League of Women Voters candidates’ forum moderator Ellen Mills introduces sheriff candidates, from left, Joseph Granville, Chris Luchini, James Whitehead and Greg White. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
There were few surprises Wednesday evening when the four candidates for the office of sheriff addressed the League of Women Voters candidates’ forum at UNM-LA. In their speeches and in their answers to questions from the audiences, Democrat Joseph Granville, Libertarian Chris Luchini, Republican James Whitehead and Independent Greg White made it obvious that there are four very different candidates in the controversial race.
Speaking first, Granville said he is suffering a little bit from litigation fatigue and that it’s time to work a little more constructively to problem solve. He said he’s been a small business owner, a member of two local non-profit boards and understands that the only way to grow and cultivate relationships long-term is by being willing to do the hard work those relationships take.
“As a candidate for sheriff I’m not comfortable having an elected sheriff heading our police department. I’m not convinced that having an elected sheriff heading our police department would inspire the same sense of safety and consistency in services that we expect and count on from our fire department, our emergency medical services and our police department,” Granville said. “As sheriff, I will focus on clearly defining the duties of the office of sheriff. To that end, I am dedicated to working with the Los Alamos Police Department, our County Council, our citizen stakeholders to build a sheriff’s office that’s responsive to community concerns, is fiscally responsible and whose duties are clearly defined.”
Luchini said he is running for sheriff because he believes an elected sheriff with real law enforcement powers is an absolute necessity in this community.
“We only have two of the three branches of government represented by someone who is actually elected and responsible to the people,” he said.
Luchini said he is the only candidate with the temperament, skills and vision to ensure that the sheriff’s office endures as an effective institution and that the sheriff needs to be clear-eyed and rational about the powers and mission of the sheriff.
“I believe the sheriff needs to believe in the office of sheriff. Does that mean I’m willing to put on a gun, badge and uniform and go out and give speeding tickets? Never going to happen. None of the candidates here, me included, have law enforcement background or law enforcement certification,” Luchini said. “We will be what’s called an administrative sheriff. That means you have to go down to the Academy for a 40-hour course that teaches paperwork and procedure and not SWAT tactics. This class does not replace the 800 hours of training that the Academy offers to sworn law enforcement and no bidder for sheriff should pretend otherwise.”
He said the duties of sheriff are defined by state statute and that sheriff’s deputies should be sensitive and knowledgeable about where to refer people that are in need of social services.
“As sheriff, I would not be using the office to house the homeless, feed the hungry or comfort the despondent. I would connect those immediately with the appropriate professionally, trained, certified organizations whose mission it is to provide those services. As a private person I volunteer my time and money for various good causes but I don’t intend to bring those into the office of sheriff,” Luchini said.
He said the initial decision in the case of Lucero vs Los Alamos County has been appealed but that every sheriff’s candidate present should pledge to abide by whatever ruling the Appellate Court or the Supreme Court hands down.
“The 2016 referendum to eliminate the office of sheriff failed by 48 percent to 52 percent. That means this office is fragile. Given that, a sheriff that lacks the correct character or temperament for the office will lead to the destruction of the office. A sheriff that doesn’t believe in the office will lead to the destruction of the office. I believe I have the temperament and character to maintain the office as a valuable part of the community,” Luchini said.
Whitehead said that having served as both a soldier and a leader, he believes he is the only candidate that has the skills of leadership necessary to be the next sheriff. He said having grown up working on small farms and ranches in Southeastern Kansas and Northeastern Oklahoma, he is no stranger to hard work. He said he finds two things satisfying – “helping other people and a job well done”.
“I’m running for the office simply because I believe in the rule of law. I believe that compassion is the consistent enforcement of the law. I believe that every person has the God-given right to be given protection under the law. I believe that the statutes of the state supersede the Charter and the ordinances of this county. I believe that Judge Felter got it wrong in 1976 and I believe Judge (Francis) Mathew got it wrong this last July. I believe that the attacks on the current sheriff are not only personal and unlawful but also unethical and in clear violation of the public trust. I believe that County government is lying to us, lying to us about violent crime, lying to us about domestic violence, even about drug and alcohol abuse in our community,” Whitehead said.
White said he is running for sheriff for one simple reason – that he cares about the people of the area. He said on his website he goes into detail about exactly what he will and will not do as sheriff and why as well as details of his experience.
“The thing that separates me from my opponents is being retired. I’m the only candidate that actually has the ability – like our current sheriff is doing – to put fulltime effort into an office that only pays part-time. On top of that, I am the only candidate that has any kind of experience whatsoever in the legal field and as a law enforcement officer,” White said.
He said Judge Mathew’s decision is correct.
“We have an excellent and highly-trained police department. Other than the statutory duties that Judge Mathew ordered for the sheriff’s office, I see no reason why the sheriff should worry about the duties that the police department is currently doing,” White said.
He mentioned the duty of maintaining the sex offender registry which is assigned to the sheriff’s department and said there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
“I also believe things like working with our teens that are caught in the court system, working with our schools to prevent the terrible issue we have with teen and pre-teen suicide, are part of the sheriff’s duty as an elected official of the people,” White said. “One of the reasons I’m running for sheriff is as a citizen, I have very little to no access to any of the powers that be. As sheriff, I really feel some of these people, school superintendents and other leaders in town will be obligated to at least listen to my ideas.”
The candidates were asked about their plans to strengthen the sheriff’s office and secure more funding for it. Granville said the Los Alamos County Council has established a budget but that what’s important to him is clearly defining the duties.
“I think that’s where we’ve run into a problem after the Vaughn case from 1976, that they’re still ambiguous. I think that there’s plenty of room and opinions in the community to find out what is important to people and how we can distinguish that office from law enforcement and serve the people,” Granville said.
Luchini responded that the first and foremost duty is to define the duties for the office. He said once the courts issue their decision, whoever is sheriff can negotiate with the County Council and look at what the people of the county want to happen which would force the setting of the minimum bar for the sheriff’s duties.
“In terms of funding, I don’t believe it would hurt the police. If anything it would be a lateral transfer of duties and funding from the police department to the sheriff’s department. I for my part will not accept a salary – I’ll be donating it to some worthy cause until we have real duties for the sheriff’s department,” Luchini said.
Whitehead said he will continue to strengthen the office of the sheriff is to by continuing “to talk about the unpleasant conversations that our County Council and County government refuse to have with the people of Los Alamos to include the lack of accurate crime-reporting statistics at the state and county level”.
“I think that we are actually under-policed when 97-98 people are victims of violent crime in 2016. In 2017, when 56 people became victims of violent crime, but only 25 were reported, and only 17 reported in 2016 and already for the first four months of 2018 four persons have been raped in this county,” Whitehead said. “I do not believe that is an adequate level of policing. I’m not saying that the police department can effectively eliminate all violent crime that occurs in this county but I do not think that anybody can look at the victims of violent crime and tell them with a straight place that we did everything we could do.”
White responded that he is very confident that in January, there will be four new County councilors which would allow some significant changes to be made. He said one of the best things that could be done is not to define the sheriff’s office by resolution” as the current County Council does without meeting to take input or pay attention to any input from the citizens”.
He said the new Council should work hard with the new sheriff to come up with what should be the duties and responsibilities of the sheriff’s department and then with the community to solidify them into the Charter so that once and for all there would be no question in the future about exactly what the duties are.
Asked if the sheriff’s office should have a role in maybe taking a look at and investigating some of the ethical lapses that have been going on in the County, Luchini said the short answer is no. He said if law enforcement sees a criminal or ethical issue, the state auditor, the attorney general or the state police would be the appropriate agencies to take that to.
Whitehead said he does not have a problem with the sheriff investigating such impropriety.
“It’s my belief that the function of the sheriff is to enforce the statutes of the state as well as the ordinances of the county and the only place where the two organizations seem to overlap, where the overlapping of the duties is even a concern is with the enforcement of the ordinances of the County,” he said. “That being said, assuming a favorable ruling from the Appellate Court, we will need to have a conversation on how we go forward and that conversation is to define the roles, responsibilities and duties of the sheriff within the actual written statutes of the state.”
White responded that in Las Vegas, Nev. where he lived for 30 years, they have an elected sheriff that’s in charge of the police department.
“So they’ve kind of got the best of both worlds going on when it comes to doing something like investigating any fears of government corruption. Unfortunately we’re 17,000 people not 1.7 million like Las Vegas has, so again some of these duties are going to have to be hashed out with the new Council and the police department,” he said. He recalled a watching on television as FBI officials went into the county building and walked out with six out of seven county commissioners in handcuffs and that “all six did time”.
“Where did the FBI get their information from? They did not investigate it themselves – the state police in Nevada did not do it. FBI depends on local enforcement for their investigations. So yes, I believe the sheriff’s department should be involved if a citizen is concerned about government corruption,” White said.
Granville said he doesn’t think it’s the role of the sheriff to investigate ethics crimes.
‘I don’t think we’re qualified and it’s the top priority of the FBI to investigate fraud and corruption by police department and elected officials,” he said.
Candidates were also asked if elected would they continue the present lawsuit with the state supreme court if necessary and will you abide by whatever decision is handed down. Whitehead said he would abide by whatever ruling is handed down and that as to whether or not he would continue the current lawsuit, he doesn’t believe that that is the purview of the newly-elected sheriff as the lawsuit is already underway and as far as he know is “independent of who gets elected this November”.
“This is where having some experience in the legal area comes in real handy,” White said adding that he would end the Court of Appeals case that hasn’t yet been decided.
“The suits were done in the name of the office of the sheriff so much like the decision from Judge Mathew, he specifically, repeatedly addresses Sheriff Lucero but his decision because the suit is in the name of the office of the sheriff applies to each succeeding sheriff. The reason I believe the decisions by Judge Felter in 1976 and Judge Mathew this July were good decisions and were applicable is because they preserved all the statutory duties of the sheriff’s office but they did take away law enforcement only in regards to violent crimes. Our police are trained for violent crimes. Not every sheriff even myself with my experience is trained for violent crimes.” White said.
Granville said he respects Judge Mathew’s decision and the results from the appeal “absolutely will apply”.
“I am not going to pursue any more litigation. I’m tired of it,” he said.
Luchini said he would comply with the decision of whichever court will last rule on this issue. He said he believes the suit will continue because it is in the Appellate Court regardless of who is sheriff at the time.
“If that’s not the case I would continue the lawsuit for the simple reason that I think we need finality. The money has been spent on the defense for this. We need finality. We need an actual decision on the merits to revisit the Judge Mathew’s decision which was that the 1976 case stand,” Luchini said.
When the candidates were asked if they have personally initiated any lawsuit against Los Alamos County and if so, how many, White said anybody reading the newspapers knows he has filed “several court actions”.
“I’m glad this question came up because there’s an awful lot of misunderstanding not only about what the court actions were about but also who’s paying for that. So far as far as the recalls go, everybody has paid their own costs for the recalls. I’ve had to pay my costs. The councilors have paid for their costs so nothing has come out of the taxpayer dollars for that,” White said. “As far as what I filed with the supreme court, the Supreme Court never asked for any opinions from the County, or the attorney general or the secretary of state or anyone. So I have borne all the costs for that
He said not a single penny has come from the taxpayer dollars in either Los Alamos County or from the state.
“And on the injunction I filed, simply to make our county government follow their own ordinances and charter, that is still in the courts and the way the courts work is whoever the loser is pays the costs. So if I lose, I’ll be responsible. If the county loses, they’re responsible and the people should be mad at the county not me,” White said.
Granville said he has no suits against the County and Luchini said he doesn’t have any lawsuits against anybody.
Whitehead said currently has one outstanding lawsuit against the county for an Inspection of Public Records Act violation that occurred in 2016.
“The subject is still in litigation so I will refrain from discussing the issue in detail. However, the reason why it was filed is that transparency in government is essential in a free and open society,” Whitehead said.