'Obie,' Braun duke it out in Bridgeport | Sheriff's race takes center stage

BRIDGEPORT—Mono County citizens this past week got their first look at their county wide candidates for the June 3 election, with the main focus swinging toward the race between Sheriff Ralph Obenberger and Mammoth Lakes Reserve Police Officer Ingrid Braun.


Meeting at Memorial Hall across the street from the Mono County Courthouse on Tuesday evening, April 22, Obenberger, nicknamed “Obie” by his staff and friends, and Braun went toe-to-toe on a variety of issues, including the behavior of Obenberger’s deputies during last year’s saturation patrol during the Burning Man festival.


It turned out to be the main event, with an undercard match between sitting county assessor, Bob Musil, and his opponent, Barry Beck.


None of the candidates for the Board of Supervisors participated in the event because both of those races, in District  1 and District 5, are exclusive to Mammoth.That left only the race for assessor and sheriff up for debate on Tuesday.


The Musil-Beck debate had its moments, but it was nothing like the Braun-Obenberger confrontation.


At one point during the two-hour session, for example, Obenberger asked moderator Bob Peters for permission to “rebut her rebuttal,” but was refused.


It was that kind of night.


Braun, a 23-year veteran officer of the Los Angeles Police Department who last year was let go from the Mono County Sheriff’s Department by Obenberger near the end of a one-year probationary period, iterated a campaign theme, charging there was a “disconnect” between the sheriff’s department and the communities in Mono County.


Obenberger, who was appointed sheriff after the resignation of former Sheriff Rick Scholl, and who is facing his first election, fired away on topics such as Braun’s lack of jailhouse management and budget experience.


Neither of them addressed the exact reason why Braun was let go from the Sheriff’s Department last year, but that did not soften the tenor of the debate.


Obenberger, an undersheriff for five years under Scholl, defended himself from an audience member who suggested there was a “contentious” relationship between his department and the public, while Braun pointed out that there was, in fact, a contentious relationship between Obenberger and his own Board of Supervisors.


“Boy, I’m glad I was just moderating the event,” said Peters afterward. Himself a candidate for the Board of Supervisors two years ago, Peters said, “It was nice to not be in the hot seat.”


It was hot, all right, particularly when it came to the Burning Man issue, which first surfaced last autumn when the sheriff’s department instituted a “saturation patrol” on traffic headed southbound from Black Rock, Nev., by way of Mono County and U.S. 395.


That issue led to an exchange over tourism in the county, and to what kind of face the county wants to put on law enforcement.


“We should be mindful of how tourism drives Mono County,” Braun said during several references to the Burning Man issue, “and we should be certain that our enforcement efforts are going toward things that impact our community.”


Obenberger, previously, had set the stage.


“The big thing,” he said, “is making a safe environment for your people and visitors in the county.


“In doing so, you automatically foster business dollars coming into the county. 


“People talk about, ‘Are you too aggressive on the streets, or not aggressive enough?’


“There is a balance, but you also have to take into account that if you’re not aggressive enough, what’s going to happen to the quality of life, or the future customers for the businesses in the communities? 


“I personally believe that being hard on narcotics and hard on the criminal element brings people to this county.


“Are there going to be some who say, ‘I’m going to stay away because I’m not going to take the chance of being pulled over?’ Sure. 


“But what if you don’t actively participate in taking criminals to jail? Then the criminal element can be set in the communities without you even knowing about it, and the quality of life goes down.


“So I believe the sheriff’s responsibility is to the safety of the residents and visitors, and that safety can inherently bring dollars into the community.”


The most inflammatory exchange between the two candidates came from the audience.


Under the format of the forum, which was hosted by the Mono County Republicans, each candidate opened with a short statement.


Peters then picked, at random, written questions from the audience, allowing for rebuttal time if needed.


After a short break, candidates took questions directly from the audience, again with rebuttal time allowed.


Finally, each candidate closed with a two-minute wrap-up, before the audience, numbering about two-dozen, scattered into the night.


During the written question portion, an audience member challenged Obenberger’s “contentious” relationship with the public.


“If people want to talk to me about something, about a policy,” Obenberger said, “or whether it’s about the direction the department’s taking, or interviewing a deputy, come knock on my door and sit in my office. Call me up for a cup of coffee. I’ll meet you and discuss it.


“I don’t believe there’s contentious feelings between the citizens or my department, or I’d have had a multitude of complaints, and in the last year, we had zero complaints from the citizens of the county or out of the county. 


“So I don’t think there is a contentious issue with the department and the community.”


Braun, soft-pedaling, reminded the audience that Obenberger confronted the Board of Supervisors itself after two supervisors, Tim Fesko and Larry Johnston—both of whom were in the audience Tuesday evening—expressed misgivings about the department’s policy during the Burning Man festival over the last Labor Day weekend.


In that public flare-up, Obenberger responded by reading a pointed letter to the supervisors explaining his constitutional obligations, and reminding the board that while the supervisors might have control over the department’s budget, they were not to direct department policy in any way.


During that board meeting, Obenberger was flanked by about a half-dozen uniformed deputies.


“I think there’s a little bit of contention,” Braun said, “and that was evidenced by reading the letter before the Board of Supervisors. 


“There is some conflict,” she continued, “and if I were sheriff, I’d be very accessible. It’s not just a campaign strategy for me. 


“Call me. Walk in my door. Come have a meeting with me.”


Braun conceded several points to Obenberger in the debate, particularly on making budget decisions.


“When it comes to budget,” she said, “I’ve never managed a department of this size, but I do have a confidence in the budget personnel we have in place at the Sheriff’s Department.


“I can learn it. I can learn all kinds of stuff. I have every confidence in my ability to manage this budget and look for ways to save money in these times of fiscal crisis.  


“There are opportunities we will have to look at the budget to make the department work better and collaboratively with county leaders to fix the financial crisis that we’re in.”


Obenberger also criticized Braun’s campaign claim that she had experience in managing a jail while she was serving in the Los Angeles Police Department.


“In a holding facility,” he said, “you maintain inmates to an extent, but it’s completely different than a permanent housing facility that houses people from 10 days up to four years, which we have currently.”


Meanwhile, Musil and Beck did their best trying to explain their differences in the assessor’s office, but the main takeaway was in how much they actually agreed on a number of matters.


Those included an assessment, as it were, on the state of the office itself over the past six years, as well as the importance of resolving tax assessment appeals from both Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the ORMAT geothermal plant near Mammoth.


Those issues were largely non-inflammatory, though.


The hot seats, in Peters’ phrase, belonged to the sheriff’s candidates, and they didn’t hold back.