Challengers Corey Falls and Bob Sergi criticize Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters for his regional approach to resource management and say they see room for vast improvements in other areas of the department.
Winters, who has been sheriff for 12 years, said he is working toward increasing patrols and expanding the department's detective division through sound budgeting practices, but he won't give an inch on his regional approach to county law enforcement or his emphasis on emergency preparedness, which also extends outside Jackson County lines.
Residence: Central Point area
Employment: Lieutenant, Jackson County Sheriff's Office
Law enforcement experience: 34 years experience between police departments in Long Beach, Calif., and Medford and the Jackson County Sheriff's Office
Residence: Ashland area
Employment: Sheriff of Jackson County
Law enforcement experience: 29 years experience between Ashland Police Department, Oregon State Police and Jackson County Sheriff's Office
Employment: Deputy chief, Ashland Police Department
Law enforcement experience: 17 years experience between Bothell, Wash., police department, Washington's Snohomish County Sheriff's Office and Ashland Police Department
Come May 20, if one man garners 50 percent of the vote plus one, he'll run unopposed in the November general election. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will run against each other in the general election.
It is possible that Sergi, a sheriff's lieutenant who is the focus of a state Department of Justice criminal investigation for illegal campaign activity, could be excluded from the election if he is charged and found guilty — which he insists won't happen.
Sergi said he's being accused of using a sheriff's department employee roster to solicit campaign funds, which he denies. He maintains he used a campaign database containing the addresses of all registered voters in Oregon.
Sergi would not comment on why the Oregon DOJ suspects him of illegally soliciting campaign donations and would not reveal the name of the database he used or when he obtained it.
Kristina Edmunson, a spokeswoman with the DOJ, said the investigation into Sergi began at the request of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.
"This DOJ investigation was started directly from the sheriff's office and it's plain dirty politics," Sergi said. "It's vindictive, it's the typical thing that this administration does, they try to do it by intimidation."
Sergi said he's not the only one inside the sheriff's office that is fed up with Winters' style of leadership.
"One of the things that needs to change is we need a culture change. Winters rules by intimidation and fear. He has no leadership skills, he is not trusted and he is not respected," Sergi said. "I've worked in corrections and the patrol division, I've worked in administration. There is not a single department or division there that is happy with the current administration and the way things are."
Concerning Winters' popularity among employees, Sergi and Falls point to a vote taken by the Jackson County Sheriff's Employee Association following a January candidates' presentation to the association's members.
Of the about 130 members who are a part of the association, about 100 were present to cast their vote for whom they supported in the race for sheriff, said JCSEA president and sheriff's Deputy Ben Fazio.
Fazio said 52 percent voted for Sergi, 29 percent voted for Falls, 15 percent didn't vote and 4 percent voted for Winters.
When criticized publicly on the issue by Falls and Sergi over the last several months during candidate forums, Winters hardly bats an eye, calmly reciting portions of his record over the last 12 years.
"There is a long list of a solid work record, and at the end of the day, after 12 years, I've always done that with a balanced budget. I've never come back once and asked the taxpayers for additional money, and I plan on continuing that record," Winters said.
If Winters is elected to a fourth term, it would give him the opportunity to become the longest-running sheriff in the history of Jackson County. To date, the longest serving sheriff was Howard C. Gault, from 1945 to 1959 — 15 years in office, according to historical records on the sheriff's office website.
"When people look at the voters' pamphlet and they look at the long list of accomplished programs that this sheriff's office has put together to make our streets safer, they will know who to elect," Winters said. "Our folks have done a great job out there, and I'm proud of what this sheriff's office has accomplished and what we will accomplish ... that's our slogan, 'promises made, promises kept.' "
Sergi and Falls have strongly criticized the expansion of the sheriff's aviation program under Winters' watch. They said the aviation program, which frequently contracts helicopters to remove marijuana plants in other counties, is an inappropriate way to spend local taxpayers' dollars. Both have said they stand firmly against illegal marijuana grows on public lands, but the focus needs to stay on Jackson County.
Winters said all but about 20 percent of the about $450,000 cost of the aviation program over the last three years has been paid for with federal grants and reimbursed contract work with other agencies.
According to the Sheriff's Office 2013 annual report, the aviation program accounted for less than a half of a percent of the department's budget that year.
Still, said Falls, a member of the Medford Police SWAT team, "when we send SWAT teams and helicopters outside the county, we lose deputies that can be first responders, and we spend a lot of our taxpayers' money."
Falls said he sees the value of maintaining a helicopter to use in search-and-rescue situations, but insists that it should stay in the county unless absolutely necessary.
"I would like those resources to stay here. You can't continue to leave your jurisdiction to fight drug problems in other areas," Falls said. "You have to figure out ways with the resources you have to deal with these problems within our county."
Falls said he would not send resources outside Jackson County unless there was an immediate-need, mutual-aid call requesting those resources.
Sergi sees the aviation program, along with the sheriff's funding of video surveillance equipment in Shady Cove schools and a bloated emergency preparedness budget, as "out-of-control spending."
"We waste a lot of resources, and it's usually done in such a way that it's overblown," Sergi said. "We could do a lot with that type of money. It might not be able to go toward personnel with the budget, but it certainly can go to equipment that these (deputies) need."
Winters said mutual-aid agreements between counties of Southern Oregon allow for partnerships that stymie the flow of illegal narcotics into Jackson County, help search-and-rescue operations move more swiftly and successfully and solidify each county's ability to cope with disaster and major crime.
"The reason I want to have these agreements in place is because you don't want to wait until the disaster to know who you're working with and what their capabilities are," Winters said. "At the beginning of any investigation, time is of the essence, and the first hours are the most critical. These mutual-aid agreements between all the counties is an effort to put as many boots on the ground out there as quickly as possible when we need them."
Sergi has also 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 unable to advance their careers because of a lack of experience. He said upping training opportunities within the department will be one of his top priorities.
Falls said expanding the sheriff's corrections department and patrol and detective divisions is one of his top priorities, and he is certain he can find ways to rework the department's budget to allow for hiring more deputies.
He said he recognizes that the sheriff's office faces a lack of resources, but believes with the right management practices the department can become more efficient in its call responses and crime solving.
"We need to break the county down into manageable areas and have commanders in each of those areas and start talking about crimes in those areas and how we can serve the citizens in those areas," Falls said. "In terms of preparation, I have served as the acting chief, I have done the things that managers do, I have done the budget narrative, I have done the budget presentations to the Budget Committee, I have done contract negotiations, I have successfully run every division of our police department."
Falls said one way he intends to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the sheriff's department if elected 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."
Neither 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 sheriff's office.
All of the candidates said they acknowledge that Jackson County has a widespread drug problem and believe attacking it head on will help reduce the rates of other crimes.
"The drugs are the No. 1 thing that we have to fight, because the drugs drive all other crime ... it's the driver for the rest of the problems," Winters said.
Oregon Secretary of State records show that Sergi's campaign has raised $10,152 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 $12,482, records show.
Falls' campaign has raised $15,719 in cash this year, received no loans and began the year with a carryover of $9,846. It has spent $16,862 so far, records show.
Winters' campaign has raised $1,781 in cash this year, received no loans and began the year with no money. It has spent $1,059 so far, records show.