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Falls brings fresh approach to sheriff's race

Mike Winters has been sheriff of Jackson County for 12 years. We think that's long enough.

Winters was first elected in 2002 after a career with the Ashland Police Department and Oregon State Police.

His challengers this year are Corey Falls, deputy chief of the Ashland Police Department, and Sheriff's Lt. Bob Sergi, who is night supervisor at the Jackson County Jail. If one candidate wins more than half the votes in the May 20 primary, he will run unopposed in November. If not, the top two vote-getters will appear on the November ballot.

Falls and Sergi criticize Winters for what they say is too much emphasis on using helicopters to raid illegal marijuana plantations outside the county and too little focus on training deputies. Both also point to a vote of the Jackson County Sheriff's Employee Association after the candidates appeared before the group in January.

Of about 100 members who were present, 52 percent voted for Sergi, 29 percent for Falls, 15 percent didn't vote and 4 percent chose Winters. That's a strong indication that Winters does not have the support of his own deputies — a serious problem for any administrator, but especially troubling in a law enforcement agency.

Winters points to his record of balanced budgets, and says the helicopter program is paid for largely with federal grants and contract payments from other agencies.

Winters may have managed to keep the helicopter flying with mostly outside money, but he has spent plenty of county taxpayers' dollars fighting lost causes in the courts. He decided to deny a concealed handgun license to a medical marijuana cardholder, and fought that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

Public records requested by the Mail Tribune in 2011 showed the county had spent more than $77,000 on that case and on one resulting from Winters' refusal to follow Oregon public records law regarding concealed handgun licenses. He lost at every level of Oregon's court system in both cases.

Winters also has not been accessible to news organizations trying to keep the public informed about crimes and other incidents the department handles. Even a public information officer hired to field media inquiries has trouble getting the information reporters ask for.

Either of Winters' challengers would be an improvement, but we lean toward Falls.

Sergi faces a criminal investigation after he was accused of illegally using an internal database of Sheriff's Department employees to solicit campaign support. He denies the charge, but the investigation is not finished. Until it is, the case casts a cloud over his candidacy.

Beyond that, he is challenging his own boss from within, a boss who has his own supporters. That could make if difficult for Sergi to make the changes he says he wants to make.

It's time for new leadership, but After 12 years of the same administration, that new leadership should come from outside.

Falls, at 41, is more than a decade younger than the other two, but he has an impressive background, including six years helping to lead the Ashland department, and is working on a doctoral degree in business administration. He promises to take an analytical approach to allocating resources in the Sheriff's Department.

We think Falls has the keen intelligence and fresh energy needed to make the cultural and structural changes necessary in the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. We recommend voters choose Corey Falls for sheriff.