More dust in Sheriff race

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

A contentious race for the Kern County Sheriff, which may be decided on the June Primary Ballot, has been agitated by a proposal to re-open the Ridgecrest jail and a possible withdrawal of an endorsement by the powerful Kern Law Enforcement Association.

Last week current Sheriff Donny Youngblood announced a proposal to reopen the Ridgecrest jail. The facility was closed two years ago, cited as a necessary cost-saving measure in the face of devastating budget cuts driven largely by the plummeting price of oil — historically the backbone of the county economy.

Youngblood said that he had been in discussions with new County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, who was apparently open to releasing additional funding to the sheriff’s office to reopen the jail. While the closure was noted to save the county money, it has been highly criticized by Indian Wells Valley residents who decried the reduced presence of public safety personnel and the additional costs to the Ridgecrest Police Department.

“I’ve talked about opening the jail from the beginning,” said Justin Fleeman, Youngblood’s sole challenger in the upcoming election for sheriff. “He’s going to use that as a political pawn to try and swing some of the Ridgecrest votes. If he had put the IWV first, the jail would be open. And it wouldn’t take more money from the supervisors.”

“I get the timing of this, and certainly everything the sheriff does is impacted by politics — but not necessarily how you think,” said Youngblood, adding that the political impact comes from three of the five county supervisors facing reelection in November, with budget hearings taking place in July and August.

“So the politics is that we have a chance to leverage that timing this summer. My discussions with the CAO have been positive. That office agrees that having the jail open would be beneficial not just to Ridgecrest, but to the county.

“But contrary to other reports, I have to have additional funding to re-open the jail. I cannot do it with existing funds.”

Another potential influence on the race may be the vulnerability of Fleeman’s endorsement by KLEA. Other media outlets began reporting last week that KLEA would be voting May 18 to potentially reconsider the endorsement — although insiders say that instead of backing Youngblood the other viable option would be to remain neutral.

Fleeman said that Youngblood’s supporters within the organization are behind it. “They said it was the way the campaign was running.”

However, Fleeman said, a KLEA member approached him and said he was pressured to sign the petition for the recall vote.

“For me, personally, I see this as a last-second desperate attempt by Donny to cause confusion for the election and not focus on the fact that he’s done nothing for the people of the Indian Wells Valley,” he said.

Youngblood commented only that if there has been any coersion within KLEA, “Those people ought to report it so it can be investigated.”

KLEA President David Kessler would issue only a written statement to address the matter.

“KLEA is responding to a request from our membership to review our endorsement for sheriff. Out of respect for the sheriff candidates and our membership, we are unable to comment further until this internal process is complete.”

Story First Published: 2018-05-18