With the June 5 election about two weeks away, the two sides in the Stanislaus County sheriff's contest are slinging dirt in public statements and trading blows on social media.
The contentious race between Lt. Jeff Dirkse and Sgt. Juan Alanis will decide who leads the Sheriff's Department after 12 years of management by outspoken Sheriff Adam Christianson, who is retiring. Dirkse is the chief of contract police services in Patterson, while Alanis is a sergeant in Waterford and Hughson.
The contest has stirred emotions within the department, where Alanis is backed by custodial deputies who want change and Dirkse draws support from patrol deputies who believe he's the one with the qualifications to lead the agency.
The county has not seen such an acrimonious sheriff's election since Christianson squared off against former Assistant Sheriff Mark Putoff in 2006.
“Employees in the department have strong feelings about who is going to be sheriff,” said Deputy Tom Letras, a former sheriff candidate who decided to sit this one out after the Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association voted to endorse Dirkse. “They are the ones who have to live with the election results and will be working for this person.”
The tone might have been set in April when Alanis told the Modesto Bee editorial board about a conversation with Christianson last year about his prospects of running for the office. According to Alanis, the sheriff said not to expect changes in the department, except that Dirkse will take over his office.
According to Alanis, the sheriff also said potential candidate Lt. Tori Hughes had "nothing coming to her" and he had dirt on Letras.
Alanis said he knew then the sheriff's office needed change. "That culture needs to change and that culture starts from the top," said Alanis, who repeated the story Thursday on the "Behind the Badge" program on the KFIV radio station in Modesto.
Christianson has not confirmed that he said anything negative about Hughes and Letras or that the conversation took place.
At the meeting in April, Dirkse handed what he said was his personnel file to Bee editors and essentially challenged Alanis to do the same, planting a thought that his employee evaluations would outshine the sergeant's.
In a letter posted May 10, the president of the sworn deputies union discussed items in Alanis' employment history, namely that a probation period for his promotion to sergeant in 2015 was extended allegedly for poor performance. Union President Randon Kirkbride wrote that Alanis was placed on a "performance improvement plan."
Kirkbride also claimed that Alanis was removed from the Special Weapons and Tactics team, after a brief stint with the unit, for failing to pass basic requirements. The letter bearing the association's logo was taken down after about 12 hours.
The SSDA letter also charged that Alanis has embellished his leadership, budget and finance experience in campaign advertising.
"When you have people making misleading statements to garner votes that makes people mad," Kirkbride said. "How can you embellish things done in your career when we know those things are not true. People take that personally."
Alanis has contested the claims and recently put his personnel file on the Juan Alanis for Stanislaus County Sheriff website. Alanis said the extended probation period was not due to his performance but was related to time conflicts created by his special assignment with a mobile search and rescue team. The Mobile Field Force unit assisted other agencies with disasters and searches for lost hikers in the Sierra.
His March 2016 evaluation, which recommended another six months of the probationary period, said Alanis' time was divided and he needed to concentrate on supervising 12 deputies in Waterford and Hughson as a sergeant. According to the review, Alanis had relied on Chief Mike Radford to give direction for river sweeps, probation sweeps and other projects that were frequently required in Waterford.
An executive officer wrote in long-hand over the review that Alanis' first responsibility was being a good sergeant and added: "Time to step it up!"
Alanis said he refocused attention on his sergeant duties and was on the improvement plan for three months. He said he voluntarily stepped down from SWAT in 2014 when the training was changed from one day a week to three consecutive days in a month. At the time, Alanis was a crimes-against-children detective and didn't want to take time away from victims' cases, he said.
"I had to make that difficult choice to choose them over SWAT," Alanis said.
In a response to Kirdbride's letter, Alanis suggested it violated the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which guarantees the confidentiality of law officer personnel records. He said that divulging information from employee records won't be tolerated if he is sheriff.
“My main question is how he obtained that information,” Alanis said. “Was it leaked to him? Provided to him? How did he get it? … He did not get it from me.”
Kirkbride said he has never seen Alanis’ personnel folder and insisted that no information from the file was shared with him. The additional probation period for Alanis and his departure from SWAT was common knowledge among deputies, Kirkbride said.
When asked about the SSDA letter, Dirkse said last week that employee personnel files are closely guarded in the Sheriff’s Department and would never be given to the deputies’ union. “It’s impossible for me to get it even for guys who work in Patterson,” Dirkse said. “When someone gets in trouble people talk about it. If a deputy crashes a car, everyone knows he crashed the car. It’s not a secret.”
As for his opponent's exit from SWAT, Dirkse suggested the new training schedule “impacted every member of the SWAT team. Apparently, all the other members could make it work with their primary duties.” Dirkse never has served in SWAT.
Alanis said the plan for him to improve his performance as a sergeant was not widely known. “I want to know whom (Kirkbride) heard that from. There are a lot of questions I have,” Alanis said.
Kirkbride, who was on a trip to Alaska, said he took down the letter after seeing complaints that it omitted other complaints about the candidate, though Alanis suggested it was not approved by the SSDA board.
Because of confidentiality laws, it's impossible to know if the folder released by Dirkse contains his entire personnel file. The documents show he routinely received above-average employee evaluations and commendations. Both candidates said last week they provided their complete files except for miscellaneous items.
Alanis, who started as an Explorer 23 years ago, generally received good evaluations for being a dedicated employee, with some columns checked for needed improvements early in his career. In recent years, he especially was praised for his work as co-supervisor for the mobile field force and for his flair for giving presentations at meetings.
Alanis charged some of the recent tensions in the department have been fanned by Dirkse promising higher-paying positions for people who support him in the election.
Dirkse replied it's ludicrous to suggest he's offering promotions to supporters. "I would like to know who has been promised that," he said.
Alanis has run on a platform of change in a department that under Christianson generated headlines for the millions spent on court settlements and treatment of employees reflected in the "limp, lame and lazy" civil lawsuits. Christianson and other department leaders allegedly used the term in referring to certain deputies who took time off for work-related disabilities.
Some believe that Alanis has a shot at winning in June despite a wide gap in campaign spending. Dirkse gathered in $204,700 and spent $167,000 through mid-April, and has since collected $15,000 in late contributions for additional campaign needs.
Alanis received $61,000 in campaign cash by April 21 and has reported $7,000 in contributions in the last few weeks, but has logged many miles walking precincts throughout the county. His ideas for concealed weapons permits was key to getting an endorsement from the Republican Central Committee of Stanislaus County and he's endorsed by Modesto council members Kristi Ah You, Jenny Kenoyer and Tony Madrigal.
"He has an excellent chance," said custodial Deputy Matt Pettus, a past president of the Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriff's Association. "He has worked almost every assignment and has a wide grasp of the department as a whole."
Dirkse has said that, regardless of the endorsement from Christianson, he will provide his own direction for the Sheriff's Department. Supporters say Dirkse has more experience with operational management, budgeting and finance as chief of police services for Patterson.
The Sheriff's Department expects to have a $140 million budget in the fiscal year beginning July 1, including the costs of feeding, guarding and providing health care to inmates in expanded jail facilities.
"As a chief, I have been in three different budget meetings this week with the city of Patterson," Dirkse said. "As a lieutenant, we are involved with the budgeting process."
Alanis defended his claims of budget experience by saying he's done purchasing for the mobile field force team. He said even when he was an Explorer he was sent out shopping for the sheriff and had to stay within a budget.
"I am very qualified to manage (sheriff's department spending)," Alanis said. "I am not going to be doing everything myself. I am going to have qualified managers who will manage these things."
The broad support for Dirkse includes business and community leaders and the five members of the county Board of Supervisors. Earlier in his career, Dirkse made friends in the agricultural community by serving as the county's rural crime detective.
“There is no doubt Jeff has more experience in more areas,” Supervisor Vito Chiesa said. “I just think he is more ready to be the sheriff today. I think they are both good people, and what I don’t like is the negative tone in the campaign.”