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The Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association has endorsed Capt. Mark Essick as its favored candidate for sheriff, choosing a high-ranking department veteran out of the field of five law enforcement officers seeking support from rank-and-file deputies.

Essick narrowly won the union’s backing over another insider candidate, sheriff’s Lt. Carlos Basurto, who serves as the chief of police in Windsor. The nod gives Essick an early advantage soliciting other endorsements and campaign donors in the rare, contested race to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency. It’s been more than 25 years since voters had more than one candidate to choose from for sheriff.

Essick, 47, said the deputy sheriff’s association support was necessary for him to continue his bid for office next year, with Sheriff Steve Freitas set to retire at the end of his second term in December 2018.

“Some voters will look at (the endorsement) and say, ‘We need a fresh set of eyes,’” Essick said. “Well, I am a fresh set of eyes. I’ve worked here for a while, and I’ve seen the things we need to change but in my current role I can’t be that change agent because I have a boss.”

Essick and Basurto, with 87 and 84 votes, respectively, received far greater support than the other three men who declared their interest in becoming the next sheriff at a meeting in May before a packed audience at the union hall. The candidates were notified about the outcome of the vote May 26.

Among the other candidates, retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds received 13 votes; four people voted for Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who retired as a lieutenant from the Santa Rosa Police Department in 2008 and was the first person to declare his bid for the elected post; and one vote was tallied for John Mutz, who retired in 1999 as a captain from the Los Angeles Police Department and has since worked as an executive coach and in mediation.

Basurto on Thursday said he was encouraged by the close outcome and confirmed he will vie for the post. The primary for the contest will be held next June.

“I’ve decided to run because of the outpouring of support from various parts of the community,” Basurto said.

The early endorsement was something a county-appointed group linked to law enforcement oversight had hoped to prevent.

The advisory council working with Jerry Threet, director of Sonoma County’s new law enforcement auditor program — the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach — urged the unions representing Sheriff’s Office employees to “refrain from any actions that would prevent or discourage qualified individuals who would allow for a robustly contested Primary and General Election Campaigns for Sheriff in 2018.”

Council member Jim Duffy said he proposed the resolution to make clear his belief an early endorsement “is an effort to clear the field.”

“It seems really early to be lining up behind somebody when we have an opportunity for there to be a real race, and I think it would benefit the sheriff’s department for there to be a race,” Duffy said.

Threet said he will not take a position on the issue.

Threet also will not endorse anyone for sheriff or take part in the campaign. He said he’ll meet with any candidate to talk about how his office works with the department, and he’s already met with Olivares and Mutz, who both requested appointments with him.

“I am keenly interested in how all the candidates see the relationship with the office, and my hope is every candidate sees it as a positive,” Threet said.

Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said it’s the group’s duty to learn as much about each candidate as possible during the campaign, adding “we want the election to be fair. It’s as important for us to have a sheriff who serves well as it is for the community.”

“We were asked to weigh in by the candidates, it’s not like we did this to dissuade people from participating,” Vail said. “We gave them air time in front of our members to express their views about what they can do. We absolutely encourage that.”

Olivares said his main goal was to introduce himself to the group because he expected the deputy sheriff’s association to choose a candidate from within the department. He will continue campaigning and said he’s already received endorsements from Sonoma County’s senior congressman Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat whose district includes a southern portion of the county.

“What I’m hearing is the voters want to decide who their next sheriff is going to be. It’s not going to be someone handed to them as the only candidate,” Olivares said. “The fact we have five people who have stepped up, that’s big.”

Essick describes himself as an “internal reform” candidate who would strive to establish a greater public presence compared to the low-key profile of Freitas.

“The voters can expect that I’m going to be an available leader. I will be there to listen. I’m going to be a compassionate leader with my employees and the public,” Essick said. “Behind all that I am a strong leader, I’m not afraid to make a decision and own it.”

Freitas has been criticized from within and outside the department for shying away from some public appearances. Despite requests, he has not met with the advisory council working with Threet. Earlier this year, it helped spearhead a push for Freitas to change Sheriff’s Office policies governing undocumented immigrants in the jail. Essick said he would be at the advisory council meetings “in a second.”

“I want to ask them, ‘What are your ideas, what do you want to accomplish, how can I help in this process?’” Essick said. “These are people who are volunteering their time, not getting paid, to give us advice.”

Basurto said his pledge to voters would be a commitment to rebuild public trust in the department. It confronted deep fallout with the Latino community in the aftermath of the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting and faces a number of lawsuits stemming from alleged mistreatment of inmates in the jail and excessive use of force by a now-former deputy.

“We need to have the community and the deputies feel like we’re on the same team,” Basurto said.

Essick said he also wants to push the agency to recruit a more diverse workforce, with special focus on women and Latinos.

A staffing shortage — driven by recent retirements, a number of employees out on medical leave and difficulty attracting applicants — will be a key challenge for the next sheriff. It was a focus during the deputy sheriff’s association meeting with candidates.

According to the most recent figures, the average deputy is working 60 hours of mandatory overtime each month, creating burdens on their personal lives and limiting the department’s services, Essick said.

“It’s too much. It’s not sustainable,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.