersheriff William Heyne, who said his strength is in the department's daily operations and strategic planning.

Heyne makes it clear he is not looking to challenge or succeed Christianson in an election.

"I have no desire to be the sheriff," Heyne said. "I'm not a politician; I don't like doing that."

Bitter election

Some of the political fallout from then-Lt. Christianson's high-profile and fractious campaign for sheriff against Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff lingers today. It split the department into two camps.

Heyne said there is a small minority of department employees who have not been able to let the election go.

Christianson said there are probably some people who are sitting on the fence with a "let's wait and see" attitude. But the majority have put the election behind them, he said.

"I'm sure there are some people who are perhaps still disappointed in the outcome of the election," Christianson said. "There is a majority of employees in this department who have put the election behind them and they're doing the jobs they were hired to do.

"The department is healthy and strong; people are united, morale is good and people are happy."

Shortly after being sworn in, Christianson restructured his executive team by eliminating the two assistant sheriff positions.

Puthuff and his main supporter, Capt. Doug Leo, left within days of the election.

Puthuff became police chief in Fort Bragg in October. Former Assistant Sheriff Maury Sanders, a Puthuff supporter, retired in June 2006 and was named chief of police in Florence, Ore. Sanders said he would have left regardless of the election outcome.

Now, there is one undersheriff who oversees three divisions: operations, which handles patrols and investigations; adult detention, which handles the jail; and administrative services, which is in charge of records, media relations and the coroner facility.

Heyne said the previous management structure split loyalties between the adult detention and operations divisions.

It also forced captains and lieutenants to get an OK from the assistant sheriffs before making a decision. In the first eight months of Christianson's administration, the captains and lieutenants still were walking into Heyne's office for approvals.

"My standard response was, 'It's your division, you run it," Heyne said.

While he and the sheriff ultimately are responsible for the department, Heyne said they wanted to create a management structure that involved more delegation and personal initiative.

He said they have made a lot of changes to improve the department's efficiency and they continue to adjust as they go along.

"This is a big ship and it takes awhile to turn it around," Heyne said.

More supervision in field

Another change was to require the four operations division lieutenants to serve as watch commanders during their shifts and oversee patrolling from headquarters.

Before, sergeants were tied to the desk and served as watch commanders, Lt. Mario Cisneros said.

"It now allows the sergeants to get out and supervise the deputies in the field during 80 to 90percent of their shifts," Cisneros said.

Every two weeks, Christianson meets with his management team of lieutenants and the chiefs who manage the four sheriff substations to discuss operational issues.

In January, Christianson's managers conducted a departmentwide survey, which revealed lower-level employees wanted more information coming out of management meetings.

The department now posts the recorded minutes of those meetings for all to see.

"Those meetings are not a secret; as a matter of fact, we don't have any secrets in this organization," Christianson said. "This is a transparent organization. If you want to know what we're doing and where we're going, ask. I'll be happy to share it with you."

He said listening to his employees' ideas also is a huge factor in his management style and his management team is following his lead.

"Communication from the bottom up is just as important as it is from the top down," Christianson said. "Oftentimes, when you're looking for better business practices, the employees are the ones who give you the best ideas, not necessarily the managers who may not know what the day-to-day operational issues are."

A rocky beginning

Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini was critical of Christianson and newly elected District Attorney Birgit Fladager when they provided what he deemed "substandard" reports to the Board of Supervisors.

"They both had just been elected," DeMartini said. "Maybe they didn't have enough time to work on it."

He said Christianson and Fla-dager now are more settled into their offices and have provided better reports to the board. Overall, DeMartini said he is happy with the sheriff's first-year performance.

"The Sheriff's Department seems to be running OK and it seems like his officers like him," DeMartini said.

In that first report to the Board of Supervisors, DeMartini said the sheriff's goals were vague and focused only on filling the deputy vacancies.

However, Christianson said, filling the deputy vacancies is crucial to his public safety goals.

"Everything that we want to do or we have a strategic plan for revolves around our vacancy rate," Christianson said.

Until vacancies are filled, Christianson said, he can't return a deputy to patrol in Denair and can't fully staff the sheriff's gang and drug suppression team.

He'll also have to put off a decentralization plan that would add support to substations in Patterson, Riverbank and Waterford, allowing deputies serving those areas to avoid having to report back to the Hackett Road central command.

"It's going to change the face of how we do business," Heyne said about decentralization. "It's going to give us greater presence in those communities and improve our customer service."

Recruitment is tough

He said it's hard to attract qualified deputies with a starting salary of $48,714 a year.

Also, many candidates can't pass background checks or just drop out during a "long and complicated" hiring process, he said.

His strategy is to attract new deputies right out of the acad-emy and entice them with a close-knit work environment that creates opportunities for career advancement.

"We can't pay you those salaries, but we're going to take care of you," Christianson said.

The jail system faces serious crowding and is in desperate need of expansion, he said.

Double bunking at the Public Safety Center was supposed to reduce the number of violent inmates at the Honor Farm. But a large fight between inmates in April showed the plan wasn't working.

Christianson said the Honor Farm once again is bumping up against its population capacity.

The coroner's facility on Oakdale Road in Modesto also is in need of expansion and improvement, which was made evident during last year's heat wave that claimed 23 lives and overwhelmed the facility.

He said security fencing and venting systems to air out unsafe odors have been added.

Like the jail expansion, lack of money is the only obstacle in creating a bigger and better coroner's facility.

Looking to the future

Despite these hurdles, Christianson wants to continue planning for a department that wants to keep up with the growing communities.

He looks to his executive team for support and guidance, along with 57 sheriffs across the state, members of the California Sheriff's Association.

Christianson also can turn to former Stanislaus County Sheriff Les Weidman, his predecessor, for some answers.

Weidman said Christianson has called during his first year in office, but he doesn't think the new sheriff really was looking for answers.

"I think he just wants to keep me in the loop," Weidman said. "I know he already has the answers."

Weidman gave Christianson his campaign endorsement and expected the new sheriff to reach out to the community.

But he cautions Christianson to pull back a little with public appearances. Weidman said the hectic schedule won't change in the future and he has to make sure his time is productive.

"I remember being invited to weddings of people I didn't even know, just because they wanted the sheriff to be there," Weidman said.

Christianson said his department is not a one-man show and he can pull back to make time for his family. And he plans to have a long way to go.

"This is only year one," Christianson said. "Let's see what happens in year two, three, four and beyond."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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