Sheriff, deputy duel it out in campaign

A somewhat-bitter rematch is playing out between the Island County sheriff and a veteran deputy.

A somewhat-bitter rematch is playing out between the elected Island County sheriff and a veteran deputy.

Rick Felici and Lane Campbell, two longtime members of the department, both ran for the county’s top law enforcement position four years ago when the former sheriff, Mark Brown, decided to retire. Felici was part of the administration and promised a continuation of the agency’s lean but professional approach to law enforcement while Campbell ran as a reformer who could bring needed change to an insular command structure.

Felici won in 2018, besting Campbell by receiving 13% more of the vote. They are facing off again this year, but now Felici is defending his own record.

Although they are both Republicans, Campbell has injected party politics into the race this time around by saying he would be a “constitutional sheriff.” According to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, adherents believe that the law enforcement powers of the sheriff supersedes any other official at any level of government, even superseding the power of the president.

Campbell said that means he won’t enforce laws that he believes are unconstitutional; he gave the example of a governor mandate to take guns away from citizens.

Felici said he “absolutely supports the constitution,” which does not say that the sheriff has the power to supersede all others or to decide what’s constitutional. Doing so is the Supreme Court’s role, he said, and his job is to enforce the laws.

While he and Campbell have raised nearly identical amounts from contributors — $8,900 — the primary results were lopsided, with Felici ahead by 22%.

Felici worked his way up from patrol deputy during his 28-year career in the office and has many years of management experience. As sheriff, he said he has strived to improve the culture of the office by investing in things like leadership and de-escalation training, promoting the right people and emphasizing the core value of service. Complaints against deputies are very rare nowadays, he said.

“We’re absolutely in the service business,” he said. “Sometimes it’s taking bad guys to jail. Sometimes it’s dealing with a lost Alzheimer’s patient. Either way, it’s about serving the public.”

The tactic and role of law enforcement continues to evolve, Felici said, and it’s important for the sheriff’s office to embrace that. His office has grant-funded outreach programs in which opioid abuse responders and mental health professionals respond alongside deputies. He worked with state lawmakers to obtain funds for body-worn cameras. He said he regularly holds meetings with the public to address singular concerns, such as a recent increase in property crime in Freeland.

Felici said he is frustrated by the misinformation and vitriol being spread online during this election season, but that he’s kept his promise to run a clean campaign. He has repeated the phrase, “We can’t afford to confuse ‘louder’ with ‘leader.’”

Campbell has worked as a patrol deputy for the sheriff’s office for more than 30 years. He didn’t seek advancement, he said, because he couldn’t afford the pay cut that comes with salaried positions. He said his on-the-road perspective would be very valuable for a sheriff who wants to understand the needs of the community and of deputies. He feels Felici has lost touch.

“We want to get him out of the office where he’s been sitting for 20 years,” he said.

In fact, Campbell said he would continue to hit the roads regularly as sheriff.

Campbell sees a lack of communication as a major problem. Campbell said Felici has a “circle of friends” and the rest of the force and the community hear little from him. He claims that Felici’s administration has a habit of trying to hide its “dirty laundry.” He promises an open-door policy both within the department and with the public.

“From day one, we are going to be transparent with the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.

The biggest challenge in the sheriff’s office, they both agree, is staffing. The office is funded for 43 deputies but currently only has 36, with two or three new people going through background checks.

Felici said law enforcement agencies statewide have trouble filling positions and the demand for new recruits is large. Island County has a hard time competing with other agencies because it is a small, off-the-beaten track county and the deputies’ pay is relatively small. He doesn’t control salaries, which are negotiated between the union and the county. He said the office makes efforts at recruiting by attending job fairs, but it’s hard to compete with agencies like the Border Patrol that can provide much larger salaries.

Felici said his goal is to have 50 to 55 deputies to “right size the office.” With that level, he would be able to do things like bring back a proactive team to focus on singular concerns, such as burglaries in Freeland or drug houses on North Whidbey.

“Our priority is to fill vacancies,” he said. “That’s key to everything else we want to do.”

Campbell said the lack of staffing is simply unacceptable and creates dangerous situations with deputies responding to calls without backup and citizens having to wait for help. He said the sheriff should be doing much more to recruit deputies and to increase the diversity of the office. That includes, he said, keeping in close contact with high schools, colleges and the military and aggressively marketing the department.

Social media can be a great tool, he said, and he plans to dramatically increase the department’s online presence.

Also, Campbell said incentive bonuses would help attract lateral applicants who won’t have to be trained. He said he would do all he can as sheriff to increase wages and improve working conditions. He wants to see an end to the pattern of “we train but can’t retain.”