Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas has served through some turbulent times.
When he took office six years ago, with county revenues sapped by the Great Recession, his first task was cutting $4 million from his department’s budget. He left vacant jobs unfilled and even considered eliminating the department’s helicopter program to reduce expenses.
Soon after the budget crisis passed, Freitas inherited an unexpected operational challenge as thousands of felons, some of them serving long sentences, were shifted into county jails to relieve crowding in the state prison system.
In 2013, almost a year before a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri focused the nation’s attention on relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, Freitas was thrust into the crucible when one of his deputies shot and killed a 13-year-old boy carrying a replica assault rifle on a street near Santa Rosa. Public criticism of his decision to return the deputy, Erick Gelhaus, to regular duty was accompanied by internal complaints that Freitas didn’t defend his department forcefully enough.
Illegal immigration has been a continuous issue during the sheriff’s tenure. In 2011, Freitas joined other local chiefs in easing a rigid policy of impounding cars from unlicensed drivers. This year, following a change of administrations in Washington, he is under pressure from both sides of a debate over the proper role of local authorities in immigration enforcement.
Freitas announced Friday that he will step down next year at the end of his second term.
On the same day, an activist group launched a recall effort targeting the sheriff.
We see no reason to remove Freitas from his job.
At the same time, we see an opportunity for Sonoma County in his departure from the Sheriff’s Office.
Freitas is the fourth person to head the county’s largest law enforcement agency since the last contested election for sheriff. That was in 1990 — more than a quarter-century ago.
Freitas also is the fifth consecutive sheriff recruited to run from — and with the support of — the top brass of the department.
It’s time for a contested election.
Over the years, as election time rolled around, sheriffs and their top deputies have dusted off claims that a contested election would do more harm than good.
That’s simply not true. Free, fair and contested elections are the cornerstone of our republic. Sonoma County has benefited from spirited campaigns for supervisor, district attorney, even Superior Court judge. Voters in other counties, large and small, have picked among competing candidates for sheriff without negative consequences. It used to be common here, too.
The best candidate for the job may emerge from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, but only a genuine electoral contest will afford candidates an opportunity to present their qualifications and ideas to the public and one for voters to choose a course for an important public agency.
Unlike candidates for almost any other elected office, prospective sheriffs must meet certain professional qualifications to run. But that doesn’t mean the choice should be left to employees of the Sheriff’s Office. Police chiefs are picked by city managers, not by the chief’s subordinates. Sheriff is one of four elected offices mandated at the county level in the California constitution, and the officeholder should be the voters’ representative to law enforcement — not the other way around.