Two challengers in the race for Jackson County sheriff criticized incumbent Mike Winters for using resources on other counties Thursday during the first of three public forums leading up to the May 20 primary.
Winters deflected their criticism at the Rogue Valley League of Women Voters forum by pointing to his reputation and record over the last 12 years.
Winters is being challenged by Corey Falls, deputy chief at the Ashland Police Department and a member of the Medford Police SWAT team, and Bob Sergi, a sheriff's lieutenant, member of the sheriff's SWAT team and night supervisor at the jail.
In his opening statement at the forum, Sergi declined to comment on an ongoing Oregon Department of Justice criminal investigation into his campaign for Sheriff. He was placed on administrative leave last week from his job at the jail pending the outcome of the investigation, but said it is not serious and the investigation should be over soon.
Both Sergi and Falls said Winters' aviation program, which contracts helicopters to pull marijuana plants in other counties, is an inappropriate way to spend local taxpayers' dollars.
Both said they stand firmly against illegal marijuana grows on public lands, but the focus needs to stay on Jackson County.
Pointing to domestic and child abuse, mental health issues, jail space and property crimes, Falls said there are better ways to spend that money.
"We have a helicopter program that spends a lot of time outside this county with marijuana grows and resources like SWAT teams," Falls said. "I am not going to send one resource to another county to pull marijuana plants until we can make sure that we have adequate detectives and investigators to investigate crimes against children and women."
Sergi said he agreed with Falls' statement that local tax dollars going to the sheriff's department need to be dedicated to county-focused enforcement efforts.
"Winters, he has this regional approach to things when really he should be thinking about what's best for Jackson County," Sergi said. "I am the only candidate that can make immediate change. I know what changes need to be made and I already have a plan to make those changes from day one."
Winters said he stands behind his aviation program, adding that collaboration with other agencies in regional marijuana eradication is the only thing keeping the problem from getting out of hand.
"We have to partner with our sister counties to keep this problem under control and I am going to continue those partnerships because I believe it's the right thing to do," Winters said, calling the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's efforts here "almost nonexistent."
"I can't solve everything for everybody, but when it comes to the drug war, I am going to do the best job I can for the citizens of this community," Winters said.
He said his administration's firm stand against Mexican cartel marijuana grows drove them away from Jackson County, but the money the cartels make off grows in other counties fuels the manufacturing of illegal drugs that make their way back here, he said.
Winters said about 20 percent of the $445,000 spent over a three-year period on the helicopter program is made up by the department through federal grants and contract work. A helicopter also plays an important role in search-and-rescue efforts, he said.
"I think the helicopter is a very positive thing to have for a lot of our search-and-rescue operations," Falls said. "But sending a helicopter and sheriff's personal and SWAT teams to other counties to focus on marijuana eradication, to me that would not be a priority."
When asked by moderator Jeff Golden to give a general assessment of the Jackson County Jail, Falls and Sergi pointed to staffing issues, more than 5,000 prisoners released last year because of a lack of space, and a lack of deputy training for how to deal with the mentally ill.
The number of forced releases is a top concern, they said.
Winters said his administration is working to bring that number down through a partnership with Community Justice, adding 64 more beds and working to get a pair of release officer positions at the courthouse reinstated. Since those positions have been eliminated, inmates who are getting released at the court level are being lodged in jail first and that's driving the number of forced releases up.
"You'll see those numbers come down," Winters said, adding that the department already has seen some success and he'll bring those number to the next public forum.
But "there is only so much money and the jail is only so big," he said.
Each candidate said the county suffers from a substantial drug problem that's driving up crimes such as theft and burglary.
Sergi said a "depleted patrol" is at least partly to blame for the rise in these crimes.
Falls said the department must do a better job strategically of preventing such crimes.
"I want a proactive, problem-solving strategy approach for Jackson County. ... We're going to identify problems and get the appropriate resources to address those things," he said, adding that collaborating with other law enforcement and social service agencies around the county is key.
Concerning medical marijuana dispensaries in Jackson County communities, Winters said the issue needs to be studied further by city planners and policy makers.
Dispensaries need to be "appropriate for the area," he said. "You don't have a dispensary in the middle of residential area, for example."
Sergi said, "as long as they are compliant I have no issue with medical marijuana dispensaries and if the community wants to have them or not have them ... I would respect that."
"I am going to follow the law," Falls said. "Whatever the Legislature says ... that's what we're going to do. The important thing is, let's talk about how we're going to keep it away from kids."
Sergi further criticized Winters for not adequately training deputies, and said a current lack of training opens the department to litigation and leaves deputies ill-prepared and uncertain of their responsibilities.
"The people we have working for us, they are professional, they're dedicated, but they're not getting the proper training at this point. I think the training is one of the most fundamental things an agency can do for its employees," Sergi said. "I intend to dedicate as much of the budget to training as possible. ... It not only creates a more professional agency, it reduces liability, it builds confidence for the deputies."
Falls said one way he intends to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the Sheriff's Department is to work toward accreditation from the Oregon Accreditation Alliance.
According to its website, the OAA exists to "improve the quality of law enforcement agencies in the State of Oregon and ultimately the quality of services provided to the citizens of this state."
Its board meets quarterly to review its member agencies and those applying for accreditation to ensure they are in compliance with the organization's standards — available at www.oracall.org.
Niether Sergi nor Winters called receiving accreditation from the OAA a priority, referring to it as a time consuming and costly process.
Falls said it does take a lot of hard work and effort for any agency to receive accreditation, but insisted it should be a priority for the Sheriffs Office, "a long-term solution instead of an immediate goal."
Concerning the integrity of his department, Winters pointed to just 40 officer complaints last year.
"We run a sharp ship," he said. "This administration has done a lot and I am proud of it, I am going to stand behind it. I have nothing to regret on this."
About 40 people attended the forum, and Medford resident Janet Shalda, one of the audience members, said that Winters was clearly more confident, but his "business as usual," attitude was unappealing.
"He knows what he's doing ... but he kept referring to changing the culture of the U.S. ... what is the sheriff going to do about the culture of the country?" she said, concerned. "The others didn't communicate as well. If you don't come across as well people pick up on that, but I am interested in the young guy (Falls)."
Laure Grosz, of Medford, said she was "intrigued," by what Falls had to say and she "wants to hear more from Corey."
The next forum for the candidates will be hosted by the Jackson County Farm Bureau at Medford Black Bear Diner, 1150 E Barnett Rd., at 7 p.m. on April 15. A third and final forum prior to the primary election beginning will be hosted by the Upper Rogue Independent Newspaper and the Eagle Point Upper Rogue Chamber of Commerce at the Ashpole Center, 11136 Oregon 62, Eagle Point on April 28 at 5:30 p.m.
Oregon Secretary of State records show that Sergi's campaign has raised $8,737 in cash this year, received a $2,500 loan from Sergi and began the year with a carryover balance from last year of $3,788. His campaign has spent $9,846, records show.
Falls' campaign has raised $14,577 in cash this year, received no loans and began the year with a carryover of $9,846. It has spent $16,193 so far, records show.
The Secretary of State's Office shows no contributions or expenditures for Mike Winters' campaign.