Sheriff’s Race Rocky as Four Candidates Square Off
by Nick Welsh • Photographs by Paul Wellman
Remember the chaos theory head-scratcher about the flap of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane on the other side of the planet? In November 2004, the favorite adage of barstool philosophers was rewritten in the inner sanctum of Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Anderson’s department as the “bitch-slap effect.” Eighteen months after good-old-boy posturing between Sheriff’s Council insiders became a physical scuffle that ended when Montecito millionaire James Towle “bitch-slapped” high-rolling Hope Ranch resident and council president-elect Chris Edgecomb in Anderson’s presence, the looming June 6 primary election will determine whether the “bitch-slap”—the term used by Edgecomb in official reports—will result in an election hurricane or whimper. The event was hushed up and buried for 11 months, until the Santa Barbara News-Press reported last fall that an anonymous tip to the FBI had prompted an investigation of the incident by the Santa Barbara DA’s office. As Towle and Edgecomb retreated into trivia-question sunsets and the Sheriff’s Council imploded, Sheriff Jim Anderson found himself fighting for his political survival in a bruising primary campaign.
At the eye of the storm is Anderson’s predecessor and biggest detractor—three-term sheriff Jim Thomas. A talented administrator and potent political force, Thomas has served 37 years in the Sherrif’s Department; counting this race, he’s run for sheriff in four of the last five elections. But South County liberal Democrats are still smarting from Thomas’s most recent foray into Santa Barbara County politics, a bitter 2002 recall campaign against then 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall that ultimately failed. Now 60, Thomas may be a bit long of tooth, but remains sharp of claw. Thomas has said he entered the race only because Anderson chased off a challenger backed by Thomas, by threatening his job. (Anderson denies threatening anybody.) The pack also includes Lompoc Police Chief Bill Brown, 49, an ambitious and progressive-minded cop with 28 years of experience in law enforcement, who currently sits as president of the California Police Chiefs Association. Respected in law enforcement circles but not well known outside Lompoc, Brown said his outsider status makes him the best hope to unify a department demoralized by the deepening rift between the Anderson and Thomas camps. The Lompoc chief is also courting South Coast Democrats by stressing his commitment to community-oriented police work. Last, there’s Butch Arnoldi, a 32-year veteran of the S.B. Sheriff’s Department whose penchant for blunt, unvarnished talk is exceeded only by an Olympian appetite for long hours and hard work. Arnoldi—the incident commander at the recent Goleta post office shooting—ran for sheriff four years ago and came in last. Intense and bristly, Arnoldi is running as a classic anti-politician. Still, he put together a genuine political campaign and lined up endorsements from the likes of former county supervisors Naomi Schwartz and Gail Marshall—both liberal South Coast Democrats—as well as former S.B. City Councilmember Rusty Fairly, a Republican.
On the campaign trail, all three challengers have blistered Anderson as a nice guy, but an abysmal leader. All three cite jail overcrowding, high turnover among deputies, and low morale as key reasons why they’re running. And all three listed the infamous “bitch-slap” incident as the precipitating event that laid bare Anderson’s leadership deficiencies.
Mr. Anderson A Lompoc native with 31 years’ experience in the Sheriff’s Department, Anderson insists he’s done a “good job” and brushes off his challengers’ stream of withering criticism of his leadership as “hogwash.” Anderson explained he leads by consensus. “I listen to what people have to say,” he said. “I’m not a dictator or a bully.” Anderson’s supporters in the department praise him for giving his deputies the responsibility to make many of the decisions affecting the workplace. But his detractors express exasperation at the numerous ineffectual committees Anderson has established, saying decisions never get made or that committee recommendations get ignored.
Anderson also points out that his three years in office were stormy; his budget-slashed department was confronted by the surreal international theater of the Michael Jackson case, the bloody killing spree at the Goleta post office, the agonizing but ultimately successful Jesse James Hollywood investigation, and the largest animal cruelty case in county history. Despite all that, Anderson boasts that arrests are up, crime is down, vital new crime-fighting equipment has been purchased, and many vacant positions have been filled. Not only that, Anderson said, the roughly 700 sworn officers who maintain law and order in the overcrowded county jail, unincorporated Santa Barbara County, and the cities of Carpinteria, Goleta, Solvang, and Buellton, just secured a highly coveted retirement package.
Normally, reelection for a candidate in Anderson’s position—however statistically overstated some of his crime figures are—should be a cakewalk. For Anderson, it’s been more of an obstacle course. Indicative of his unsteady footing was his lukewarm endorsement by the politically powerful Deputy Sheriffs Association (DSA), whose strong support helped Anderson secure a 50.2 percent majority vote and win outright against three other candidates in the ’02 primary. This time around, Anderson squeaked ahead of Jim Thomas for the coveted DSA nod with a slim 38 percent of union members giving their thumbs-up. Anderson’s explanation for his political woes is simple: “Jim Thomas has a vendetta against me—it’s personal,” he said. “This race is not about Jim Thomas wanting to be sheriff. It’s about Jim Thomas not wanting me to be the sheriff.”
Old-Boy Politics Thomas may be a fierce competitor, but only a diabolical mastermind could have conjured what occurred at the Sheriff’s Department at 10 in the morning, November 18, 2004. Edgecomb and Towle arrived early for a meeting of the Sheriff’s Council—a private nonprofit founded by then-sheriff Thomas in 1993 to generate community goodwill and financial support for the cash-strapped Sheriff’s Department. Over the years, the council had morphed into a high-powered gathering of the rich and famous with black-tie fundraisers at the Bacara. On that particular morning, Towle was infuriated with Edgecomb over an email Edgecomb had sent regarding the hiring of a secretary. Towle thought it disrespectful in the extreme, and chased Edgecomb into Sheriff Anderson’s office, cursing him. Despite the sheriff’s efforts to block him, Towle managed to slap Edgecomb and shove him over a chair and to the ground. Edgecomb—who sustained a scratch and some bruises—demanded that Towle be arrested. But according to an investigation conducted by the District Attorney’s office almost a year later, Sheriff Anderson repeatedly urged Edgecomb drop the matter. It would be personally embarrassing for Edgecomb, Anderson reportedly said, and bad press for the Sheriff’s Council, which was then raising about $1 million per year for the department. (Anderson denied Edgecomb’s allegations.) No incident report was forwarded to the DA’s office for consideration.
Three months later, the FBI was tipped off about the fracas. The FBI asked the DA to investigate, and in October 2005, the News-Press broke the story and ran it hard. For those outside the Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff’s Council, the tale offered a delicious glimpse into the abundant personality disorders afflicting the rich and infamous. But for those on the inside, the embarrassment was politically excruciating. Awash in rumors and gossip, the Sheriff’s Council fell to factional feuding. Former sheriff Thomas weighed in on the side of Anderson’s critics. He objected to the realistic-looking badges Anderson and the Sheriff’s Council sold to select donors for $10,000. He objected to the Chumash stickers Anderson proposed placing on departmental search-and-rescue vehicles in exchange for a donation of $125,000. Facing an uproar from his command staff, Anderson ultimately reversed himself on the tribal search-and-rescue decals. Edgecomb and a crew of four past council presidents accused Towle and his successor, Helen Jepsen—longtime Anderson family friend and Sheriff’s Council boardmember—of hiding the books, a charge she’s vehemently denied. Edgecomb’s posse showed for the council’s December 15 meeting poised to demand a full accounting. Anderson cut them off at the pass, however, announcing moments before the meeting began he was severing the connection between his department and the Sheriff’s Council because the relationship was undermining the work of the department. Anderson then ordered his deputies to seize the $10,000 badges. Since then, both sides have sued each other, alleging a wide range of personal and financial misconduct. The forensic audit that emerged as a result of this litigation indicates neither side paid much attention to state laws designed to prevent self-dealing and conflict of interest among officers of nonprofit organizations. Although the two sides have been ordered to mediate their differences, it’s clear the war is far from over.
Truth or Dare According to Anderson’s three foes, nothing illustrates the incumbent’s lack of leadership so starkly as the Sheriff’s Council meltdown. Had they been in authority, all three insist they could have prevented the board from flying out of control. The council’s dissolution—and the consequent loss of millions of donated dollars—will materially affect the resources available to deputies in the field. And all say they would try to resurrect the council by various paths. Lompoc Chief Brown said he’d expand it to encompass all the public safety agencies in the county, and focus the fundraising efforts on expensive radio and computer equipment that would enable all public-safety departments to better communicate with one another in times of crisis. While Thomas agreed the council’s function should be expanded, Butch Arnoldi insisted it should remain the purview of the Sheriff’s Department. And for his part, Anderson insists he was right. “I think it was handled appropriately,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Anderson, who dismissed the assault as “a pushing match,” said he had to break ties with the group because certain individuals “were either breaking the law or coming close.” When asked to specify which laws, Anderson said, “I am referring to extortion or extortion-like tactics.” When asked to specify which individuals and which practices, Anderson demurred. “I’d better leave that unsaid at this point,” he replied. “That’s up to the courts to decide.”
Anderson differs from his challengers on a host of other key issues including: DARE—the school anti-drug program—funding, immigration, and most critically, jail overcrowding. Anderson blamed Thomas for the supervisors’ decision to cut DARE funding two years ago, arguing the board majority wanted to punish the department for Thomas’s recall campaign against Marshall. But Anderson also claimed DARE did not work. “There are studies out there that show DARE is not effective,” he said. When asked about studies disputing DARE’s effectiveness, Thomas shot back, “I don’t agree, and I don’t care.” Thomas said he runs into people all the time for whom the program has made a significant difference. Butch Arnoldi, who’s attended countless DARE graduations, argued the program is essential to building relationships between law enforcement and the community. Chief Brown explained the reason most DARE programs fail is because there’s no follow-through from elementary to middle to high school. “Lompoc is the only community in the county that does that,” Brown said. “And it works.”
On immigration, Anderson carved out a unique position, arguing that maybe local law enforcement officials should be given new authorities to arrest people if they are in the United States illegally. Currently, such authority is vested only with federal immigration agents, though a controversial immigration bill would give local police agencies these very powers. Anderson has since backed off the statement, assuring voters that his deputies would not be deployed to round up illegal immigrants. All three challengers expressed horror at the idea. “I think he’s way off base,” said Arnoldi. “I can’t remember the last time anyone from Mexico was involved with terrorism in the United States.” Thomas argued such a policy would make people in the county illegally more likely to take the law into their own hands because they’d be afraid to seek help from law enforcement. And Brown pointed out that it was illegal immigrants who captured mass murderer Richard Ramirez, the notorious Nightstalker, and turned him over to Los Angles authorities.
Whoever wins this election will inherit the massive challenge of addressing the problem of jail overcrowding, the subject of increasingly desperate grand jury reports dating back to the 1980s. Anderson has proposed building an enormous new detention facility on county-owned land just outside of Orcutt capable of holding 800 prisoners that can be expanded to 1,500. Current estimates indicate such a project would cost the county $153 million to build and $19 million to run. All parties concede voters would soundly reject any effort to raise county sales taxes to pay for this; no alternative funding sources have been identified.
Arnoldi is the most scathing—and radical—in his critique of Anderson’s proposed new jail. He blamed both Thomas and Anderson for failing to build a much-needed North County Jail while they had the chance and when the cost of land and construction was not so astronomically prohibitive. In the meantime, he said, law enforcement authorities need to find ways of dealing with the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and the homeless other than warehousing them in jail. “In the past 10 years, the five county departments dealing most directly with the homeless spent $40 million,” he said. “On one weekend last November, 152 of the 702 locked up in county jail were homeless.” Arnoldi’s solution? More detox facilities and more psych ward beds. “We have 1,400 nonprofits in Santa Barbara County,” Arnoldi said. “It’s time that we started working with them to keep these people out of jail.”
Brown charged Anderson’s proposal was too big and too expensive to be economically or politically viable. The county needs to start smaller, he said, by building a new 200-bed facility with the capacity to expand. Even that, he acknowledged, will be painfully expensive. In the meantime, he said expanded detox and mental-health facilities are essential, but cautioned that many of the mentally ill and drug-dependent people in county jail got there by committing serious crimes. Brown noted that Ventura County diverts eight times the number of inmates Santa Barbara does with electronic monitoring and a host of alternative sentencing plans that allow people to serve time while continuing to hold jobs. “We need a graduated schedule of alternative sanctions that still have some teeth,” he said. According to Brown, the county has been so focused on a big new jail being approved that it’s failed to consider other creative options.
Former sheriff Thomas acknowledged the need for prevention, education, and rehabilitation programs to keep people out of jail. But he also noted that the inmates now populating county jail have grown considerably more violent and dangerous than in years past. “I think Butch has a lot of good ideas, but I don’t know that the people in our jail right now are appropriate for the nonprofits.” Under Thomas’s watch, a half-cent sales tax measure was proposed in 2000 to pay for a new county jail—which would have cost about $70 million—but voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Failing that, Thomas is now suggesting the creation of a public-private consortium, in which a private developer assumes the costs of building a new jail—about 250 beds—and leases it back the county.
Anderson isn’t backing down. The need for a new jail is immediate, he said. And anything less than 800 beds, warned Anderson, would be nearsighted and fiscally irresponsible. “By the time we build a 250-bed facility, it would already be overcrowded,” he predicted.
If this were a typical sheriff’s race, the incumbent Anderson would win handily in the June 6 primary; but typical this race is not. Chances are that Anderson will have to face the second-highest vote-getter in the November election. Many Sheriff’s Department deputies are hoping the distracting and draining politicking for a new boss dies down, an unlikely scenario. Chances are it’s bound to start all over again.