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In the News - Friday, May 7, 2010

 

Sheriff's candidates face off at 3R forum

by John Elliott

  On Monday, May 3, local voters had just such an opportunity at the regular Three Rivers Town Hall to become more informed about the issues in the campaign for Tulare County Sheriff.
   Following a brief explanation of the ground rules for questions from the audience, candidates Chief John Zapalac (challenger), and Sheriff Bill Wittman (incumbent) were allotted up to seven minutes to make an opening statement.
   Zapalac, 59, currently Woodlake’s chief of police, opened the discussion by framing the challenges of fighting crime in Tulare County. He said the majority of crime in Tulare County involves gangs and drugs.

  “When I took over as police chief in 1997, gangs actually controlled the two city parks in Woodlake,” Zapalac recalled. “Today, the community owns those parks and families can enjoy these parks and feel safe to walk the streets.”
   Zapalac said the number-one drug problem in Tulare County is methamphetamine. It’s like a disease, he said, and one that he has combated in Woodlake with prevention.

  “I want to be your sheriff because I’m young, healthy, and want to reduce crime in Tulare County like we have done in Woodlake,” Zapalac told the audience.
   Sheriff Wittman admitted he was a little nervous but assured the audience that he is the current sheriff and has been for the past 15 years.

  “When I first became sheriff in 1995, the department didn’t even have bullet-proof vests for its officers,” Wittman said. “Today we have the best equipment, best patrol cars, and the best firearms of any department of similar size.”
   Wittman, 66, also reminded the audience that he has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years, the majority of that with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. He said when it comes to dealing with gangs “…we hit them hard and often.”
   For his department, suppression is the priority, but the 12 community-based officers that are being funded with federal stimulus money demonstrate that “…we are for prevention too.”
   The questions from the audience ranged from how to deal with rowdy youth to protecting riverfront property owners’ rights. The answers to these questions eventually came around to coverage and response time.
   Huge challenges are posed by the lack of funding, Wittman said.

  “In 15 years, I’ve seen the budget grow from $33 million to $82 million but for these last two years I’ve had to take a $5.2 million hit,” Wittman said. “You have a resident deputy and I’ve tried to have an extra deputy up here on Deputy Fansett’s days off.”
   But there still is little coverage at night and 911 response times that have ranged from a few minutes when the resident deputy is on duty to an hour or more when no deputies are local.
   Here’s where the two candidates had some clear differences.

  “Those response times are not acceptable,” replied Zapalac. “There are ways to rotate the officers so some could always be available to respond in less time.”
   Wittman rebutted Zapalac’s statements by assuring everyone that the department is doing the best they can given the current budget.

  “I would address the Board of Supervisors and educate them as to why funding must be in place to rotate these officers,” Zapalac said.
   One possible solution to the lack of law-enforcement coverage at night is the use of surveillance cameras at key places.

  “We’ve used cameras in Woodlake in the city parks and it has had an impact when an officer can walk right up on the criminal activity,” Zapalac said.
   Wittman concluded his remarks by saying: “I’ve had to fight for every dime for what this department needs to do the job and as your sheriff I will continue to do so.”
   The next Town Hall Meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 7, and will deal with the legality of river use and access.

 
THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
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