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Sheriff is one of just four county elective offices required by the California constitution.

The position appears on the ballot in each of the state’s 58 counties every four years. Here in Sonoma County, however, it’s been 28 years since the last contested election for sheriff.

Five men have held the job since the last time local voters had an opportunity, as envisioned by the framers of the state constitution, to assess the fitness, experience and ideas of candidates competing to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

The current sheriff, Rob Giordano, is stepping down, and there are three candidates to succeed him: sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, former Los Angeles police Capt. John Mutz and Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a former police lieutenant.

If no one receives a majority in the June 5 primary, which seems likely, the top two will advance to the November general election.

We believe that Essick and Mutz stand out.

Essick worked his way up the ranks of the Sheriff’s Office, starting 24 years ago as a deputy in Roseland. He acknowledges things “got off track a little bit” after 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot and killed by a deputy in 2013. Since then, he says, the office has reinstated community policing, committed to increased diversity and worked to improve relations with the people it serves.

With Essick running as the insider, Mutz and Olivares are the outsiders.

Mutz spent most of his law enforcement career in the Los Angeles Police Department. As a station commander after the Rodney King beating in 1991, he tried to restore public trust by shifting away from a command-and-control approach and toward de-escalation of volatile situations and less frequent use of force. “My specialty is shifting the culture of law enforcement,” Mutz said at a recent campaign forum.

Olivares started Santa Rosa’s gang-prevention program and now heads a nonprofit that helps cities craft violence-prevention plans. He promises to improve training for Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies. “This is the kind of work I’ve been doing for the last 10 years,” Olivares told the editorial board.

Essick’s knowledge of the strengths and shortcomings of the Sheriff’s Office sets him apart. And so does Mutz’s track record of retooling four large divisions of the LAPD and his post-retirement work with other law enforcement agencies around the country, recently including the San Francisco Police Department.

With 650 employees and an annual budget of almost $180 million, the sheriff is responsible for public safety in unincorporated areas, as well as Windsor and Sonoma, provides security for the courts and serves as the county coroner. After last fall’s firestorm, it’s a near certainty that the sheriff will assume a larger role in emergency operations.

The Sheriff’s Office was at its best in October, when deputies saved lives and, in the aftermath, as Giordano provided steady leadership and accurate information to a badly shaken community. But the office is still coming to grips with its muted response to the Lopez shooting, which prompted creation of an independent review agency and exposed a need for more female and minority deputies.

The candidates are speaking to voters on a daily basis, detailing their views and answering questions in a substantive, if long overdue, campaign that probably will extend to a runoff in November. For that runoff, The Press Democrat recommends Mark Essick and John Mutz in the June 5 primary.

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