League of Women Voters forum: sheriff and state rep candidates

A small crowd gathered on Oct. 16 for the League Of Women Voters of the San Juans election forum at the Orcas Senior Center. Candidates in attendance included Brent Johnson and Rob Nou, as well as representatives supporting and opposing the Orcas park and rec district levy measure.

A small crowd gathered on Oct. 16 for the League Of Women Voters of the San Juans election forum at the Orcas Senior Center.

Readers attended on behalf of Mike Newman (R), Jeff Morris (D) and John Swapp (R), candidates for State Representative in the 40th District. Kris Lytton (D) did not attend.

Sheriff candidates Rob Nou and Brent Johnson were present to answer questions. Some of the questions have been paraphrased for clarity or conciseness.

Representatives from the Orcas Island Park and Rec District. Island resident Cindy Carter also spoke, opposing the district’s proposed levy. For coverage of the levy proposal discussion, see the online article, “League of Women Voters forum: Orcas Island Park and Rec levy proposal.”

Sheriff Candidates

Brent Johnson: opening statement

Johnson said he has seen the community’s cohesiveness over his past eight years here through volunteering with many local organizations.

“I will set the direction of the department with compassion… caring about people and always trying to help solve problems,” he said. “Anita Castle, director of DVSAS, has said that I am very compassionate when it comes to working with kids and women’s issues, and that I’m always professional and understanding.”

Johnson said he will speak on behalf of strategic causes like Orcas Rec, Island Rec, DVSAS, and the Islands Prevention Coalition, important because they can lower the numbers of calls, assaults, and overall costs.

“I’ve worked in a major city police department, the district attorney’s office… the UW police department, and been the lead detective here in San Juan County for the last eight years,” he said. “I’ve been an administrative sergeant, field sergeant and investigative sergeant. The thing to remember about my 21 years with the Albuquerque police department is the call volume that we handled (an average of 40,000 calls per month). It teaches you things you can’t learn anywhere else… you have to learn how to prioritize, delegate, motivate and handle multiple and different crisis situations and solve problems and conflicts. I will draw on 35 years of education, experience and leadership as your sheriff to work on standard operating procedures… bring them up to nationally accredited standards, training and evaluations for office members, drug and alcohol issues, with a strong educational partnership with the prevention coalitions, along with a strong law enforcement background. Community policing is part of who I am, I’ve been doing it for years.”

He also said he will work with the county council to keep the department’s budget intact.

Rob Nou: opening statement

“I’ve spent nearly 30 years preparing for this, policing communities not much different than this one, serving as a deputy sheriff, sheriff’s sergeant, and as a chief of police,” said Nou. “Most of my career has been in leadership roles: 16 years as a sergeant supervising officers, providing training and mentoring, developing and managing programs and projects, and building cohesive, effective teams. From patrol to detectives, records, civil and specialty units like marine, forestry and traffic, I have led and managed nearly every facet of the sheriff’s office operation. (I’ve spent) four years as police chief, ultimately responsible for all the functions of both the police department and the 911 center, and a combined budget of three quarters of a million dollars.”

Nou said his experience includes developing and implementing policy, building and managing budgets, personnel recruiting, hiring, training, scheduling, discipline, and discharge, and working with limited available resources.

He emphasized his experience policing small towns with rural, isolated areas, and said he has extensive and advanced training in all aspect of policing, including law enforcement executive training as a graduate of the FBI National Academy, “world renowned as the premier law enforcement command college.”

Regarding drug abuse, he said “We will combat this scourge with a strategy of education, prevention, suppression, and enforcement.”


q. A year from now, how will the news in the paper be affected by the fact that you were elected, as opposed to your opponent?


“You’re gonna see me,” said Johnson, saying he would be spending time on Orcas island.

He also said, “I’m going to ask the newspapers to have some type of a visitor-type editorial I could put in every couple months to talk about scams, especially for our senior citizens and our young people.” He said that just last week he had dealt with a job scam on Craigslist.

He also said the community could look for “a lowering in the numbers” on a health survey that comes out every two years, a result of his work with prevention coalitions and “better involvement with kids.”


“The main thing you would notice is… you’d see some new faces,” said Nou; deputies throughout the county would spend some of their time working on other islands to learn each island’s geography, culture, personality and “flavor.” He said this would help make the sheriff’s office one cohesive unit, committed to serving the entire county.

He also said the community could expect to see an increase in the level of confidence, competence and training of deputies in the field, as he implements some of his ideas for group training, so everyone gets the same information and training, “so we’re all working from the same playbook.”

q. Are public incidents (like some of the ones we’ve read about recently) avoidable?


“Because of the nature of the business, even if everybody within the sheriff’s office does everything absolutely correctly… there will still be occasions where the sheriff’s office and the county will get sued,” said Nou. “There are ways we can minimize that risk, and to make claims much more defensible and much less expensive in the long run.”

He said one way to manage and mitigate risk is to have an updated policy manual, providing clear expectations and communication.

“There’s always going to be room for common sense and good judgment,” he said. “But with good policy, good training and clear communication as far as expectations, philosophy and culture within the sheriff’s office with an eye toward risk management, I think those things can in fact be mitigated, but they will never go away entirely.”


“We get sued just because we’re there,” said Johnson. “We have to make decisions very quickly, our decisions are looked at again and again and again, where we took seconds to make it… Now, to keep the window of liability smaller, you have to do certain things.”

He said one way to do that would be updating the department’s standard operating procedures to meet nationally accredited standards.

“An SOP can be a guideline, or it can be something that says ‘you shall’, and so you have to be careful when you start doing ‘shall’ a lot; that also opens up liability issues, because people say, ‘you didn’t do it’. Guidelines are more open, so you want to try to make things more of a guideline. But at the same time, that’s where the passion and direction of the sheriff come in, where people understand the reality is, it’s more than a guideline, but you have to write things certain ways in today’s world,” he said.

He spoke of the need for judgment in domestic violence situations, saying that sometimes a deputy is met at the door by a person saying all is well, but another person could be in the background, bleeding.

“So when do we go into that house to check?” he said. “That’s some of the training we need to do, and make sure it’s easy to follow.”

q. What is the size of the sheriff’s budget, and what is the amount allocated to prevention?

Both candidates said that of the overall budget of $2.3 million, 75-80 percent is made up of fixed personnel costs, leaving roughly half a million for “discretionary spending” for fuel, uniforms, maintenance and more.


“Prevention is not really a line item,” said Nou, but said each island’s prevention coalition is given $125,000 per year, with the focus mainly on alcohol and drug abuse. He said the deputies’ daily routines naturally involve preventive activities.


While Nou included retirement in personnel costs, Johnson said “the county doesn’t pay anything for retirement… it’s for benefits for health and things like that.”

Johnson said the non-personnel portion of the budget has been cut for the past three years. He said DVSAS gets a “STOP” grant that helps the prosecutor’s and sheriff’s office pay for training, and the county receives a $2,000 “marijuana grant” that wasn’t fully used last year.

“The sheriff is on the board of the coalition on San Juan, but I spent four hours with the coalition director last week, and she told me he doesn’t go to a lot of the meetings… so I want to change that, and I promised her I would,” he said, adding that he wants to help brainstorm on securing grants.

q. What would you do if you were told to hold your department’s growth, or cut it by five percent?


“The sheriff has put together three budgets: one status quo, one 5 percent cut, one 10 percent cut,” said Johnson. “They haven’t had to go to the cuts yet.”

If a 10 percent cut of $200,000 was mandated, he said, “You have to cut positions if that happens. That’s why it’s so important for us to make sure that the county council understands that we cannot go there. We have not increased the size of the department in years… The (Orcas) sergeant in the back of the room has asked for more people and he hasn’t gotten them. On the mainland you can actually call for backup… we don’t have that luxury… We can’t call the state police to help us, we can’t call Anacortes… right now we already don’t have 24-hour coverage; if we cut people it’s even going to make it worse.”

He said that when the search was on for Colton Harris-Moore, the sheriff had to bring deputies from San Juan island to Orcas.


“Holding the line on the budget would be pretty challenging in and of itself… The cost of living continues to escalate,” said Nou. He said the sheriff’s guild has agreed to a one-year freeze, with no cost of living increases for 2011, along with the rest of county employees.

He said health insurance costs, while shared between the county and its employees, are continuing to rise.

“In emergency services particularly, we are tasked with responding to emergencies, and we can project what we think it’s going to cost… but when they happen we have to respond to them and deal with them.” He said the need to respond to emergencies and natural disasters or unusual events make it difficult to predict costs.

“Realistically, the only way to cut 5-10 percent is to cut personnel, and that just is not an acceptable solution,” he said.

q. In working with the council on the budget, we often hear, ‘We have to reduce personnel.” Looking at your current operations and efficiencies, what would you do to reduce costs versus automatically going to the reduction of personnel?”


Nou mentioned that a few ideas have been suggested, particularly teleconferencing for brief court appearances instead of flying people between the islands and the mainland.

“If that’s a feasible solution… that’s something that could save some money,” he said.

Nou also suggested “looking at how we respond to calls… does each one require face-to-face contact with a person that’s calling to report a ‘minor incident,’ or can those be resolved with a telephone call?”

In regard to fuel costs, he recalled “a couple years ago, when gasoline was approaching $5 a gallon,” and said they responded by cutting down on travel, doing more sitting and watching or walking to save fuel.

“Yes, there are some efficiencies to be explored,” Nou concluded.


“The major part of the budget, we can’t really touch that without taking out people,” said Johnson. As for the discretionary portion, “Sheriff Cumming has worked on that for the last four years,” he said. “We are a different organization (from other county departments that have cut office hours). They can do things like that. We can’t. We have to answer that phone call; we can’t send them to an answering machine as others can,” he said.

“The jail is one place where we can save money. We’ve cut $60,000 out of the jail budget.” Johnson said keeping that cut depends on “how many people we put in jail” throughout the coming year.

“(Work crew) is one place where we can make money. Can we put more people on that? Possibly… The work crew is actually self-supporting,” he said, because people pay to be on it.

Instead of the county paying to feed, video monitor and watch certain (non-violent) short-term jail residents (example, 48-hour DUI stays), Johnson suggested that it might be possible to fit them with an ankle bracelet and have them pick up trash for eight hours instead, supervised by citizen volunteers.

“They’re actually paying for the joy of picking up trash,” he said.

In regard to possible videoconferencing for hearings, “The Defense Bar Association has said ‘No, we want to see people face to face’,” Johnson said. “So we have to be careful about that.”

q. On Orcas we definitely would not like to see fewer men on the streets, but in regard to budget cuts, are there areas where you are not bound by collective bargaining agreements, where it might be possible to consolidate efforts or redistribute duties?


Johnson said, “By statute, Cumming could have appointed three people as exempt from the contracts: chief civil deputy, undersheriff, and operations manager. We’ve never funded the operations manager, so we only have two exempt positions besides his.”

He added that the civil division of the department has only two positions, and said the undersheriff and Bill Cumming are currently the only two positions exempt from the collective bargaining agreement.

Johnson said he has asked the sheriff’s guild to keep their COLA increase “at zero or one percent or less”. “I know there are some issues there; I don’t want to lose people,” he said. “I’ve already promised that if I get elected, if they keep it at one percent, I’m going to give back three percent of my pay to the county, just so that I can show them that I’m with you. I’ll just write a check every month for it, until the economy gets better.”


“The sheriff’s office here is hardly top-heavy in management,” said Nou. He said there are 37 positions in the department, with six total supervisors, three of whom are in collective bargaining agreements.

“The span of control is within the optimum range… Ideally 5-8 people are being supervised,” he said. “The sergeants are out in the field chasing calls along with the deputies… As far as looking at cuts at the management level, there’s really isn’t any room there. It’s a pretty flat organization.”