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.