PORT ANGELES — The gloves came off at a Clallam County sheriff’s election forum.
Three-term incumbent Bill Benedict and his former detective, Jim McLaughlin, challenged each other from the get-go during a 35-minute appearance Friday before Nor’wester Rotary of Port Angeles.
The format before two dozen breakfast meeting participants in a closed-off corner of the Olympic Medical Center cafeteria allowed questions from the audience and no formal rebuttals.
The two will face each other in the Nov. 6 general election.
Benedict, facing his first opponent since wresting the four-year position from Joe Martin in 2006, criticized McLaughlin, who retired while serving under Benedict in 2016, for minimizing the importance of department accreditation and pushed him to explain how he would fund more deputy positions.
McLaughlin challenged Benedict over what he called “questionable activities” in the Sheriff’s Office.
He cited the mistaken 2013 release of stolen items to a suspect’s family instead of the victim, the 2015 escape of a county jail trusty through a defective door, and a former corrections officer, Howard Blair, who will be tried Jan. 28 on charges of felony sexual misconduct with female inmates.
Blair is scheduled for trial Jan. 28 on four counts of felony custodial sexual misconduct involving four women incarcerated at the jail between Jan. 5-Sept. 30 2017. He resigned in lieu of termination in December 2017.
“Jim read a litany of terrible things happening in the Sheriff’s Office the last few years,” Benedict responded.
“There are going to be employees that misbehave. I’m sorry about that. I’m going to deal with it, and I do.”
Benedict said internal department Sheriff’s Office investigations are open to public disclosure, adding they are “a fraction” of what they were when he was elected 12 years ago.
Later, Benedict said that the Sheriff’s Office had 27,000 calls for service in 2017 and that the trend is for calls to increase by 500 to 1,000 each year.
“I get literally hundreds of calls and letters appreciating the good work that deputies do,” Benedict said Friday afternoon. “The ratio of successes to mistakes is about 100 to 1.”
Benedict said Clallam is the only county in Washington with both Sheriff’s Office operations and a jail that are accredited.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, accreditation is earned for “operating under industry best practices and standards,” as defined by WASPC, for increasing public confidence, public credibility and operational effectiveness.
Benedict also challenged McLaughlin for saying at forums that more deputies should be hired.
He asked McLaughlin how many more are needed, how he knows they are necessary, what studies he bases his assertion on, and how he would pay for them.
“Is it going to come out of cutting something else in the department, cutting something else in the county, or are you going to get new money? I’d like to hear that.”
In response to a question on growing costs in law and justice, McLaughlin said he would talk to the county commissioners about “reprioritizing” and consult with the Sheriff’s Office staff.
“I can’t give you anything rock solid because I’m not working there right now, but I believe there is a way of dealing with it,” he said.
“There are some priorities that can be rearranged.”
McLaughlin mocked accreditation as a “gold standard,” citing the alleged sexual misconduct and other incidents.
“If my opponent thinks the administration of the sheriff’s office is the gold standard, what on earth could the bronze and silver [be] like?” he said.
“Our Sheriff’s Office has some weaknesses due to a weak leader.
“Our Sheriff’s Office needs a strong leader, and I am that leader.”
Benedict said McLaughlin’s proposal to reprioritize costs “is all well and good, but it’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Public defender costs alone have increased fivefold over a six- or seven-year period, and those rising costs don’t include indigent defendants no longer having to pay fines, Benedict said, suggesting that the court system “should be 100 percent funded by the state.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].