[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series of profiles of local candidates in the June 3 election. Click here for a related feature on sheriff’s candidate Sandra Brown.]
Just minutes after being sworn in as Santa Barbara County’s sheriff in January 2007, Bill Brown shook the hand of a deputy whose words still resonate seven years later.
Locking eyes with his new superior, the deputy asked for more good men and women in the field, a long-needed hiring boost so staff could properly protect and serve.
Then the economy took a dive, dashing the deputy’s hopes and slashing the already cash-strapped county budget.
With the economy seemingly on the upswing, Brown wants to restore some of the 40 vacant positions, and those plans bank on winning a re-election bid on June 3.
In his way is challenger and sheriff’s Sgt. Sandra Brown, of no relation, a 17-year veteran of the department and currently detective sergeant in the Special Investigations Bureau of the Coroner’s Office.
Filling jobs was among the unfinished business that compelled Bill Brown to run for a third time since 2006, along with preparing to open a new North County Jail in 2018.
“I really feel this is where I’m supposed to be,” he told Noozhawk. “The jail is an important project that’s well under way, and I want to see through to conclusion. I want to see our agency start to rebuild from where we were.
“We’ve had an overcrowding problem and lack of jail capacity problem for more than 30 years in our county. When I ran, it was the number one priority.”
Brown, 57, of Lompoc, has grown accustomed to the hunter green sheriff’s uniform, a change from the blue he wore for nearly 30 years working in police departments.
Growing up, Brown’s family traveled the country while his father worked for Christian evangelist Billy Graham. By the time he was a teenager, shortly after settling in Sherman Oaks near Los Angeles, he knew he wanted to be a cop.
Brown drove an ambulance as a medic before becoming a police officer in Pacifica, a coastal city on the Peninsula south of San Francisco, and then in Inglewood. In 1992, he became police chief in Moscow, Idaho, and three years later accepted a similar post in the Lompoc Police Department, earning management degrees from the University of Redlands and USC.
At the urging of others, Brown ran and won the sheriff’s election in 2006. He was re-elected in 2010, running unopposed.
Ever since, Brown has balanced difficult duties as a lawman and a politician, the latter of which can be hard on his wife of 34 years, Donna, and their three grown children.
“You have to,” said Brown, who’s backed by many local officials and involved in several community organizations. “You’re elected by the people; you’re accountable to the people.”
While guiding the Sheriff’s Department through the worst recession in history, Brown lobbied for state funding, wrote grant proposals, and helped secure most of the $140 million needed for jail project construction, featuring a $96 million facility.
Brown said he’s worked with the county CEO’s office to devise a long-range plan to help fund the nearly $20 million in annual operating costs, which includes setting aside a portion of the county’s general fund growth from 2011 through 2023.
The strategy assumes the economy will continue on a forecasted upturn, especially with the jail providing 400 jobs during construction and 189 after it’s built.
“It is a very workable plan,” Brown said. “It’s going to require fiscal discipline on the part of the board (Board of Supervisors), to not raid the piggy bank.”
As revenue returns, he said he would also like to focus on rebuilding crime prevention efforts and some of the workflow structure damaged when 28 percent of sworn managers were lost to retain front-line department troops.
He acknowledged the county budget was still “fragile,” which is why he opposes Measure M, the June 3 ballot initiative that would set a faster pace to upgrade the county’s infrastructure.
As for whether he’s devoted too much time on the jail and ignored other issues, Brown said he’s delegated talented staff accordingly.
“I think it’s an old political tactic that you turn someone’s strength into a weakness,” he said. “It’s been a priority. It’s easy to be a critic. It’s much harder to be the person who actually has to make decisions.
“I think our qualifications speak for themselves,” he added, referring to his opponent.
One of Brown’s decisions was staffing April’s Deltopia street party with five times more officers than last year in Isla Vista, historically a policing challenge in the student-heavy community west of the UC Santa Barbara campus.
Brown said the rioting that ensued was not unique to IV, but a nationwide shift in youth behavior centered around alcohol consumption.
He defended his department’s response — a smaller allocation of resources than at Halloween — and said it wasn’t a product of underestimation.
Brown said he understands the frustration felt by short-handed staff.
He said he’s looking forward to adding to his 644 full-time workers, proudly reporting that the department actually will be overstaffed for a couple of years while personnel are trained to work in the new jail — a public works project three predecessors couldn’t complete.
Click here for a related profile of sheriff’s candidate Sandra Brown.