Hood River A familiar counterpoint in local politics — time-tested leadership versus time for a change — showed in recent remarks by Hood River County District Attorney incumbent John Sewell and challenger Brian Aaron. They spoke at a forum hosted by the Hood River County Democratic Party at Hood River Middle School April 4.
Also on the May 17 Primary Election ballot are three men who moved up the local law enforcement ranks and feel they are ready to lead the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office. Current Sheriff Joe Wampler will retire this year.
Sheriff candidates Matt English, Neal Holste and Gerry Tiffany also spoke at the forum April 4.
Two more forums featuring Hood River County contenders happen on April 17 (at Cascade Locks City Hall for Sheriff candidates) and April 23 (at Columbia Gorge Hotel for all five county candidates). Both will start at 7 p.m.
The three sheriff’s candidates revealed distinct views on the question of consolidation of police and sheriff services, now in discussion at the city-county administrative level.
Tiffany said the main question is, “If it’s not going to save us any money, why do we need to do this?” and added that the two agencies “already work well together.”
English said, “This is in its infancy, and as a concept it could be great, for continuity and sharing of resources,” but he is concerned “the two agencies might not be able to mesh.” He added that “a lot of it is going to be dictated by the City of Hood River and what they want to see.”
Holste said that he believes deputies and officers are trained to respond to cases in the same ways, and that if the community benefit is shown, it is would be the sheriff’s job to help see consolidation put into place.
“As a leader, it’s up to you to mesh the two departments,” he said.
Holste, who started with the county as a reserve officer, said he told Wampler 20 years ago that he wanted to be sheriff one day, and said he would schedule himself on patrols if elected sheriff.
Tiffany said. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet people, and people are great in this county. I’ve had a couple of instances when it’s been proven to me over and over again. I want to give something back. I plan on hanging around Hood River County. This is where I live and this is where I want to continue to live.”
English said, “I want to be sheriff for one simple reason. I want to lead our office, and the professional men and women of our office.” He said the department is a place of “teamwork, dedication and a family-like environment.”
The April 4 event was the first time all five candidates had appeared at the same time. Also speaking was Judge John Olson, appointed to the Circuit Court position in January after the retirement of Judge Donald Hull. Olson is unopposed on the May 15 ballot.
Aaron spoke of changes he would like to see while Sewell stressed his record as DA over four elected four-year terms.
Sewell noted that he is “the only candidate who has ever prosecuted a felony case, including two capital cases.”
Sewell said, “I am a career prosecutor who has devoted the last 28 years to serving residents of Hood River County as a prosecutor.”
Aaron said, “I’ve seen both sides of the courtroom and tried every kind of case.”
“The highest priority for the district attorney is to provide public safety and to ensure that criminals are prosecuted, and crime prevention,” Aaron said.
He said that as a way of reducing costs he would streamline the trail of prosecution investigations so that defense prosecutors “get more information and get it sooner” as a way to reduce the number of times attorneys and defendants must appear in court.
Aaron said he would strive to improve communications with witnesses and victims, and he would install a victim offender reconciliation program in the DA’s office, as well as improve enforcement services to parents who are due child support payments.
“Parents need to know the DA office is going to assist them,” Aaron said.
“This is what this is about: providing the services and saving money,” he said. “Resources are scarce, and budgets are tight, but we need to reprioritize where the money is going.
“After that primary goal of a DA is met, crime prevention, there are vital services need to be delivered to this community which are currently being denied,” Aaron argued.
Sewell said, “For 20 years I’ve managed this office; and every year that involves preparing a budget that goes through the county budget committee and board (of commissioners). It is no simple task. It’s a challenge I have met, year-in, year-out, for the past 20 years.”
Sewell said, “My office has prosecuted literally thousands of criminal cases. I’ve been personally responsible for a great number of those and personally handle a majority of the felony cases in this county. Day-in, day-out, while managing the office, I’m often in court,” said.
“I emphasize this point because one of the responsibilities required when you are the district attorney is not just that you have the level of knowledge and expertise that’s required when you go into court but also be able to advise the deputies when they come to you with questions; and it happens every day,” Sewell said.
He said this extends to the “2 a.m. phone call” for law enforcement officers who need solid advice on the spot.
“You’ve got to have the knowledge so you can answer questions and point them in the right direction so they’re getting the kinds of results in their cases that you expect as citizens of this county,” Sewell said.
“When the officer is out on the street and they dealing with some convoluted situation, and they need help they call me. What’s required immediately is that I wake up and understand the question and give them legal advice they can live with and I won’t regret when I get to the office and find out what they did. This is something that happens every week, and that comes with a level of expertise and experience that’s just not that common.”
Aaron said the time is right for a change at the district attorney level, along with other changes in judicial and law enforcement positions in the Gorge. He noted that there are three new judges on the District 7 bench as of this year (serving Hood River and Wasco counties) and that there will be a new Hood River County Sheriff and the possibility of a new Hood River chief of police.
“You have an opportunity make a change for the better here and I hope you will take that opportunity,” Aaron said at the middle school.