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So You Want to Be Sheriff?

Normally, the San Diego County Sheriff is elected by county voters every four years. But this year, it will be very, very different. Sometime this spring, instead of a potential 1.5 million registered voters going to the polls to choose one of the county's most powerful officials, the decision will be made by only five people. True, those five are themselves powerful as members of the County Board of Supervisors and collectively have spent almost 100 years in office. But since all are white and Republican in an increasingly racially diverse region where Democrats now outnumber Republicans, it is reasonable to question whether their choice would reflect the voters.

So how did this situation develop? In brief, after 14 years as the county's top cop, long-time Sheriff Bill Kolender announced he's stepping down fully 18 months before his current term in office ends. He ascribed the early retirement to his wife's illness. Others noticed what they interpreted as Kolender's failing health. And still others saw this as a political move to boost the chances of undersheriff Bill Gore as his successor in the 2010 election. An 18-month appointed stint as sheriff would certainly give anyone a leg up as the incumbent.

Not so incidentally, Gore's father had been Kolender's mentor in the San Diego Police Department. So there's a long history between Kolender and the Gore family.


Add to this that three of the five supervisors had endorsed Bill Gore's 2010 candidacy for sheriff. Thus it would seem that Gore has a lock on the appointment. But not so fast. Four other viable candidates, all with credible law enforcement credentials and some with strong political backing quickly emerged as contenders for the 2010 election, with three seeking the 2009 appointment. Of the group, only former San Diego Police Chief David Bejerano has stepped back from vying for the appointment, saying that the supervisors should appoint a "caretaker" sheriff who won't run in 2010 because of the unfair power of that incumbency.

I must admit that I haven't read the County Charter. But apparently, a special election isn't permitted and an appointment is required or the supervisors could do nothing. The building controversy over the appointment and the political maneuvering in behalf of the declared candidates are focusing unusual attention on the supervisors who thrive on quiet power plays and relatively low profiles for politicians. And considering that all have been in office for four or five four-year terms, their strategy works.

Instead of simply moving ahead with the administrative details leading to an appointment, the supervisors are now working to impress those interested that the process will be fair and open, and that everyone and anyone can apply to be sheriff. What an opportunity! Here for the first time in recent history, is your chance to become sheriff for at least a year and a half. Kolender is paid $208,104, so it would be worth your effort. And as I was told by one county staffer, preparation is underway for "a very open, very public series of meetings where candidates and the public will be heard." So get your resume together because applications will be accepted in May and June, and the final candidate hearings are scheduled for mid-June. I suggest you make no big summer vacation plans since Sheriff Kolender's last day on the job is July 2nd.