Sonoma County voters are fortunate to have a choice for district attorney on the June 3 ballot.
Jill Ravitch, the incumbent, and challenger Victoria Shanahan are skilled prosecutors, at ease in the courtroom and capable of managing the most complex criminal cases.
But a district attorney isn't just a trial lawyer.
The county's top prosecutor makes decisions that shape criminal justice and public safety for a half-million residents. Making the right choices takes on added importance at a time when a federal court order to reduce prison crowding must be implemented without reversing a welcome decline in crime.
A contested election allows voters to weigh the issues and the candidates to make the right choice.
In this contest, that's Jill Ravitch.
She has spent much of her first term rebuilding an office that lost about a dozen lawyers, investigators and support personnel to budget cuts. With the office returning to pre-recession staffing, she's positioned to manage a challenging caseload.
But it hasn't been a smooth ride, as evidenced by Shanahan's challenge.
Shanahan, a deputy district attorney with extensive experience prosecuting serious felonies, describes many of the same intra-office problems that Ravitch did before she was elected: friction between front-line prosecutors and managers, poor communication and breakdowns in the decision-making process, once resulting in a plea agreement made over the objections of a child victim's parents.
These seem to be valid criticisms.
Unfortunately, Shanahan's resum?is light on executive experience — a concern we expressed with Ravitch during past campaigns. While the incumbent still needs to build her management skills, she has grown in the job.
Ravitch also displayed laudable candor in walking back some of the ideas she emphasized during the campaign four years ago, most notably her suggestion that the district attorney should assume original jurisdiction over all officer-involved shootings — as Shanahan is suggesting now. Ravitch also pledged to free prosecutors assigned to those investigations from their other responsibilities.
"It's always easy to be on the outside saying things," Ravitch told The Press Democrat editorial board recently.
Ravitch is now on the inside, with all the responsibilities that go along with holding office. One of those is deciding whether to pursue criminal charges against Erick Gelhaus, the sheriff's deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez after mistaking a toy gun for an assault rifle.
"This is the hardest decision, probably, that I will make in this term," she said. "It's hard because there are no winners."
It's possible that her decision will come before the June 3 election. If it does, it will define the choice for some voters. Whenever she decides, the burden will be on Ravitch to be as transparent as legally possible in explaining her reasoning.
Ravitch is a tough prosecutor with a track record of making good choices in difficult cases. During a second term, she needs to extend herself with administrative results to match those in court.
For district attorney, The Press Democrat recommends Jill Ravitch.