The four candidates in Humboldt County's wide-open district attorney's race addressed a variety of topics ranging from marijuana prosecution to plea bargains during a Thursday night forum at the Arcata Community Center.
During the forum -- sponsored by the Mad River Union, KHSU-FM, the Arcata Police Association and the Arcata High School Pepperbox, and broadcast live on KHSU-FM -- candidates were each given 90 seconds to answer each question provided by the public and were also given the opportunity to direct questions to their fellow candidates.
With District Attorney Paul Gallegos not seeking reelection after 12 years in office, the four candidates -- former county deputy district attorneys Allan Dollison, Maggie Fleming and Arnie Klein and current Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo -- began the forum by addressing changes they would implement in the office if elected.
Dollison said that the district attorney's office's low budget and minimal staffing can be addressed by obtaining more funding through the county and grants.
”It is creating a very dangerous situation,” Dollison said. “Attorneys are overworked, there are too many cases that are coming into the office and it is affecting justice ... After that, I'm going to look and search for every grant possible.”
Agreeing with Dollison on staffing concerns, Firpo also said that she would assign deputy district attorneys to each law enforcement agency in order to build up relations and promote “transparency” with cases.
”Law enforcement needs to work with the DA's office to be justice partners,” Firpo said.
Describing the current district attorney's office as a “young career office,” Fleming said that she will also seek to bring in more attorneys and “mentor” those with less experience.
”It is critical to try cases in order to understand how to evaluate a case, but also how to effectively put to trial in front of a jury,” Fleming said.
Though Klein said that more staffing would benefit the office, he said that he would also implement change despite the limitations.
”I can make a difference whether we make the money or not,” Klein said. “... I'm going to prioritize what we're going to go after.”
On the topic of marijuana grows, all four candidates held a common ground with each other by stating they would focus on large grows that damage the environment and endanger the community.
When the topic of plea bargains arose, the attention shifted to the recent plea deal made by Firpo for the fatal stabbing case of Arcata resident Douglas Anderson-Jordet, who was killed in November. In the plea deal made in February with the district attorney's office, Anderson-Jordet's killer -- 35-year-old Juan Joseph Ferrer, of Arcata -- pleaded no contest to the charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Dollison said that if elected, he would “require that we consult with the victims and their families.”
Firpo, who has since been reassigned from the case per her request, said she knew she would be “under scrutiny” as the only practicing deputy district attorney. Firpo defended her decision at the forum and criticized candidates for using it as political ammunition.
”What had been a tragedy has become a travesty,” Firpo said.
Fleming said that with “90 percent” of cases ending in plea bargains, she would “oversee all of the cases and oversee all of the offers” if elected.
”I think that if there is to be justice, there has to be oversight,” Fleming said.
As the most outspoken on the plea deal, Klein criticized Firpo on her lack of experience and said it contributed to the plea deal being struck rather than the case being taken to trial as Anderson-Jordet's family had requested.
”In order to evaluate a case, you have to have some experience,” Klein said. “How many cases has Elan Firpo tried?”
Due to time constraints, several issues such as late-night jail releases and methamphetamine abuse were not able to be addressed during the forum.