Sheriff candidates have showdown at Old Goats

A candidate for Island County Sheriff criticized his incumbent opponent’s leadership abilities and track record at an Old Goats — Fully Informed Voters luncheon on South Whidbey Friday.

Deputy Lane Campbell said Sheriff Rick Felici has made little contact with the public or even his own staff over his nearly four years in office.

“Our current sheriff has had over three and a half years to improve employee and community relations, but in my opinion, has drastically missed the mark, essentially leaving the helm unmanned and the ship with no direction,” Campbell said. “A vast amount of the public don’t even know who the sheriff is, let alone the vision for making Island County a safer place to live and raise their families.”

Felici, however, maintained that he has been successful in creating a culture of leadership in the sheriff’s office and investing in deputies. The sheriff declined to jab back at his opponent, stating he intended to honor an agreement he said he and Campbell made to campaign on the issues and avoid personal attacks.

The terse exchange was only the beginning of a two-hour question-and-answer session, during which the candidates fielded questions from the largely conservative Old Goats about their plans to fulfill Island County residents’ needs with regards to public safety. Department staffing issues, the prevalence of drugs in the county and how to increase department funds all arose as key issues.

Both candidates acknowledged that the department’s difficulty maintaining sufficient staff is at the heart of several other issues within the county. When questioned by forum participants on how they intended to interface with parents and school administrators about teen drug use or protect South End businesses from burglary or vandalism, Felici and Campbell echoed a similar refrain.

“I will assign as many officers as it takes as soon as we have them,” Felici said, later adding, “At the moment, we have what we have.”

According to Felici, the Island County Sheriff’s Office has funding for 43 positions, up from 39 when he was first elected in 2018, though not all the positions are filled. Campbell said he would love to see the department maintain 50-53 positions, though the county is unlikely to allocate funds for additional positions when the department has not consistently filled the positions it already has.

Felici said there are currently six trainees in the pipeline with more applicants undergoing background checks, but with public perception of police at its lowest in decades, law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling to secure new hires.

The sheriff identified increasing staff as his top priority, saying that implementation of other programs, such as a police canine program that one forum participant asked about, would take a backseat to this more urgent matter.

“You can’t justify the purchase of a snowmobile if you’re barely making the rent, and at this point, staffing has to be the priority,” he said.

Campbell, meanwhile, said the money spent on a canine program would be little compared to the amount loss of staff is already costing the department, and he would be willing to invest in a police dog if it would assist in efforts to keep drugs off the streets.

Campbell said mitigating drug use in Island County would receive his immediate attention should he be elected sheriff, promising that he “will not let Island County turn into King County” and again criticizing the current administration of the sheriff’s office, which he said has “done nothing in over seven years with the drug issues here.”

Felici also acknowledged that the use of hard drugs has entered the mainstream more so than ever before, especially among youth.

Luncheon attendees questioned whether the department could request more money from county commissioners to address Island County residents’ concerns. Felici said the sheriff’s office has requested additional funding from the county every year since he started working there almost 30 years ago. He said funds for the sheriff’s office come from the county’s general fund, and that he and the county commissioners don’t always see eye-to-eye about how much money the sheriff’s office requires to function. Though the county has granted some budget increases, the costs of the office’s various expenses have also increased.

A significant increase in the sheriff’s office budget would more than likely have to come from increasing taxes, he said, something no one wants to do.