Of all the election races in Mono County, none has generated more debate than the contest for sheriff.
Sheriff Ralph Obenberger, 54, is facing Mammoth Lakes Police Reserve Officer Ingrid Braun, 46, in the most hotly contested race in the June 3 primary elections.
For both, it is their first election.
The Board of Supervisors, following the resignation of former Sheriff Rick Scholl, appointed Obenberger, a former undersheriff, to the job in late 2012.
Braun, a 21-year veteran officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who retired with a rank of lieutenant, moved to Mammoth with her husband Mike, also a veteran of the LAPD.
She joined the Sheriff’s Department when Scholl was the sheriff, but was let go by Obenberger six days before her one-year probationary period was to expire.
Obenberger has not said publically why he fired her; Braun said that under the law, that was his prerogative, and she has consistently declined to speculate as to the reasons why she was dismissed.
“I was not given a reason, other than I didn’t fit into ‘the big picture,’” she said.
Both candidates have strident supporters.
At a Bridgeport candidates forum on April 22, the crowd was decidedly pro-Obenberger, but at a candidates forum in Lee Vining on April 29, a pro-Braun crowd turned out in force, turning a scheduled two-hour debate into a forum that lasted 2-hours, 45-minutes.
The two candidates offer opposing views on a variety of issues, not the least of which is how the Sheriff’s Department is to present itself through the actions of its deputies in the field, whether it is a by-the-book tactic (Obenberger), or with a more community-driven approach (Braun).
Also at issue are three specific legal cases, two of them involving Obenberger and his actions in two employee terminations that were overturned, as well as an arrest by his officers later disallowed in court.
On Wednesday, April 30, the two engaged again in a forum, this time at a Mammoth Lakes Rotary Club Forum in Suite Z at the Town Offices.
At the heart of Obenberger’s campaign is what he says is his experience in rural law enforcement, jail management, budget oversight and team building.
At the heart of Braun’s campaign is her experience in the field, and her insistence that there is “a disconnect” between citizens and the Sheriff’s Department; an overemphasis on being on U.S. 395 and deputies “hunting” for traffic stops.
“A lot of people would like to see a different style of leadership—a culture shift in the Sheriff’s Department,” she said in an interview.
“For the deputies, [if I were elected] I don’t think it would look different.
“I would expect them to answer their call for service and to be out there in the community—if they see a traffic violation that they feel needs stopping, to make the stop; if they feel a ticket needs to be written, to write that ticket.
“They would still arrest the bad guys, still serve the warrants, work MONET (narcotics), and be involved in everything.
“I wouldn’t change the law enforcement. I would want more engagement, more interaction.”
Obenberger said he stands behind the way he has managed the department, and said he sees no “disconnect” at all.
“If people want to talk to me about something, about a policy, or whether it’s about the direction the department is taking, come knock on my door and sit in my office. Call me up or we’ll grab a cup of coffee. I’ll meet you and discuss it.”
In expanding her views on what she would specifically do to improve the relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the citizens, Braun said she would not emphasize the U.S. 395 corridor as much, and would engage the community at outreach meetings.
“The main concern with the Sheriff’s Department,” she said, “is that the community is saying, ‘We don’t even know the Sheriff’s Department and we don’t have any connection with them.’
“But I would throw that back on the community, too.
“So maybe we have a community advisory board; have town hall meetings; have myself and my deputies go to RPAC regularly, or at least once a year or if an issue needs to be addressed, to be involved.
“But the community needs to be involved with the Sheriff’s Department, too.”
Asked in Bridgeport if there was a “contentious” relationship between his deputies and the citizens, Obenberger said there was not.
“I don’t believe there’s contentious feelings between the citizens and my department,” he said. “In the last year, we’ve had zero complaints from the citizens of the county, so I don’t think there is a contentious issue with theAs for the communications within the Sheriff’s Department itself, Obenberger said his deputies are solidly behind him.
“I think I communicate better than my predecessor,” Obenberger said of Scholl, “and I don’t think the deputies—and I don’t want to put words in Rick’s mouth—but I don’t think Rick and the deputies communicated very well about what Rick actually wanted. My philosophy is that you’re a law enforcement officer; you have a badge on your chest and you’re supposed to keep the community safe.”
To that end, Obenberger has emphasized in his campaign an 89 percent rise in arrests in 2013 over 2012—from 287 to 544.
Of those, 17 came in connection with the “saturation patrol” Mono County deputies conducted over last Labor Day Weekend, when participants who had been at Nevada’s Burning Man Festival were en route home to Southern California along U.S. 395.
Critics of the department’s policy that weekend included both Tim Fesko, the North County’s representative on the Board of Supervisors; and Larry Johnston, a supervisor representing District 1 in Mammoth.
Obenberger, however, said he stood by the policy, as well as his response in front of the board last January.
“We set up a saturation patrol like we’ve done before. Do we identify and pull over Burning Man vans or trucks or cars? No. We pull over any car that has an equipment violation or a mechanical violation or is breaking the vehicle code.
“If we don’t see a violation, we’re not going to pull you over. We don’t break the law to enforce the law.
“That weekend, over a four-day weekend, we made 17 arrests, for not just a little bag of marijuana, but for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, MDMA (Ecstasy)—all sort of stuff.
“It’s not just a little bag of weed that a guy’s going to smoke in the back seat.
“Is it OK for them to stop at a local establishment, spend dollars buying lunch, and try to sell his or her narcotics to a person standing in line, who might be a resident of the county?”
As for his response to the Board of Supervisors, Obenberger, who was flanked by a half-dozen deputies that day, said it was a well-considered presentation.
“There was something that Supervisor Fesko said, something to the effect that the Sheriff’s office was doing questionable or illegal stops.
“I took offense at that. I was upset. So I stood up at that point in time and told them (the supervisors) that we don’t break laws to enforce laws, and we’re going to go step-by-step to enforce the law.
“The next week, I was thinking about putting in a letter to the editor to explain what they have power to do and what the sheriff has power to do.
“But in a meeting of administration staff, we decided to make it a short letter and read it to them, just like they did in open session to me, basically questioning the sheriff’s office over the legalities of such.
“The day before, in a squad meeting, I told my deputies what I was going to do, just so they were aware I was supporting them, and supporting our office, and I had a number of them show up on their own, on off-duty time, because they were trying to support me.
“So basically I just told the Board of Supervisors, ‘This is what you have power to do over the Sheriff’s office: You give me employees, you give me money. You cannot dictate to the sheriff how I’m supposed to enforce the law in this county.’”
As for the spike in arrests, Braun said she had some questions as to why that has happened under Obenberger’s tenure.
“I’m assuming they are not clearing crimes,” she said. “They’re not for people accused of burglary or robbery or rape or murder, because we haven’t had any rapes or murders in five years in Mono County, so I’m assuming they’re arrests for narcotics or other misdemeanors, or things of that nature, and I don’t know if they’re highway-based or not.”
Other issues in the race
There is more than just the arrest rate at issue in the race between Braun and Obenberger.
There is, for example, jailhouse management.
Obenberger claimed running a “holding facility” in L.A. County is a world apart from running a fully functioning jail.
But Braun called that a “non-issue.”
“Rick Scholl had been a Realtor for eight years and he didn’t have any experience running a jail or managing a sheriff department’s budget, running a court or any of those things, yet all those things managed to continue to happen when he came into office.
“It’s something that can be learned. It’s management. Obenberger learned it; Scholl learned it. Every sheriff that comes in learns it.”
Also, there is budget management, a particularly dicey subject this year as the county is facing a $4.7 million projected shortfall for the fiscal year 2014-15.
“I don’t believe my opponent has enough knowledge about what being a sheriff is all about,” Obenberger said.
“It’s very complex. The Sheriff’s Department is almost multiple departments within one sheriff’s office. You have to have knowledge and expertise and not just routine patrol; that’s what everybody sees.
“But the Sheriff’s Office, just like all other sheriff’s offices in the state, has to maintain a jail facility. We have to dispatch to all the fire agencies in the county—Mammoth PD, the Sheriff’s Office, animal control.
“You also have to know about search-and-rescue, because that’s the sheriff’s task in the county, what emergency operations all about.
“You have to know courts; you have to know all sorts of things, like coroner’s duties, you have to know personnel people. You have to be a jack of all trades and have vast knowledge, not just how to work a street or investigate a crime.”
Braun said each new sheriff has to learn these things and that she’s more than capable.
Ultimately, though, it will be voters who will decide.
In the meantime, they have a heck of a race unfolding right before their eyes.