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Sheriff Candidates Debate In Oakhurst

OAKHURST – With the large field of candidates running for the job of Madera County Sheriff, many residents took advantage of the opportunity to get up close and personal with them at the Oakhurst Community Center on Apr. 17.

The position of top cop, soon to be vacated by long-time Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, is being sought by six candidates, five of whom took questions from a panel at an event sponsored by the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. (Frank Gauthier is out of the country.)

A panel of four, including Chuck Doud of the Madera Tribune, Brian Wilkinson of the Sierra Star, and Yosemite High School students Brittney Hughey and Allie Boyes, posed questions to the candidates. Former Chamber president Greg Chappel moderated the event with written questions submitted by the audience.

The discussion began with each candidate addressing his qualifications for the job.

Coarsegold resident Dennis Fairbanks, retired from the California Highway Patrol, told the audience that working in the private sector since leaving the CHP has given him a unique perspective about fiscal responsibility, and he understands what it is to be “playing with someone else’s money.”

Michael Kime, retired Police Chief for the City of Madera, noted that during his tenure the department lost no positions, reduced response time, and reduced graffiti by 85%, all due to his financial ingenuity. Kime also pledges to relinquish 75% of his compensation over his four-year term to hire new deputies.

Greg Noll, long-time Oakhurst resident and Detective Sergeant with the Fresno Police Department, plans to be out front and in uniform, and said that he will bring “fresh eyes” to the department since he is not currently a part of the administration of Madera County.

Michael Salvador, current Madera County Undersheriff, sees his strength as being able to be “boots-on-the-ground” from day one with no learning curve, having spent 17 years with the Sheriff’s Office, developing working relationships with County leaders.

Jay Varney, Chief of Police for the City of Chowchilla, is confident that his years of experience as a team builder and problem solver is the perfect skill set for the job, and takes the responsibility for taxpayer dollars very seriously, having recently served as City Administrator in addition to his law enforcement duties.

Candidate Frank Gauthier was not in attendance, as he is currently in Afghanistan supervising a security project for the U.S. government. He plans to bring his decades of experience with the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, S.W.A.T., Counter Narcotics and Anti-Terrorism programs to the job of Sheriff in Madera County.

All the candidates voiced their staunch support of the 2nd Amendment, including the Carry Concealed Weapon (CCW) permit.

“I’m a huge proponent of CCW,” said Noll. “It’s near and dear to my heart. People do need to be properly trained, and have no mental illness issues. We have to stay vigilant in that regard.”

Salvador, who has run the CCW program at the Sheriff’s Office for the past 10 years, says the permits he has issued during that time went to “3,000 of the most responsible people I know. Only 10 have been taken back in the last 10 years.”

Varney’s strong support for gun rights is evidenced in his campaign material. The letter “J” in his name is represented by a pistol on his signs and advertising.

Fairbanks told the audience that “an armed society is a safe society. If you meet the criteria for CCW, I encourage you to get one.”

Kime noted that everyone in law enforcement has been sworn to uphold the constitution. “You have the right to protect yourself,” he said.

In response to a question about how each candidate would work to increase the number of deputies, Salvador said he has a plan to use funds from two different pots and use it as seed money, along with any grants available, to continue the process already underway of replacing some of the 17 deputies lost since the downturn in the economy several years ago.

Noll said that Sheriff’s Foundations 501(c)(3)s have been very successful in raising substantial amounts of money. Along with securing grants, he also wants to get involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, filling positions with veterans who need jobs, and freeing deputies to do more law enforcement work.

Varney agrees that creating a public/private partnership for fundraising in the form of a Sheriff’s Foundation is a good option, along with grant funding and going after money available for sheriff’s departments located in rural areas. He lists rebuilding the reserve deputy corps as a top priority for his administration.

Fairbanks believes grant funding should never be used for personnel. Grants come with hooks and strings, he said, and he wants to strengthen and increase volunteer programs such as the Reserves and Citizens On Patrol.

Kime promises to relinquish 75% of his total compensation over his 4-year term in office and make that money available to hire deputies. He noted that there must still be a good business plan in place to sustain a good monetary reserve.

When asked whether the Sheriff’s Office should use drones for such things as surveillance and illegal pot grows, all agreed that drones are not a good idea. With safety and privacy issues to consider, and the added expense of monitoring such flights, all agreed that making the best use of the resources already in place is the best plan of action.

Varney said the Sheriff’s Office should work with private citizens and businesses that already have surveillance equipment in place in such locations as buildings, wells and alleyways, and continue to use helicopters and normal intelligence gathering.

Kime agreed, saying, “We have to be realistic and judicious. Instead of incurring additional costs, we should partner with the private sector.”

“Drones sound cool, but they’re not realistic,” said Noll. “Why not use Facebook to help solve crimes? That could start immediately, and it’s free.” He noted that most criminals are young, and that generation lives through social media.

The Sheriff’s Office has been approached about drone technology, says Salvador, and though he says tech is his “wheelhouse,” he notes that what’s in the patrol cars now is state-of-the-art, and suggests using technology for other purposes, such as applying for things online and only making one trip to the Sheriff’s Office instead of two. “Let’s ask how we can provide more service from the S.O. based on technology.”

Fairbanks joked that any drone Madera County could afford probably wouldn’t fly, but went on to say that Sheriff John Anderson “probably has the department at a state we can afford and need.” He noted that just because something is high-tech and does lots of “fancy” stuff, that doesn’t mean we need it.

A question about what role the Sheriff’s Office should play in providing service to the Chukchansi casino led everyone to agree that communication with the tribe is crucial.

“The law says we can only investigate criminal, not civil,” said Kime. “We know what this has cost and we need to build relationships and put conflict resolution plans in place.”

Noll said his first call would be to the Chukchansi tribal leaders. “I’ll introduce myself and say ‘there’s a new sheriff in town.’ We have a duty to take action and keep the peace, and we must have open lines of communication because this really impacts our community and our finances.”

As Undersheriff, Salvador said he sees everyday all the legal paperwork involved in dealing with Public Law 280 and said everyone needs to be properly trained in the law and work toward communication and collaboration.

“PL 280 is so convoluted even the courts can’t figure it out,” said Fairbanks. “The Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe needs to be reviewed and rewritten, and then reviewed constantly.”

“That’s a great idea if we knew who ran things,” said Varney. “Everyone’s frustrated and the taxpayers are footing the bill. We need to build trust and provide service.”

The candidates will continue to hit the campaign trail until the primary election on June 3. For more information on their backgrounds, upcoming appearances and stands on the issues, or to learn how you can help to support your candidate, please visit their websites by clicking on the links in the opening paragraphs of this article.

To read about the debate between the candidates for District Attorney, click here.

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