May 24-30, 2006

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Agree to Disagree

In the Sonoma County DA's race, it's the similarities that are most striking

By Lois Pearlman

Anyone who attended the candidate's forum hosted by the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana on May 17 would have to admit that Sonoma County is finally earning its spot in the pantheon of left-leaning greater Bay Area localities.

Following a seriously rabble-rousing presentation by Mervis Reissig, the Cotati woman running for second district supervisor against incumbent Mike Kerns, the candidates for Sonoma County district attorney agreed that they would not only protect medical marijuana patients acting within the county's guidelines, but that the complete decriminalization of marijuana would make the whole thing a moot point.

"I passionately believe that medical marijuana is a prescription drug and should be regulated accordingly," said Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua.

Challenger Jill Ravitch, who supported Passalacqua when he successfully ousted longtime DA Mike Mullins in 2002, agreed with him completely. They were even in accord on justice for drug- and alcohol-addicted defendants, who Passalacqua says make up about 30 percent of the people who enter into the criminal justice system each year.

"The whole idea with a person who has a drug addiction is to get them into a program that gets them out of the scene," Ravitch said. Again, Passalacqua agreed. There did not appear to be a silken thread's-breadth of space between the pair's opinions on the issue of marijuana--or any other drug--and the law, which led a young man from Healdsburg High School to exclaim when it was all over, "But I didn't learn anything! They're both the same."

Indeed. They are two liberal-thinking candidates, both in their 40s and bringing up the rear of the baby boomer generation, with Passalacqua born and raised in Sonoma County and Ravitch growing up in New York.

But despite the candidate's philosophical similarities, the race is drawing megawatts of emotional heat from the two rivals' supporters, perhaps because the two also share reputations for brusque managerial behavior and enemy-making.

Those on Ravitch's side paint a picture of a finger-in-the-breeze district attorney who reads newspaper opinions before he makes decisions. Passalacqua's point people describe Ravitch as a volatile ogre who "bullied" and "demeaned" her co-workers during the 17 years she served as a deputy district attorney.

Ravitch, who left the DA's office in 2004, says she is challenging Passalacqua because she believes the office is in even worse shambles than when Passalacqua took over from a disgraced Mike Mullins four years ago, becoming the youngest district attorney in California at the time. Passalacqua's supporters had been anxious to topple Mullins, because a defense attorney had earlier that year uncovered evidence that the DA's office had coached the forensic pathologist in a high-profile murder trial. The case was thrown out of court.

So while Passalacqua did not have as much experience with major felony trials as others who might vie for the seat, they rushed to his side when he filed for candidacy at the last moment.

Passalacqua came in saying he would reform the office, and his supporters in the current election say he has. But Ravitch disagrees."I supported [Passalacqua's] run because we needed positive change, and I haven't seen that positive change. I think what's really missing there is leadership," she says.

She claims that while Passalacqua talks the talk, he does not walk the walk, and the result is clogged courtrooms and an office full of unhappy prosecutors who do not have the discretion to resolve cases short of going to trial. Those from within the county's justice system who support Ravitch are vociferous in spelling out the problems.

"I've never been so hamstrung in my ability to resolve things," says Ravitch endorser Barry McBride, a Sonoma County deputy district attorney for the past 25 years. "There's an undercurrent of anxiety on the part of the younger deputies. They can't rely on their own instincts. That's how you learn. They're afraid to make decisions. This keeps cases in the courtroom longer."

Kathleen Pozzi, one of three chief deputy public defenders for Sonoma County, and one of two who support Ravitch, agrees that Passalacqua's policies have made it harder for cases to navigate the justice system. "Stephan will dismiss cases before he will resolve them," she says. "If Stephan fears he may not get a guilty [conviction], he will dismiss it. In an imperfect world, you can't take every case to trial. It's impossible."

Deputy District Attorney Joan Risse, one of eight prosecutors in the DA's office who has publicly endorsed the boss, sees Passalacqua's policies from a different perspective. She has been with the office since 1998.

"It provides continuity," she says. "Guidelines are something we didn't have before. Now we have more similar dispositions coming out on cases. We take all past information into account before we make a decision [about how to prosecute a case]. It's so much easier if I can see it all in front of me.

"There's a lot of talk about clogging the courts with cases that can be resolved," Risse continues. "But there are certain cases you shouldn't be doing that on. You shouldn't be doing that on violent felonies. The penal code forbids it. DA's are not supposed to plea-bargain strikes [violent felonies] down. [Before Passalacqua], I think sometimes that happened because it was easier."

Passalacqua hired Diana Gomez in 2003 as a specialist in gang crime prosecution and promoted her to chief deputy district attorney late last year. She supports the changes he has made in office policy. "Now I've seen the fruits of those changes," she says. "I used to think, 'Why are we plea bargaining big gang cases away?'"

According to Gomez, 25 of the 47 prosecutors in the DA's office support Passalacqua, although only eight have endorsed him publicly.

"There is overwhelming support in the office for the direction we are going," Passalacqua emphasizes in an interview at a Sebastopol coffee shop. "Some are always unhappy for reasons, including not being promoted. Some people aren't comfortable with change. I brought some of the best practices from other district attorney offices in the state. We formed committees to create performance standards, including integrity and ethics, being prepared, meeting with victims in advance, treating co-workers with respect and having compassion for victims."

Since he took office, Passalacqua has hired 21 new attorneys to replace 20 who left for various reasons. Of those 21 "new young prosecutors," two-thirds are working as "extra help," he says.

According to Larry Scofous, second-in-command as assistant district attorney, two of those who left have returned full-time, five are working as extra-help semi-retirees, and two of them became judges.

Julia Freis, who left the DA's office to form a private-practice partnership with Ravitch, says only one or two prosecutors would typically leave the office during the years before Passalacqua.

But it isn't only prosecutors who have left. Miriam Gaon, a longtime victim's advocate with the DA's office and one of Ravitch's endorsers, described what she says was a typical occurrence: employees discovering that they were fired at 4:30 on Friday afternoons. She also says that employees have been fired for violating Passalacqua's policy forbidding them to talk with the media.

"People complained that Mike Mullins was repressive and micromanaged, but Stephan's worse," Gaon says.

"Everyone's so afraid of him, of getting fired or of not getting his cooperation," agrees Pozzi. "There's no camaraderie in the office. I've seen attorneys escorted out of the office with a box of their belongings in hand. There's a reason why Jill [Ravitch] left that office."

Kathy Knotts found herself in that position after 19 years in the district attorney's office. In September 2005, she says that Passalacqua placed her on indefinite paid leave with only a one-line letter of explanation. Knotts avers that her suspension was based on her decision to file false-imprisonment charges against three employees of Pellini Chevrolet in Sebastopol in a case involving a dispute over a truck. The DA's office later dropped the charges.

"There is a general mood of abject fear, because the attorneys are afraid to do their job, to try anything, to make deals," Knotts says. "They're afraid of retribution from Stephan. You don't know what you're going to get. They haven't really told me what I did wrong."

Regarding Knotts, Passalacqua says, "In any personnel matter, we have an obligation to be fair and thorough, and that's what we're doing. We expect prosecutors to exercise good judgment and sound discretion in protecting our community."

Passalacqua has also come under fire for being unavailable to talk with prosecutors about their cases, for failing to provide training for new prosecutors and for combining the prosecution teams for domestic violence and adult and child sexual abuse, effectively reducing their numbers from eight to four.

"Attorneys doing these cases are just overwhelmed," Knotts says. "They are very labor intensive. You have to spend a lot of time with children making them feel comfortable going into court and facing people who molested them."

Meanwhile, Passalacqua's supporters in the DA's office do not hesitate to criticize Ravitch, saying she lacks the interpersonal skills for the top management job.

"She does not have the demeanor to lead the office," says Gomez, who has worked with Ravitch. "She demeaned me and virtually every employee in this office. She bullied people. She bit people's heads off. She was unapproachable and volatile. I was shocked that she would do that to me. That's just the opposite of Stephan Passalacqua. He's always treated everyone with respect and dignity."

But Ravitch's behavior is apparently a nonissue for the 17 current and former district attorney's office employees who are publicly endorsing her campaign. And a medical marijuana advocate who talked with her and observed her at the SAMM forum says he found her "frankness refreshing."

So what are these candidates saying about themselves? Passalacqua says he has "matured" in his first management position, and many on both sides of the divide agree with him. He is proud that he expanded the environmental protection unit from two prosecutors to four. He also organized an elder-abuse summit last year "to raise awareness" about the ways vulnerable elders are being exploited and attacked.

"Sonoma County has the sixth highest number of people over 80 in the state," he says. "I have aggressively prosecuted elder-abuse cases." He also says he has "an open-door policy," making himself available to meet with prosecutors to discuss their cases and getting involved in the prosecution of cases.

Passalacqua says he has hired and promoted a record number of women and other minority people, so that he now has eight bilingual attorneys in the office, speaking Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese, and "all types of sexual orientations."

That's a main reason why the Rev. James Coffee of the Community Baptist Church is supporting him."I like the idea of his at least trying to be inclusive, using women and men and people of color and from other cultures.

And then there's gang violence. Passalacqua's campaign billboards dotting the county advise, "Stop Gang Violence--Reelect Passalacqua." He calls gang violence "the biggest challenge we face in the community," and says he has attacked it on many fronts.

"You have to focus on two approaches," he says. "Crack down on violent gang members, and youth prevention. We have just completed a needs assessment in this area. We need additional resources to expand our involvement in this area. We need more prosecutors and more advocates."

He has hired "experienced gang prosecutors," like Gomez who came from Orange County; he participates on the Santa Rosa mayor's Gang Task Force; and he and his attorneys talk about gang involvement in the schools. He supports gang prevention programs, like Double Punching, a new program in Roseland, and is spearheading the first statewide summit on gang violence in Santa Rosa this year.

Ravitch doesn't believe Passalacqua's efforts are enough. "Why, after a full term, is he promising to stop gang violence? It's not something you can just stop. It comes from someplace else. Target the main offenders," she says, beginning to make a list. "Get them out of the neighborhoods quickly and effectively. The system is so bogged down. Use the grand jury. Create better partnerships with countywide law enforcement agencies. The district attorney should be leading this effort. Bring in community organizations. Form a gang court like the drug court. In an era where we have such limited resources, you have to be creative."

Ravitch touts her broader experience as a prosecutor, having handled a variety of cases, including several high-profile homicides. Responding to concerns expressed at the medical marijuana forum that legitimate patients are being arrested by police even though these cases are eventually dismissed, Ravitch says it is up to the district attorney to bring law enforcement and medical marijuana advocates together to hammer out a consistent approach for the entire county.

"My experience distinguishes me from Mr. Passalacqua," says Ravitch. "Having experience enables me to know what tools prosecutors need in court. I would institute a training program [for new prosecutors]. You need to prioritize which cases to push through the system. Decisions need to be made. Deputy DA's need discretion and training to resolve cases, both within and without the court. That's what keeps the system moving. That's what saves the county money."

Ravitch cites as an example of misplaced priorities Passalacqua's attempt to retry a horse-killing case against a Mexican citizen after his conviction was overturned by an appellate court. Meanwhile, the man had served three years in county jail and returned to Mexico. The judge in the case questioned the value of spending county funds to retry a case when it might not even be possible to bring the man back into the country.

Ravitch says it was an example of Passalacqua making a decision that had more to do with news headlines than justice. "Cases move when there is an understanding of what is in the best interest of justice," she says. "Cases are being continued time and time again. Priorities need to be on effective prosecution."

The district attorney's office handles about 18,000 cases a year. Before establishing new staffing positions just approved by the Board of Supervisors, it employed 119 people, including 47 attorneys, and has an annual budget of $17 million. The district attorney's salary is $171,000 a year. The race will be resolved June 6.

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