I have been asked by a few folks who I’ll be voting for this primary season. In the most contested race, at-large County commissioner, the three candidates have unique strengths, each of which appeals to some facet of my concern for where the County is going, each of which makes the decision a bit tough.

In the Sheriff’s race, though, there’s only two candidates, one of which, former Hillsborough/Duke University Police Chief Clarence Birkhead, that deserves your wholehearted support.

I met Clarence several months ago and have had the pleasure of getting to know and support his efforts to lead our County forward. I’m convinced he will work for progressive and cost effective policy changes in the Sheriff’s department to overcome the many existing and new challenges before us.

It is certainly a time for change but not just for change sake. Here are some of the key differences I’ve noted between Clarence and the 28 year incumbent Lindy Pendergrass:

Clarence will effectively collaborate with Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Hillsborough and Durham law enforcement and coordinate response to a variety of common issues, including: outreach to immigrant populations, creating a county-wide task force to deal with the growth of criminal gangs (which are spilling over the County’s border from Durham and elsewhere), using timely intelligence collected by other departments (including UNC) on cross-jurisdictional problems.

His service not just in Hillsborough but as Duke University’s Chief underlined for him the importance of working together over going it alone.

As far as communication, Lindy has resisted deploying a radio system that allows the current Sheriff’s department to call upon Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough’s police and fire departments in an emergency. While Hillsborough police can call upon Chapel Hill police directly, Sheriff deputies commonly route communications through the department slowing coordination.

We can no longer take the rather pedestrian view that law enforcement issues are segregated by region – the County and each of its municipalities must work together, eliminate traditional barriers to collaboration. This starts with doing something as simple as equipping our County force appropriately.

Speaking of equipment, it’s time to update our Deputies bulletproof vests – something Lindy has put off year after year though his department has run a net surplus. Clarence will make sure that our Deputies don’t have to worry if the most basic protection will fail because it’s certified lifetime has expired.

Clarence, as chief of Hillsborough’s police department the last 5 years, is well aware of how difficult it can be to communicate with a department a few blocks from his own and has pledged to make dealing with this communications gap a top priority.

Clarence sought out troubled neighborhoods in Hillsborough, found residents who would work with his force to curtail criminal activity. While Clarence fostered double digit decreases in the crime rate using the power of community, Lindy saw a near double digit increase in the County. Yes, Lindy initiated and grew the County’s neighborhood watch program but hasn’t taken it to the next level.

Lindy, unlike Clarence’s proactive approach, has taken a much more passive approach – his “open door” policy reflects an attitude that he’s the mountain we must all come to for service (Lindy even remarked at a recent forum that he’d be happy to have the police chiefs of each jurisdiction come visit him rather than taking Clarence’s approach of seeking them out – which he did as Chief of Hillsborough’s force).

Neighborhood’s are currently not actively recruited into the program, communications are fairly one-way and problem “hot spots” don’t get due attention. Clarence has successfully dealt with problem spots in Hillsborough by taking a cooperative, proactive approach to not just working with neighborhoods but actively soliciting neighborhood support.

The current department doesn’t reflect the diversity of this county.

Clarence will work to put folks on the front lines that are representative of the community we live in. Not only that, at the recent Orange County Democratic Women’s forum, Clarence declared that his policy is not to let a person’s immigration status be an impediment to helping residents. This includes making sure that ICE (immigration enforcement) is applied only when required by statute. He will not replicate the abuses seem elsewhere in North Carolina.

Lindy, unfortunately, continues to tap-dance around the immigrant issue and has not owned up to fingerprinting misdemeanor suspects – which is generally not required – which can trigger ICE action.

Crowding at the County jail, the only jail for all jurisdictions, continues to be a problem. This is not only a human rights issue but an issue affecting law enforcement in each of our local communities. Reserving appropriate capacity to deal with Chapel Hill’s needs, for instance, has taken a back-seat to using the jail as a profit-center, generating Federal dollars housing Federal prisoners. Citizens pay for the jail, our local law enforcement needs should come first.

I’ve liked what Clarence has said about re-balancing the ratio of Federal prisoners currently housed at the County’s jail to prioritize our local obligations, to maintain a facility that is manageable and doesn’t run the risk of civil rights abuses.

Finally, in these dispiriting economic times, Clarence has shown he can live within his community’s fiscal means to support law enforcement.

What about Lindy Pendergrass?

Lindy has been a steady, professional and competent manager for the department – his campaign reflects that steadiness in emphasizing “staying the course”. As Orange County continues to shrink, his current approach hasn’t evolved to meet the growing challenges facing ALL of our residents.

The primary is May 4th and there is a high likelihood that the Democratic candidate coming out of the primary will be the eventual winner – now is the time to get to know your candidates.

More on Clarence here: http://www.clarencebirkhead.com/

As far as that at-large Commissioner’s race? The field is interesting: Barry, the incumbent, who has worked hard on some progressive issues dear to me; Joal, who has a very professional sensibility and has shown she can be as adept at managing County issues as she was a Carrboro BOA member; and Joe, who has taken the lead on budget matters, including making a clear case for structural changes in outlays, to get us from today’s fiscal mess to a more solid foundation.

They all have attributes I prize and I expect that there is a good chance for a run-off depending on turnout.

As far as Senate, my heart says Ken Lewis though I know he is the longest of shots. Elaine Marshall is a product of the political machine, has routinely avoided taking stances on controversial issues in her many years of service to the State, has missed several opportunities to make substantial, progressive changes our State needs.

The Appeals Courts are two seats I’m still researching. As folks might recall from my posts in 2006, elections for Judges rarely get the attention they deserve and answers, by necessity, sometimes require a level of circumspection that makes it difficult to tease out differences.

I’ll be working the Library poll May 2nd, hope to see you there….

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