Monday, June 18 , 2018, 8:48 am | Fair 62º


Local News

Montecito Evacuation Orders Among Key Distinctions in Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Election

Challengers Eddie Hsueh, Brian Olmstead put incumbent Bill Brown on defensive over disaster orders, overtime and morale

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Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, left, at a recent election forum with his two challengers, Lts. Brian Olmstead, right, and Eddie Hsueh. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown faces an election challenge from two of his top lieutenants in a political showdown that has infused high drama into a usually predictable sheriff’s contest.

The election is June 5.

Brown has held the office for the past 12 years, but after three terms, his chief rivals say that it’s time for new blood. The challengers, Lts. Eddie Hsueh and Brian Olmstead, both contend that mandatory overtime at the County Jail, low staff morale, and an inability to recruit and retain public safety personnel are reasons why the county needs a new top cop.

“I will immediately initiate an innovative recruitment program starting with youth and college programs, and offer incentives for officers who stay with the department,” Hsueh told Noozhawk.

“I will also create one class of deputies, eliminating the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, and cross-train all to increase coverage and competency so that any officer can cover either patrol or custody.”

He said cross-training would stop excessive overtime costs, unnecessary workers compensation claim, and the use of excessive sick time.

“Our overtime now makes us offer less services with more dollars spent,” Hsueh said.

He added that he would have a “clear, open-door policy” so that all employees’ concerns are heard, and action is taken whenever possible.

Olmstead, too, said that the Sheriff’s Department administration is not doing enough to retain “qualified, skilled deputies, because they are just plain tired.” Those conditions, he told Noozhawk, force them to retire or pursue a lateral transfer to another department.

“These experienced deputies know the job, and know what needs to be done,” he said. “I will listen to them and make them part of the solution.”

Olmstead also said the department must recognize the strain that the mandatory overtime places on deputies and their families.

“We must recognized that mandatory overtime in the jail has been a problem for over a decade,” he said. “It will take some time to fix this issue since it has not been addressed. As acknowledged by the Grand Jury, we have to become more professional with our recruiting process to fill our vacancies.

“We will have to make a financial investment toward recruiting, looking at what has worked in neighboring jurisdictions, including recruiting bonuses for both future employees and current employees to recruit and, most important, retain skilled deputies.”

Olmstead said a regular recruiting practice should be outreach to local high schools, community colleges and UC Santa Barbara to introduce a career in law enforcement.

Brown acknowledges there has been a problem with overtime, understaffing, recruitment and retention.

“For many years the Sheriff’s Office has had too few employees to do the myriad of jobs we are tasked, and in many cases mandated by law, to do,” he said.

But Brown said the county Board of Supervisors makes the decisions on staffing levels, and that budget constraints have caused “unprecedented staffing reductions.”

Since 2007, the Sheriff’s Department has lost 90.5 general fund positions.

“These staffing cuts have exacerbated the problem and mean that most shifts must now operate at minimum staffing levels,” Brown said. “As a result, almost any employee-lost time — due to training, illness, injuries, vacations, military leave, etc. — must be backfilled using overtime.”

Brown emphasized that he doesn’t control the budget.

“I will continue our ongoing enhanced recruitment efforts that have included streamlining and accelerating testing processes, expanding the number of personnel assigned to Human Resources, forming a collateral recruitment team comprised of volunteers from throughout the agency, looking further and wider to find prospective employees, and encouraging the Board of Supervisors to ensure that staffing is adequate, and that employee salaries and benefits are competitive,” he said.

The candidates also discussed the decisions surrounding the controversial evacuation and repopulation orders for the Thomas Fire and the Montecito flash flooding and debris flows, which killed 23 people — 19 of them in the “voluntary” evacuation zone below East Valley Road.

“What I saw and heard was a need for leadership on many levels,” Hsueh said. “From the patrol standpoint, we ordered everyone into one location, often many hours before we had a plan for deploying them.

“We need to include field supervisors more in the planning and decision-making process, as they do the work and can provide invaluable input.”

He said the department “could have had better pre-planning and had leadership in the field with that plan prior to deploying deputies, and could have briefed and directed the troops, making it easier for them to do their work better.”

Olmstead, who said he was not at the original meeting when the storm evacuation lines were determined, noted that “with hindsight it is very easy to say that mistakes were made, and the evacuation orders should have been different.”

“In evaluating that decision it should be noted that public safety must always plan for the worst and hope for the best to happen, and obviously it did not happen here,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the decision making Highway 192 (East Valley Road) the line for mandatory evacuation was an east/west solution to a problem that needed a north/south answer,” he added, referring to wildfire evacuation maps that drew the line laterally below the mountainsides while creeks and waterways cross both zones as they travel downhill.

Olmstead said he believes that if there had been more time between the Thomas Fire, which exploded through Montecito on Dec. 16, and the Jan. 9 flooding and debris flows, a better evacuation plan could have been developed, explained to the public and implemented.

“Although I think everyone thought that there was a strong likelihood of rocks and debris coming down, no one thought that it would be as significant as it did,” he said. “Also, I believe that through our years of fire evacuations using our zones, we were all trained, as was the public, with our evacuation zones and we stood by them.

“The sheriff should have asked more questions to identify the worst-case scenario.”

Olmstead also said the evacuation orders were problematic.

“I also believe that in order to form an opinion on Sheriff Brown’s handling of the (January) evacuations you must also look at the Thomas Fire repopulation efforts,” he said. “I believe we kept people out of their homes too long and there was evacuation fatigue.”

Olmstead said he worked to get the majority of residents within Santa Barbara city limits and nearby areas back into their homes quickly. After discussing it with the Thomas Fire Incident Command for more than 1½ days, a plan was developed and the Sheriff's Department was going to repopulate most areas on Dec. 19.

He said the plan was approved by the Fire Incident Command and Undersheriff Barney Melekian, but minutes before the release of the information to the public, Brown made the decision not to repopulate. The mandatory evacuation orders were not lifted until Dec. 22.

“This prevented the residents from returning for an additional two nights, costing them additional money and adding to the evacuation fatigue,” Olmstead said. “The sheriff had not attended the working group meetings, and did not discuss this with us, but made the decision prior to learning the reasons for our repopulation plan.

“This is just one of many examples that demonstrates the complaint that he does not listen to his subordinates and discounts our ideas and opinions.”

Brown defended his actions leading up to the deadly January disaster.

“The recommendation to evacuate, and the areas to evacuate, were identified rapidly, under pressure and in the face of impending danger by a joint operational group comprised of high-level emergency leaders from several agencies,” he said.

“This was done following consultation with scientific subject matter experts and an evaluation of what limited data was available. As sheriff, I heeded this group’s recommendations and approved the evacuation orders.”

No one could have predicted the massive mud and debris flows that arrived Jan. 9, he said.

“Tragically, the storm that was predicted, the one we had prepared for, was not the storm that we received,” Brown said. “The storm that arrived during the early morning hours of Jan. 9 was one of epic proportion that caused far more damage than was anticipated — indeed far more than has ever been recorded in our county’s history.

“We will certainly do some things differently in the future as a result of hindsight, additional and improved data, expanded knowledge and understanding of debris flows, and our lived experiences. We have also made a joint commitment with other public safety agencies to ongoing process improvements, including the development of better approaches to threat evaluation, public education and awareness, community warnings, and operational preparedness and response.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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