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

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.


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