Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and Tulare County District Attorney candidate Ralph Kaelble shared their opinions and answered questions at a candidates’ forum at the April 23rd meeting of the Rotary Club of Visalia. Paul Hurley served as moderator and Rotary Club members provided the questions.
The candidates started off by introducing themselves and talking about their qualifications. Kaelble noted that his wife, also an attorney, told him he could pursue his career anywhere as long as it was in California, “because she wasn’t going to take another bar exam.”
Kaelble said that for district attorney, people in Tulare County “deserve someone who is honest, someone who is passionate about the job.” He addressed the endorsements that top management in the district attorney’s office have given to his opponent, the current district attorney. “That’s the way the office is run,” he said. “You have to. You don’t have a choice.”
Ward described himself as “a veteran” of his office, adding he was “a veteran before I even came to this office.” He noted that he was selected for the office with the support of his predecessor, Phil Cline. “We have a high conviction rate and morale is high,” he added.
In response to Kaelble’s comment about people in the district attorney’s office having no choice in supporting his candidacy, Ward said, “If you think they signed something they didn’t want to sign, take the time to talk to some of those who are here today.”
The first question presented to the candidates was about their priorities as district attorney. Ward responded by talking about the responsibility to make sure those in his office have the resources to do their jobs. “I took over as assistant district attorney in some of the worst budget times,” he said, before adding that things have improved since then. “We’ve got the resources we need. It’s up to us to do things now.”
“The biggest issue is doing the work of public safety, keeping the public safe,” responded Kaelble to the same question. He also stressed the need for more training, calling it “a huge public safety issue.”
When asked how the candidates are different, Kaelble said, “I think communication is the single main difference with my opponent.” He talked about his time running the district attorney’s office in Porterville where he established an open-door policy. “The Porterville police support me. They know what I’m about. I made it a big thing that I’d always listen to everyone.
“I think that the district attorney’s office should have office hours in every area in the county,” he added.
In response to Kaelble’s list of endorsements from local law enforcement unions, Ward pointed out that he has the support of local police chiefs. “I think it’s better to focus on the leadership of law enforcement than police unions,” he said. “We have a professional relationship with the leadership of law enforcement that’s as good as it’s ever been.
“Training is not an issue in our office,” said Ward about another issue raised by Kaelble. “Anytime a police chief calls us, we do training.” He added that his staff “has full faith and confidence” in the way the office is being run, and talked about its increasing diversity.
When asked about his management style, Kaelble talked again about the importance of an open-door policy. “If a person – a lieutenant or sergeant – calls me, I’m going to listen.”
In response to Ward’s comments about the office’s increased diversity, Kaelble noted that he was the one endorsed by El Centro Mexicano American Latino, the Tule River Tribe and the Tulare County Hispanic Roundtable.
“You have to work together as a team,” said Kaelble when asked how to increase successful prosecutions. “You have to be there for your employees. I’m going to be there to get it done.” He also said that the process “means constant communication with law enforcement.”
Ward credited his office’s ability to work with law enforcement as a reason for success in the effort to fight gang crime in Orosi, as well as in marijuana eradication in the county. “We’re working with law enforcement and coordinating with the attorney general’s office whenever we can assist them as well.”
Ward said that he was working to protect business and ag “the day after I was sworn in. We put more resources in the rural crime program than ever before.” He added that his office has “the second largest real estate program in the state.”
Regarding the effort to fight ag crime, Kaelble credited Ward’s predecessor Cline for the “great program” he instituted. “Ag is so important to our community,” he said. “If California ag goes down, we are in serious, serious trouble.”
When asked about any staff changes following the election, Ward introduced his assistant district attorneys, Dan Underwood and Anthony Fultz. Kaelble took this opportunity to address rumors that he plans to appoint his former supervisor Shani Jenkins, who left the district attorney’s office following accusations she sexually harassed an employee. He said that Jenkins now has a job where she “is probably making a lot more money” than she did with the district attorney’s office.
“I don’t intend to make any changes in management staff,” said Kaelble. “If they’re working hard, why would I make changes?”
Kaelble dismissed Ward’s claim of a 94% conviction rate. “I don’t think that statistics are all that important,” he said. “You can use statistics any way you want. Mr. Ward is the only person in the room who can tell you what the 94% means. It’s not 94% of all cases. That’s an impossibility.”
“We are more aggressive with felony cases than we have been in a long time,” said Ward, adding that crime is down about 6%. “That tells you our office is filing cases.”
The next question suggested that “some cases seem to be for political gain,” apparently in response to high-profile cases that have made news in recent weeks.
“Politics are not a function of this office in any way,” said Ward, adding that work on one of the cases has been underway for more than 10 months. “This comment is not made by anyone in the know.”
“I’ve heard all kinds of stories about that,” said Kaelble. “I don’t know.”
In his closing statement, Kaelble described himself as “just an average guy” with a law degree and 14 years of experience in the district attorney’s office. “It’s about public service,” he said. “It’s not about being a politician.
“Are we going to stand for succession politics or are we going to have a voice?” he continued, before adding that Ward sought endorsements from the same law enforcement unions that now back Kaelble. “He stood at the same doors as I did and wanted those same endorsements and couldn’t get them. Now, he tries to belittle their support.”
“In no way did I or will I ever belittle law enforcement,” responded Ward in his closing statement, adding that “a number of those unions never went to a vote” and some endorsements were decided by “three or four people.”
He also commented, “We deserve more than an ‘average guy’ for the office of district attorney.”