State

Stanislaus Sheriff's debate topic is lawsuits

Turlock police Capt. Rob Jackson on Thursday charged that poor leadership from Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson opened the county to expensive lawsuits that exacerbate tough budget cuts.

"We're spending millions of dollars each year to handle lawsuits," Jackson said in a debate with Christianson's top deputy. "I directly attribute that to the culture and environment created by my opponent."

Jackson wants to unseat Christianson in the June 8 election. Their campaigns met at forums three times this week, with Undersheriff Bill Heyne standing in for Christianson on Thursday because the sheriff received a subpoena to testify in a Yolo County case involving a child predator.

Heyne defended Christianson's record and tried to focus the debate on an overall drop in crime over four years.

"You hired Adam Christianson four years ago to keep you safe. You're safer than you were four years ago," Heyne said.

Legal claims have dogged Christianson's first term. Ten were filed by female employees. The county won one lawsuit and settled another.

Heyne said those personnel-related lawsuits stemmed from Christianson's efforts to hold employees accountable for their actions.

"Many people have this sense of entitlement," Heyne said. "When you tell them 'no,' they don't like it."

The county earlier this month moved to set aside $7 million in a liability fund, triple the sum it reserved for legal expenses just two years ago. Officials attributed the need to increase the size of the fund to a crunch of expensive lawsuits centered on the Sheriff's Department.

Heyne said the most expensive cases involved deaths at the county jail. Last year, Craig Prescott, a mentally ill former jail deputy, died in custody after a struggle with officers. His family is seeking $10 million from the county in a lawsuit.

Heyne said that's the kind of lawsuit that a law enforcement agency sees from time to time. "Deaths in our jail are nothing new," he said.

Jackson sought to make the election a referendum on Christianson, arguing that the sheriff plays favorites.

He criticized Christianson for letting Capt. Tim David drive a county-owned vehicle to his second home in Monterey County, a practice that came to light after David was involved in a traffic accident there.

"We cannot afford to hold certain employees accountable and let others abuse county funds," Jackson said.

Heyne defended the decision, saying the department asked David to drive the vehicle because it wanted to be able to call him back to work "at a moment's notice."

Thursday's debate took place at the Latino Community Roundtable in front of about 40 people.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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