CA: Three Sonoma County Sheriff’s Candidates Spar In Cannabis Forum

Photo Credit: Alvin Jornada

A candidates’ forum focusing on cannabis issues in the hotly contested race for Sonoma County Sheriff took a while to warm up Thursday, but by the end the three candidates showed their willingness to trade barbs over their qualifications and leadership.

Mark Essick, a captain in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, John Mutz, a former Los Angeles police station commander, and Ernesto Olivares, a former Santa Rosa Police lieutenant and current city councilman, initially avoided criticizing one another during the 90-minute forum, which was hosted by several area cannabis advocacy groups.

The three lawmen focused on their different visions for the department and ideas about how the department’s role has changed, or should, in an era of legal marijuana. But toward the end, Mutz, given the chance to offer a final rebuttal, reiterated his appeal for change, calling it a crucial opportunity that voters should not miss.

“If we do, although the faces will change, the traditions won’t,” Mutz said.

That remark put an exclamation point on the case Mutz had been making all evening that the department needed different leadership to change the status quo.

That prompted Essick to remind the audience of about 60 people at the Glaser Center in downtown Santa Rosa that Mutz and Olivares had been out of law enforcement for 20 years and 10 years, respectively. Residents would be better served by someone like him who was “current and contemporary” in law enforcement, Essick said.

He noted that law enforcement, like the cannabis industry, has changed tremendously in the past decade.

“If you were out of the business for 10 years and wanted to come back, think of how much you’d have missed,” Essick said.

That prompted from Olivares a spirited defense of his record since retiring from Santa Rosa Police Department in 2008, and a sharp rebuke of Essick’s leadership.

Olivares noted that Essick talks about his positive experiences with community policing in Roseland early in his career, but suggested it was more lip service that a commitment to the law enforcement philosophy of getting to know a community’s residents on a personal level.

“The visions that he’s bringing out are good visions, but these are things that he should have been doing already as a manager in the sheriff’s department,” Olivares said. “What has he been doing about community policing all this time?”

Olivares also denied he had been out of the law enforcement loop, referencing his statewide work in gang prevention during his time on the council, suggesting that perhaps it was Essick who was out of touch with best practices.

Olivares said his work had focused on building strategies for safe communities and trust between communities and law enforcement.

“These are opportunities that the sheriff’s office has been missing,” he said.

So ended the most spirited exchange of the evening, one that at times was hard to follow due to Olivares’ appearing on stage on television. Olivares was in Pomona for a League of California Cities Conference, and participated via a glitchy teleconferencing hookup.

The next sheriff will take charge of the county’s largest law enforcement department, with 650 employees, a $159 million annual budget and responsibility for a patrol area spanning 1,550 square miles, the coroner’s division and two jails.

The forum gave the candidates a chance to focus their thoughts on the cannabis industry, and how they will work with an industry that is both newly legal but also triggering significant illegal activity.

“We’re really bringing an existing culture and part of our community into the light, and it is not an easy process,” Tawnie Logan, former executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance who welcomed the panel. “There have been extremely bad actors.”

Essick, in response to a question about policy changes he would advocate for at the state and federal level, said he would like to see a state bank formed so that cannabis sales can be transacted in a cashless manner.

“The absolutely No. 1 thing that we can do in this state to make you safer, to make your customers safer, to make your employee safer, is to have a bank of California, so we can get rid of all this money,” he said.

As another way to reduce crime, the candidates all agreed they would advocate for ways protect data about cannabis business operations, to lessen the possibility of such businesses being targeted by criminals.

A question of how each candidate would change the culture in the sheriff’s office in the legal cannabis era elicited some of the evenings sharpest distinctions among the three.

Essick extolled the virtues of the department’s culture of public service and volunteerism, and argued that its approach to cannabis had already changed dramatically.

The department has shifted away from actively investigating cannabis related activities, and under him that trend would continue, he said.

“I will set the tone. I will set the expectation. I will continue on the path we are on, the path that’s been set by Sheriff Rob Giordano,” he said.

Mutz called “shifting the culture of law enforcement” his “specialty” and said he had done so several times before. The first step was acknowledging that there is a bias in the law enforcement against cannabis, he said.

“You have to own the bias, you have to own the decades that law enforcement’s relationship has had toward cannabis in the drug war,” Mutz said.

Then he argued that changing the culture is challenging and “can’t be done by memo;” the only way to do it is by getting to know the members of the industry as human beings.

“The sheriff has to have genuine affinity and relationships with people in the industry,” Mutz said. “We have to go to dinner.”

Olivares, meanwhile, stressed he would focus on training deputies better about cannabis issues, including tours of facilities and processes involved. There are law enforcement agencies that similarly train officers to focus on agricultural crimes, and he said he would launch something in Sonoma County that could be a model for others counties.

In one of the lighter moments of the forum, moderator Ernie Carpenter read out loud a submitted question that asked candidates if they had ever smoked cannabis, but instead ripped it up and didn’t have them answer.

“I’ve heard that question for 50 years,” Carpenter said to laughter.

The top two vote-getters in the June election will face off in November.