Candidates Spar at first DA Debate


The four candidates vying to become Humboldt County’s next district attorney gathered for their first debate Thursday.

The candidates — Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo and former prosecutors Allan Dollison, Maggie Fleming and Arnie Klein — spent the better part of two hours in the Eureka Veterans Building, answering questions composed by the hosting Humboldt Tea Party Patriots. The evening featured a number of lively responses touching an array of issues. If there was an underlying theme of the evening, however, it was that the district attorney’s office is currently mismanaged and woefully underfunded, leaving prosecutors overworked and often ill prepared.

A telling point on the staffing issue came when the moderator asked the candidates how many deputy district attorneys they feel are needed to handle the almost 5,000 misdemeanor and felony cases that come through the office every year. Fleming said she’d like 13 or 14 attorneys; Firpo said she wants 20; Dollison said 20 to 25; and Klein said, “how many people? As many as we can get.” Currently, the DA’s office currently has 12 full-time attorneys (candidates offered varying figures Thursday), and that includes District Attorney Paul Gallegos and Assistant District Attorney Kelly Neel, both of whom see the bulk of their duties fall outside the courtroom.

The funding issue came up again and again Thursday. Fleming said there were 14 deputy district attorneys when she started at the DA’s Office in the mid-1990s, adding that, even then, all of them took work home every night and weekend to keep up. "It was nonstop, and we all did it," she said.  Firpo said she has a plan to pursue grants to nearly double the current staffing level of prosecutors. Dollison said grants ultimately aren’t the answer because they have a tendency to “go away,” and that he intends to lobby the board of supervisors for additional funding. “If they think the General Plan fight of 2014 is something, well wait until they see the district attorney funding fight of 2015,” he said.

Klein also pledged to lobby the board for additional funds. “I’m going to tell the board of supervisors, ‘there is a public safety crisis and if you can’t give me the men, I can’t protect the people,’” he said.

While there were a few head-scratch-inducing questions asked Thursday — perhaps most notably whether the candidates believed the sheriff should be the county’s chief law man or its chief law enforcement officer — the local Tea Partiers came through with some timely ones of special interest to local voters.

The candidates were asked about the Humboldt County jail’s policy allowing inmates to be released in the middle of the night, when few services and transportation options are available. Dollison called the policy “despicable,” Firpo said the policy is a problem that can and should be solved and Klein lambasted the policy with a reference to the recent slaying of St. Bernard’s Pastor Father Eric Freed.

But Fleming offered a decidedly different take. Noting that the policy is currently under review, she said it has worked well for a lot of working folks arrested for being drunk in public, noting that the late night releases allow them to get home, get cleaned up and get to work in the morning. She also pointed out that folks released in the late-night/early-morning hours aren’t forced to leave the facility. “There is a lobby there — it is well lit, it is dry and you have access to a bathroom,” she said.

Asked about whether they would support the legalization of marijuana, all four candidates essentially dodged the question and instead focused on the impacts of illegal marijuana and the potential consequences of legalization.

Fleming said she accepts the fact that a majority of California voters support legalization, and that she thinks it’s important that it come with a state-wide framework for regulation. Klein said marijuana enforcement would be his lowest priority as district attorney, but said he would work to make sure growers are operating in a “responsible way.” Dollison said legalization is ultimately a state and federal decision, but said if legalization does come he would support a regulatory framework similar to Colorado’s. Finally, Firpo said legalization is coming and needs to be planned for. Generally, she said, marijuana is not the problem. “It’s not the marijuana, necessarily, it’s the crime that goes with it,” she said, referring to home-invasion robberies, cartel activities and environmental degradation.

Asked how they would combat Humboldt County’s drug culture, all the candidates basically said they would work to put dealers behind bars and to keep them there as long as possible and that they would support treatment and education for addicts.

The full debate is set to air on Access Humboldt in the coming weeks. If you missed it, don’t fret: the candidates are set to again lock horns March 20 at 7 p.m. in a debate sponsored by KHSU, the Mad River Union, the Arcata Police Officers Association and the Arcata High School Pepperbox newspaper that will be aired live on KHSU.

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