As she moves into her second term as Sonoma County’s district attorney, Jill Ravitch is reaching out to detractors and displaying a new air of openness following a difficult year that saw an election challenge from within her ranks and a controversial decision over the officer-involved shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
Ravitch responded to public outcry over the Lopez shooting by publishing her detailed report on the investigation that cleared Deputy Erick Gelhaus of any criminal wrongdoing. Although the decision on Gelhaus was met with criticism from activists and the Latino community, her move to air the report marked the first time a Sonoma County district attorney had taken such a step.
Ravitch also has sought to quell some of the rancor among staff members over her often-brusque management style, promoting a supporter of her election rival, former deputy prosecutor Victoria Shanahan.
“I listened very carefully whenever criticism was lodged about how I run the office,” Ravitch said, reflecting on her experience. “I continue to encourage anybody ... to be in touch with me and discuss with me what concerns are there.”
Some said the new level of openness and the apparent olive branch after a bitter campaign that divided the legal community are signs Ravitch is growing into her job as the county’s top prosecutor.
Prominent Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian, who was openly critical of Ravitch during her first term, said he is optimistic about the next four years.
“I’ve had my differences with her but she carried the day and deserves the support of all in the community to make it work,” Andrian said.
Ravitch, 56, was sworn in last week to a second term after defeating Shanahan by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the June election.
She acknowledged the difficult year, in which she made national headlines with her decision in the Lopez case. The Santa Rosa teen was shot by Gelhaus seven times after he reportedly mistook an airsoft BB gun the youth was carrying for an AK-47 rifle.
At the same time, Ravitch was reeling from personal loss. Her elderly father died a week before she was re-elected and her mother passed away six months earlier in December.
She stepped from the crucible of her first term a more seasoned manager than when she was first elected in 2010.
“If you’re not challenged, you can’t grow in your role,” Ravitch said. “I think all I faced, I like to think it made me a more effective and stronger leader.”
The county’s first woman district attorney admits her first four years came with a steep learning curve. Upon arrival in 2011, she was hit with a public relations debacle when a deputy prosecutor settled a fatal crash before the victim died.
Also, bleak economic conditions forced her to cut her $24 million budget by 25 percent, a problem that was compounded by an 11th-hour hiring spree by her predecessor, Stephan Passalacqua.
Later that year, Ravitch was facing another major hurdle when the Legislature shifted responsibility for many non-violent inmates from the state to counties, further straining local resources.
Ravitch avoided layoffs among her 118 employees by applying for program-based grants that expanded prosecution of elder abuse and domestic violence. She has since added one management position to the office.