Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and her challenger, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan, sparred Friday afternoon in a spirited debate about leadership and accountability as protesters continued to press Ravitch to prosecute the sheriff's deputy who fatally shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
Ravitch highlighted her experience and successes since taking office in 2011, while Shanahan charged her boss with failing to live up to campaign promises to reform how cases, including officer involved shootings, are handled in the county.
"Miss Ravitch has not done her job, and it's my job to hold her accountable and bring the issues to light," Shanahan said.
Ravitch acknowledged she has faced challenges in managing an office with budget pressures that is staffed largely by attorneys who supported her previous boss, incumbent D.A. Stephan Passalacqua, in 2010. She said she welcomed Shanahan's call for accountability, but accused her opponent of politicizing a community tragedy for her own gain, something she called "shameful."
"I am so proud of what we've done in the District Attorney's Office since I took office," Ravitch said.
The forum was held at the Fountaingrove Inn in advance of the June 3 election. Outside the upscale hotel, about a dozen protesters held up signs, passed out literature and wore shirts with sayings like "Jailhouse for Gelhaus," the name of the deputy who shot Lopez Oct. 22 as he carried an airsoft pellet gun designed to resemble an AK-47 assault rifle.
Two activists paid to attend the lunchtime event, and asked questions about the impartiality of the county's protocol for investigating officer-involved shootings and the pace of the Lopez case.
Even if the activists hadn't raised the issue, Lopez's shooting was bound to be central to the debate. Shananan has focused on Ravitch's handling of the Lopez case, saying that it is creating distrust between the D.A.'s office and the community.
Shanahan said she was originally encouraged to hear Ravitch vow during the campaign to speed up the review of officer-involved shootings and for the District Attorney's Office to investigate extraordinary cases to ensure impartiality.
"That sounded really good. We thought that was a great idea," Shanahan recalled.
But she said such change hasn't happened. Instead major cases are being handled inconsistently, homicide cases are being handled by inexperienced prosecutors, and Ravitch can't provide clear statistics to back up her claims, Shanahan said.
"We need to have leaders who follow through on their promises," she said.
Ravitch countered that she has made good on her promises to be more transparent and to stress victims' rights. She took responsibility for failing to provide better statistics about her department's performance, but said it will be remedied by a new computer system coming online in January.
She said her department has neither the funding nor the expertise to carry out a complicated investigation like the Lopez case, and instead focuses on monitoring and building off of the lead agency's investigation, in this case the Santa Rosa Police Department.
"I can't step in and tell 13 police departments, &‘Get out of the way. I'm taking over,'" Ravitch said. "It doesn't work that way."
She said it has been a challenge to manage a group of trial attorneys, who are by nature critical thinkers, fiercely independent and are often "feisty," a trait she said a judge saw in her when he nicknamed her "Rabid Ravitch." She has gradually succeeded in getting others on board with her vision, which is to seek justice in all cases, she said.