Over 150 people packed the Oakhurst Community Center on Friday, Feb. 28, to hear from the three candidates running for the office of Madera County District Attorney.
Incumbent Michael Keitz, Deputy County Counsel Miranda Neal, and Oakhurst attorney David Linn addressed questions during the 90-minute debate hosted by the Oakhurst Democratic Club.
Peter Cavanaugh moderated the proceedings, posing 21 questions submitted by Club members and the general public, and chosen by the executive committee. No questions were taken from the audience.
The discussion began with the qualifications of each candidate, and moved on to issues such as prosecuting cases of elder abuse, the merits of “professional” juries, collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Supervisors, and the hiring of outside attorneys. The big topic of the evening, though, was the turnover of staff at the D.A.’s Office.
“You have to treat your employees well and deal with problems in an appropriate manner,” said Linn. “I will travel at my own expense to recruit new attorneys from top level law schools. These attorneys aren’t leaving because they’re not getting paid enough; they’re leaving because they don’t want to be there.”
While Neal went so far as to describe the D.A.’s Office as “a hellish place to work,” and agreed with Linn’s assessment of working conditions for the deputy D.A’s, Keitz disputed the assertion that employees are disgruntled.
“We do not have a morale problem. Our office has had constant turnover ever since I can remember,” said Keitz. “When I took over, I was the longest standing attorney on staff. You will get turnover when you have heavy work loads and lower pay than our counterparts, but we have a great staff, they work together, and because of them our conviction rates have gone up.”
Keitz said he is working on the issue of low pay, but that it is a struggle with the County still experiencing financial challenges.
Much of the discourse from Linn and Neal focused on whether or not the D.A.’s Office is being run in a professional, cost-effective manner by the incumbent.
“We need to build efficiencies,” said Neal. “There’s a huge backlog. People charged with DUI are waiting over eight months to even have their cases filed. This is ridiculous. And it’s a waste of time and money to do so many jury trials. Concentrate on serious felonies, and settle cases that need to be settled.”
Linn agreed that the office needs cost efficiencies, stating that “the D.A. has to move into the 21st century and start using electronic efficiencies. Law enforcement carries a police report into the office, and it sits in a stack for months. Why can’t we have those reports electronically transported into the D.A.’s Office? It’s not overly complicated.”
Keitz addressed the backlog issue by citing continuing problems with getting toxicological reports from the Department of Justice in Sacramento, and short staffing.
“I don’t know how you can squeeze more work out of people,” said Keitz. “Most of my attorneys work 48 to 60 hours a week as it is. They are actually very efficient. You need to understand, just because a case comes into the office doesn’t mean you file automatically. Oftentimes you have to wait for evidence to come into the office from other sources in order to charge that case.”
He also pointed out that the software to allow electronic filing costs somewhere in the neighborhood of half-a-million dollars. “This is just not the time for Madera County to incur the additional expense.”
In answer to a question about problems in the Oakhurst Community Park, Linn told the audience that he is working on a gang injunction with District 3 Supervisor Rick Farinelli.
“A gang injunction needs to be put in place to identify who is in the gang, what they wear, their tattoos, where they congregate and what they do. This has been suggested numerous times to Mr. Keitz by Supervisor Farinelli, but he just doesn’t seem to have time to do that.”
Keitz denied that the Supervisor has ever approached him to discuss a gang injunction, and that if he had, Ketiz would have told him that gang injunctions have fallen out of favor with the courts.
“They are appropriate in circumstances where gangs are congregating in a certain enclosed area. If gang members are spread out far and wide, injunctions are not appropriate. That’s what the courts have ruled, and it’s very difficult to get gang injunctions to stick.”
Neal agreed that gang injunctions are “out of vogue” and difficult to enforce.
“We need law enforcement to enforce them, and we’re low on people to run around looking for kids in the park,” said Neal. “We need to reach out to the youth. I see juveniles coming in and out of court, and I talk to them about gang activities, but it’s hard to reach them. We need to send the D.A.’s out into schools in the community; reach out and touch people. Go out and talk to kids and be proactive.”
Each candidate closed the debate with a brief statement as to why they are the best person for the job.
Keitz told the audience that he “didn’t just wake up yesterday deciding to be a district attorney. I started 34 years ago as a reserve deputy, and after my first ride in patrol car, I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement.
“While I truly enjoyed going to the courtroom to prosecute cases, I discovered that I had a higher calling – to guide the ship and make sure that we’re doing our best to protect the public safety and seek justice for people of Madera County. I urge you to select a candidate based on what it is that person can do. We live in uncertain times and violent crime is up. Don’t risk your public safety on someone who is not qualified and doesn’t have the years of experience that I have.”
Neal closed by saying that she has handled cases in multiple areas of the law, and that gives her a much broader outlook than the incumbent.
“In the 20 years I’ve worked in Fresno and Madera County, I’ve handled hundreds of cases from both the defense and the prosecution side,” she said. “That broadens me as an attorney. Also, I can bring out the best in people; I’m a people person and I can communicate. I will provide timely justice, speedy filing of cases and speedy trials. I’m about hard work. I will fight for you, reduce crime, and save the taxpayers money.”
Linn finished by pointing out what he believes are the shortcomings of his opponents.
“Mr. Keitz thinks things are okay, and he doesn’t want to change the way he’s doing things. He thinks it’s okay that his attorneys are working 60 and 70 hour weeks. Miranda Neal has taken some courses on management, and she’s been a government employee for about 20 years. I don’t know that she’s ever had any hands-on management experience. My reasons for running are very simple. I want to see justice done in Madera County, and I want to protect my friends and my family and the people who live in Madera County.”
The next debate is scheduled for April 8 at the North Fork Town Hall.
For more information on the candidates, click here.