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For the first time in nearly three decades, Sonoma County voters may have an opportunity to decide among a field of candidates running to be the next sheriff.

Ernesto Olivares, a former police lieutenant in Santa Rosa and current City Council member, has announced he will run for the county’s top sworn law enforcement post, a job held since 2011 by Steve Freitas, who rose to the office as an assistant sheriff and Windsor’s police chief. Freitas plans to step down at the end of 2018.

At least two Sheriff’s Office veterans, Capt. Mark Essick and Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto, have said they are considering a bid for the post, with plans to meet with advisers and decide over the next several weeks.

As yet, no one from within the department has come forward with a definite plan to run. Olivares would be the first candidate from outside the department to run since 1986. Since then, top executives in the Sheriff’s Office have groomed lieutenants and captains for the job in a carefully orchestrated effort to ensure one of the department’s own takes leadership of the office with annual pay of $200,000.

Olivares, 59, who retired in 2008 after a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement, said he wants to emphasize a closer relationship with the community at a time when ties nationwide between law enforcement and residents have been strained by high-profile shootings, including in Sonoma County a deputy’s 2013 fatal shooting of Andy Lopez.

“Law enforcement has to maintain and strengthen trust with the communities they serve,” Olivares said. “It’s something I have to offer, my expertise and experience in that area.”

Former Santa Rosa police sergeant Dick Michaelsen, was the last in a series of outsiders to be elected sheriff in 1986. His tenure was stormy, with top ranking sheriff’s officials publicly criticizing his management abilities, and he lost his bid for a second term in 1990 in a landslide to Sheriff’s Office veteran Mark Ihde, then a commander.

A candidate from outside the department can bring a fresh approach to policies and culture, said former Santa Rosa Police Chief Sal Rosano, who retired in 1995. Rosano was police chief in South San Francisco in 1974 when he was appointed to be Santa Rosa’s police chief. He said an outsider can focus on the big-picture strategy of a large department like the Sheriff’s Office — the county’s largest law enforcement agency — while calling upon the experience of top brass to ensure smooth operations while learning the ropes.

“Sometimes it’s healthier to come from the outside because if there’s any kind of behavior or practice that’s been institutionalized that may not be serving the public — and I’m not saying that’s the case for the Sheriff’s Office — (an outsider) can take a fresh look,” Rosano said.

Olivares is the executive director of the California Cities Violence Prevention Network and has held a City Council seat since 2009.

He has not worked in law enforcement for nearly a decade, but he is still eligible for the job. Sheriff candidates must have achieved advanced certificates from the state commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, but the certification can be inactive, according to state law.

Basurto and Essick are among several top sheriff’s officials who have been discussed in law enforcement circles as potential successors to Freitas. Others include Assistant Sheriff Rob Giordano, Capt. Clint Shubel and Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett.

Shubel, a Santa Rosa native who oversees investigations, internal affairs and personnel departments, said Tuesday he will not seek the office. Giordano and Sackett didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about their interest in seeking office.

Essick, 47, a Marin County native who oversees department operations including patrol and court divisions, said he is interested in seeking the top post in the department where he’s worked for nearly 24 years — “in pretty much every role,” he said.

“I bring experience in actually doing the job,” Essick said. “I run operations day to day — the helicopter flying overhead, the deputy coming to your door, those are all people working under my direction right now.”

He said he is meeting with people from within and outside the department to gauge who would support him.

Basurto, 48, who started as a sheriff’s intern in 1988 and was appointed to be Windsor’s police chief in September, said Freitas’ retirement announcement came sooner than he expected, taking many in the department by surprise. Basurto has for years thought about seeking the job and said he’s been approached by people asking him to run. But he said he still needs to talk with people and clarify in his mind why he would run and what he’d seek to do as sheriff.

“Right now my concern is what I have to offer and what I am going to eventually want to do,” Basurto said.

The town of Windsor and city of Sonoma have contracts with the Sheriff’s Office to provide policing services, and the departments are staffed with deputies.

Windsor has been a training ground for future sheriffs. Both Freitas and former sheriff Bill Cogbill served as the chief. Freitas was the Windsor police chief in 2010 when he stepped up to replace Cogbill.

Cogbill, who served from 2003 through 2010, said that even unopposed, campaigning for sheriff requires a broad range of backers, from county supervisors and police chiefs to business associations and community groups.

Candidates need donors who can sustain their campaigns as well as support from people representing Sonoma County’s diverse interests, from agriculture to religious groups. Also in play are four unions representing Sheriff’s Office employees: the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs Association, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Deputy Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Management.

“There are special interest groups who want you to advance their agenda,” Cogbill said, comparing the contest to the countywide election for district attorney — both posts that exist apart from mainstream partisan politics. “You usually end up in the middle trying to follow the law and at the same time do the right thing for public safety purposes.”

Cogbill said he estimates his campaigns cost about $20,000 each. A campaign with opponents could require four times that amount, he said.

The official window next year for candidates to file nomination papers and a declaration of candidacy is Feb. 12 to March 9. The primary election is in June 2018, followed by a November election if more than three candidates are on ballet.

The timeline could move up should a fledgling movement to recall Freitas gain ground. A little-known group of activists, called the Community Action Coalition of Sonoma County, has given notice to the Sheriff’s Office of their intent to gather the 35,000 signatures required to hold a special election to oust Freitas. The group’s petition is under review by county elections officials.

Had Freitas chosen to seek a third term, he would have had to address criticism of his leadership that began building with the fatal shooting of Lopez, the 13-year-old Santa Rosa middle-schooler, by one of his deputies. Lopez was carrying an airsoft BB gun designed to look like an assault rifle.

Freitas was criticized after the shooting for failing to engage with the community, particularly Latino and immigrant residents. He also has been criticized for being inaccessible, particularly as the county developed the first ever civilian oversight program for the Sheriff’s Office.

The next sheriff will take command of a department with a nearly $160 million budget and more than 600 employees. The office runs two jails, a coroner’s division and patrols 1,550 square miles of unincorporated Sonoma County.

Backing from the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association will be key for any candidate, whether from inside or outside the department. When Freitas first ran for office in 2010, he was briefly challenged by a lieutenant, Steve Brown, who dropped out when the Deputy Sheriffs Association backed Freitas.

Olivares said he recognizes his candidacy puts department employees in the difficult position of choosing between an outside candidate and internal candidates with more history and familiarity.

“My message to them is I’m asking you to get to know me and hear what I’ll bring to the job,” Olivares said.

Rick Walker, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association representing about 220 employees including dispatchers and correctional deputies, said the next sheriff will face a mandate to improve transparency with law enforcement practices and policies, which he said the Sheriff’s Office has taken up seriously over the past year or so through the deployment of body cameras on deputies and a concerted effort to reach people through social media.

The next sheriff also will likely have to confront persistent challenges in recruiting and hiring qualified candidates to fill shortages. The jail has for years run with a significant staffing shortage, with 12 unfilled positions and staff required to work a mandatory 50 hours of overtime per month.

Walker said Olivares’ lack of experience working in a correctional setting is not necessarily a detriment because he would gain a department with highly experienced managers.

Walker, who worked alongside Olivares at the Santa Rosa Police Department, said Olivares reached out to him last week to talk about a possible run.

“He’s fair, and I always thought he made good decisions,” Walker said.

Olivares was born in Mexico and was three years old when his family moved to California, settling in Colusa where they worked the fields. He joined the Santa Rosa Police Department in 1979. He became a U.S. citizen when he was about 16.

In 2008, after he retired, Olivares was the first Latino elected to the Santa Rosa City Council. He served as mayor from 2010 to 2012. A registered Democrat, his current council term expires in December 2020.

While on the council, he has worked with a variety of local and statewide organizations focused on violence and gang prevention, and led Santa Rosa’s effort to develop a new approach to juvenile crime. He said he’s embraced the idea that juvenile crime can only be curbed through a variety of social service programs that include education, re-entry and other community programs in addition to policing. He has worked with other cities interested in developing similar programs, including Long Beach, Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

Olivares said he has thrived in those advisory roles, but he wants to rejoin law enforcement and put his experience to work shaping the department’s connection with the people it serves.

“Community policing is a philosophy within an organization, from the front counter to the sheriff,” Olivares said.

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

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