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Howdy, Sheriff 

Two men named Mike duke it out to become the county's top lawman

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Howdy, Sheriff
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Howdy, Sheriff

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There's a gold star badge pinned to his chest, a pistol tucked into the leather holster at his hip, and on his belt you'll find a shiny pair of handcuffs. Hardware aside, though, the job of a modern-day sheriff bears little resemblance to that of the iconic lawman of the Old West -- the dusty, taciturn peace officer who, with the help of a trusty deputy or two, rid the town of lawless scoundrels.

Nowadays, being sheriff is more like running a complex, multi-agency corporation. (Sheriff Gary Philp says his most valuable tool is his BlackBerry.) The 21st Century Humboldt County Sheriff's Office has six divisions including 11 separate units, 235 full-time employees, 45 part-timers and more than 100 volunteer staff. With an annual budget in excess of $26 million, the office is responsible not only for law enforcement in the county's sprawling unincorporated areas but also for running the county jail, operating an animal shelter, handling airport security, issuing gun permits, conducting search and rescue operations, responding to emergencies and more. They have a crisis negotiations team, a special weapons and tactics team and even -- get this -- a bomb-defusing robot.

Sheriff Philp, who announced in November that after eight years in the position he will retire at the end of 2010, says there's no such thing as a typical day at the office. "It's a series of ever-changing events from one day to the next," he said, though truthfully, that makes the job sound more exciting than it probably is. Most of those "ever-changing events" are meetings, Philp said -- meetings with community groups, department heads and staff, meetings about citizen complaints and personnel issues, and lots of meetings about the budget -- especially in recent years. With the destitute state government raiding county coffers, last year's Sheriff's Office budget was cut by more than $3.3 million -- a 12-and-a-half percent reduction. No one was laid off, Philp said, but through hiring freezes and attrition the office lost 10 deputy sheriffs, 12 correctional officers and six civilian staffers. They've also been forced to defer maintenance and wish-list projects and reduce overtime.

Still, Philp said he loves his job. And he's confident that if he chose to run again, he'd win. But after 37 years in law enforcement, and at the ripe old age of 58, he's ready to turn in his badge and hang up his spurs.

Which, theoretically at least, leaves this year's race for sheriff wide open. Two men, both named Mike, are vying to replace Philp. Mike Downey, 54, of Fortuna, is considered by many to be the heir apparent. He's worked under Philp in one capacity or another for all of the 24 years he's spent with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, gradually working his way up to the rank of undersheriff, Philp's right-hand-man and second in command. Confident in Philp's popularity, Downey has vowed that as sheriff he would continue in the same direction.

Mike Hislop, 48, of McKinleyville, is the outsider and, by any measure, a decided underdog despite a long, distinguished career. With 30 years in law enforcement, including nearly 25 with the Eureka Police Department and the past three as chief investigator at the District Attorney's Office, Hislop believes the Sheriff's Office needs a new direction and a new style of leadership. He says Philp's department is out of touch with the community and has shown a lack of fiscal responsibility. Hislop's campaign hinges on presenting himself as a desirable alternative to the "status quo."

In two sit-down interviews and a series of follow-up phone calls, the two candidates for sheriff offered previews of how they would run the county's largest department. Law enforcement being more straightforward than, say, policy making, their differences are more about style and demeanor than philosophy. But there are indeed differences, and as these interviews reveal, both men are willing to fight for the job.

Mike Downey grew up in southern California, attending high school in San Diego County, just outside Camp Pendleton Marine Base in the town of Fallbrook, known then as the avocado capital of the world. After graduating, Downey, the third of four children, drove trucks, among other jobs, before deciding at 26 to go into law enforcement. He worked for the San Diego County Sheriff's Office for three years before moving to Humboldt County in April 1986. His wife's family lived here, and they told him there was an opening at the sheriff's office. He tested and was hired that same year.

He and his wife of 30 years now have six children, ranging in age from 13 to almost 30, as well as four grandkids and another on the way. In addition to his duties as undersheriff, Downey volunteers as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scout troop in Fortuna, and he serves as vice chair for the Humboldt County chapter of the American Red Cross. Until recently he was also an instructor at College of the Redwoods' police academy (stricter teacher requirements forced him to drop that responsibility for now).

While he's served with Philp throughout his career in Humboldt County, Downey said they've worked especially closely since he was promoted to undersheriff three years ago. "We share the same basic goals and direction [that] we think the sheriff's office should go," Downey said recently over a cup of coffee in Old Town Eureka. With receding salt-and-pepper hair and a round, genial face, Downey looks a bit like actor Oliver Platt. In a suit and tie, he appeared relaxed and confident while laying out his credentials. "I think we've shown through the last eight years that we have been going in a very positive direction," he said.

Specifically he pointed to the modernization of the department, which in recent years has added new computers in patrol cars, a grant-funded command van and the only Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the region with a bomb-defusing robot, for which the department had to receive training from the FBI.

Downey said the next step in the modernization process should be rebuilding the manpower of the force, though he admitted that may be difficult with the current condition of California's finances. So he and Philp have set their sights a bit lower for now -- aiming to get through the next two years without losing any more personnel.

He said the challenges faced by the sheriff's office include not just the vast geographical region over which the county's communities are spread, but also the distinct character of the communities themselves. Having worked in Shelter Cove, Garberville, Hoopa, McKinleyville and many towns in between, Downey said each community has different expectations for law enforcement -- from the rugged individualists of Southern Humboldt to the conservatives in Fortuna to the eclectic civil libertarians of Arcata.

Regardless of the town, though, Downey says every resident has the right to feel safe and secure in their homes, which is why he selected the campaign slogan, "Building Safer Communities." The way to achieve that, he said, is by opening up lines of communication, revitalizing neighborhood watch groups and making himself available to people. "You know, the old Andy of Mayberry critique is probably the best model you had," Downey said. "He would go out and talk to people. He'd sit and have coffee with them, chat with 'em."

Humboldt County, of course, is bigger than Mayberry, and the sheriff's staff is considerably more complicated than Barney Fife. But through community organizers and his own outreach (he vowed to be out of the office, traveling to outlying areas at least two days per week), Downey said he aims to "put a face to the office of sheriff [so that] people feel comfortable bringing their issues to me."

Last week, Mike Hislop posted a 42-second YouTube video on his campaign Web site that opens with ominous, synthesized strains of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," the epic theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Posted next to the video is this provocative challenge: "Mike Hislop's opponent is leading people to believe that the Undersheriff actually runs the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and not the Sheriff. Who really runs the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office?" In the video, Hislop answers -- four times in 30 seconds -- that it is, in fact, the sheriff. The motivation for the video came from Downey's assertion, which he made to the Journal and elsewhere, that as undersheriff he has "executive authority" over the Sheriff's Office.

Philp, when questioned about this, said he, not Downey, is indeed the Chief Executive Officer of his department, though that doesn't necessarily preclude his undersheriff from having some administrative authority of his own. Hislop insists Downey has gone further and claimed to be the CEO, though he was unable to provide documentation of this.

Regardless, the video reveals Hislop's aggressiveness in going after not only Downey but his boss, Sheriff Philp. Between bites of a recent Mexican buffet lunch in his hometown of McKinleyville, Hislop laid out his case for why he's better qualified for the job of the County's top cop. With his crew cut hair and steely gaze, he looks every bit the seasoned investigator he is, and he went after Downey like a cop peppering a suspect.

"There's a disconnect between the Sheriff's Department and the community," he said. And later, "I have numerous degrees. ... My opponent, to my knowledge, has no degrees. I believe my credentials far outrank his. And my experience far outranks his. ... I'm an innovative thinker. I'm proactive. My opponent, I think, is just status quo."

Hislop, who was born in Oakland, describes himself as a Navy brat. His dad was often overseas. Most of his youth was spent in Lake County where he graduated high school and, at just 18, was hired as a reserve deputy sheriff. He moved to Humboldt County in August of 1983, attended the police academy at College of the Redwoods and was hired by the Eureka Police Department. There he worked his way up through the ranks from officer to corporal to detective to traffic sergeant. He led a SWAT team, worked as a K-9 officer and was in charge of a mounted patrol unit. He holds associate's degrees in Administration of Justice and Manufacturing Technologies, a bachelor's in Criminal Justice, and he graduated in the 198th national FBI academy.

In January 2007, he was hired as the DA's chief investigator, and since then, he said, he's helped make it the best investigative bureau in the county. Citing the successful conclusion of the Curtis Huntzinger cold case, in which the DA's office got a murder confession 18 years after the disappearance of the 14-year-old Blue Lake boy, as well as the prosecution of corrupt Blue Lake Police Chief David Gundersen, Hislop said, "I've solved some major cold cases that they [the Sheriff's Office] couldn't solve [and] taken on corruption in Humboldt County that they didn't want to do."

Hislop's fiercest allegations concerned the Sheriff's Office budget. While officially the department ended last fiscal year over budget by $279,912 (about 1 percent of its total spending), Hislop contends the real overages were close to 10 times that amount. When fiscal year 2008/2009 ended last June, the Sheriff's Office came in $1.15 million over its General Fund-allocated portion of the budget. And this was after some money shuffling at the county level in an annual process called "Payroll Clearing Appropriation Transfers," aka "sweeps." Through this process the County balances its books by using year-end surpluses from some departments to cover deficits in others. Last year, Hislop pointed out, the Sheriff's Office had a year-end deficit of almost $1.2 million, which forced other departments to make up the difference. Add this to the $1.15 million total from after sweeps and you have a budget overrun in excess of $2.3 million, by Hislop's estimation.

When presented with these allegations, Downey was flummoxed. "I don't know where he's getting these figures, but he obviously doesn't have access to the budget -- or doesn't know how to interpret it," Downey said. Philp later offered an explanation. First, he said, the payroll clearing transfers happen every year as part of the normal budget procedures. The Board of Supervisors is well aware of these sweeps, and the county budget office plans for them, Philp said. If the sheriff's office's deficit seems disproportionate, he added, it's only because it has such a large staff. As for the post-sweep figure of $1.15 million, Philp said that too is misleading since all but $279,912 -- the department's official over-budget amount -- was later compensated by the Sheriff's Office itself. (While the fiscal year ends in June, the state doesn't usually adopt its budget until September or later, and Federal funding doesn't come through until October, which delays some bill paying, Philp explained.) County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes vouched for Philp's math.

After this explanation, Philp fired back at Hislop, saying that by leveling such allegations he "shows a real lack of understanding of the process." Hislop, though, holds firm to his stance that the Sheriff's Office is in need of greater fiscal responsibility -- that such budget shuffling shouldn't be necessary. And he points to his own record of securing grants for the DA's Office. His number one priority as sheriff, he said, would be streamlining the budget. "The only promise I'm making in the campaign is, before I lay a deputy off, or a correctional officer, I'm takin' a pay cut myself," he said. His second priority would be reconnecting with the community, which he would achieve in part, he said, by hosting monthly coffee-with-the-sheriff get-togethers.

Downey has suggested similar public outreach proposals. In fact, despite their quibbles over qualifications, the two men have quite similar philosophies on law enforcement. Both said they have no interest (or authority) in going after marijuana users who stay within Prop. 215 guidelines but that grow houses, Mexican cartels and commercial operations need to be fought aggressively. Both said they would continue to issue CCW (carrying a concealed weapon) permits to any law-abiding resident who presents a valid reason. And they agree that, should the budget allow it, they'd like to put deputy sheriffs back in remote residence posts in towns like Orick, Orleans and Petrolia.

But that doesn't mean they consider each other equals. Downey took particular umbrage at some of Hislop's accusations. His lack of college degrees, he said, is irrelevant. "I've been involved in the greatest apprenticeship program in the last 24 years of my career that anyone could be in," he said. "My opponent has never worked in this office and has no idea how this office operates." Regarding Hislop's claims that the DA's Office takes cases the Sheriff's Office doesn't want or can't handle, Downey said, "If you want to get down to it, law enforcement works together. If one agency wants to take the credit for solving a case, then that makes our ability to work together in the future less desirable."

Asked at the end of his initial interview how confident he was, Downey said he felt good. He's been endorsed by some big names including Congressman Mike Thompson and County Supervisors Jimmy Smith and Jill Duffy. Quarterly fundraising reports filed with the county elections office show that, through December, Downey raised $1,905 for his campaign, the vast majority of which came from Philp ($1,000) and Sheriff's Lt. Michael Thomas ($500). Hislop didn't file a fundraising statement for the period. Also, for whatever it's worth, the Downey campaign Facebook page has more than 400 fans compared to Hislop's 100. Downey said of his chances, "I think they're pretty good."

The following day he called back to amend the record. He'd said something in his interview that didn't sit right, and it had been troubling him. "I think I said my chances were 'pretty good,'" he said. "What I want to change that to is 'excellent.' ... I believe my chances are excellent or I wouldn't be running."

Hislop is unimpressed. He said he doesn't have any big-name endorsements and he's not looking for them. "The big names that my opponent has are basically the sheriff's people. That doesn't mean anything to me." He too considers his chances better than pretty good. "They're very, very good," he said. "People want to see some change in the Sheriff's Office."

There's still almost three months to go before the June 8 election, which leaves plenty of time for the race either to continue going as it has been, or to head in a new direction.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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