Justice of the Peace candidates point to their backgrounds
LVN Editor Emeritus
Justice of the Peace candidates Mike Richards, the incumbent, and Ben Trotter discussed their philosophies and backgrounds last week at a candidates’ night forum sponsored by the Fallon Community Theater and the Lahontan Valley News.
Background on each candidate and their platforms are included in a special section in today’s LVN. Early voting begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 2 at the Churchill County Administrative Complex’s Commission Chambers, 155 N. Taylor St. Saturday hours are from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Trotter, who decided not to run in December for re-election as Churchill County sheriff, said he wants to best serve the community by making the court more for the people and not for him. He said his concern is to use bail bonds and the pre-sentence options currently in place, but also wants to accelerate the process for defendants to return back to their lives quicker.
“They shouldn’t have to waste hours for a 5-minute appearance before the judge,” Trotter said.
Trotter said the community already knows him, and he stands for hard work and touts a “be honest, be humble” approach.
Richards has been a judge for 12 years and before that, he served 30 years with the sheriff’s department. He has lived in Churchill County for more than 50 years.
“I have presided over 70,000 cases,” Richards said of his record. “I’m the only one with judicial experience and judicial education.”
Richards, who said he knows the judicial system of the laws of the State of Nevada, is a graduate of the National Judicial College in Reno and has taken 440 hours of continuing judicial education courses. Richards said he makes a point to be fair and impartial as a judge and also refers himself as ethical and thorough in his role and having integrity and honor.
Moderator Zip Upham asked about qualifications beyond experience.
Richards said the court runs smoothly but touted his tenure as a judge in handling thousands of cases in a 12-year span. For those who don’t understand how the court works, Richards said people should talk to him about court proceedings and how he conducts his role as a judge.
Richards said he has been on numerous committees related to his position.
Trotter said he’s a known quantity in Churchill County. He said has a master’s degree and three other college degrees and tried to enroll in courses on the judicial system.
“You can’t take judicial education unless you are a judge,” Trotter said.
During his campaign, Trotter said he has not taken a penny for running for office because he wants to be impartial and wants no one to fund his campaign.
Each candidate was asked about facing an ethical dilemma and how to resolve it.
“It’s the most simple aspect of my job,” Trotter said. “It’s just the way things are done. There’s a right and wrong. It’s never caused me a dilemma.”
Trotter said when he first ran for sheriff, ethics were black and white. He said there’s no gray area.
“It’s doing the right thing when someone is or is not watching,” he added.
Richards said when he faces a situation where a county employee or family gets into trouble, he asks if the charged party wants him to preside,
“I ask if they want me to sit on the case or recuse myself,” Richards said. “If an attorney asks me to recuse myself, I will do that.”
Upham asked each candidate about their personal attributes needed for justice of the peace.
Richards said he is diligent about hearing cases involving restraining orders and tries to resolve the situations before an order is issued. According to Richards, he tells defendants they will go to jail if they violate his order.
“Other judges in Northern Nevada and the rural areas come to Churchill County to see how we handle the restraining orders,” Richards said.
Trotter said the role is about teamwork, and the key is having the right people working with each other. He reiterated integrity in the job and said others who fund a campaign place the candidate in compromising situations. He said a judge must be impartial.
Each candidate was asked why he wants to serve. Trotter said he has worked with both the district and justice courts and knows how they operate. Richards re-emphasized his experience in dealing with more than 70,000 cases, his experience and knowledge.
The two candidates disagreed on handling defendants in front of the court. Richards aid if an arrest occurs on Sunday, for example, the defendant appears in court on Tuesday and then possibly District Court on Thursday. Richards said he’s disappointed a small courtroom or something similar was not included in the new law enforcement facility to eliminate the transport of inmates. He said the intent was for a judge and clerk to handle cases there.
Trotter countered, saying the facility has a video arraignment system. He said the public defender can come to the center for video arraignment.
“I disagree,” Richards said.
He said it takes an hour for the public defender to enter the jail.
“They don’t want to sit for an hour. They want to meet their client,” he said.
On handling drug cases, both candidates agreed on how to handle defendants, who are first arraigned in justice court and then reappear for a status hearing. District Court then handles the cases.
Trotter said the JOP can have a bench trial instead.
Richards said the court system in Churchill County tries to offer drug court to defendants, but he said not all defendants can be rehabilitated. Trotter said the diversion program or drug court is conducted every other Monday.
“It’s a very busy program,” Trotter said.
Each candidate briefly discussed concealed carry weapons (CCW). Trotter said the judge is not to make or twist laws regarding CCW but to interpret law. Richards said a good attorney will have any case dealing with constitutional issues moved to district court.
Richards was asked about having a defendant pay restitution. He said the court can order it, but having the defendant pay restitution is a different story; furthermore, Richards said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a court can’t collect bail to pay restitution. Trotter said that’s not right, and the law should be changed to allow the court to enforce and collect restitution.
Each candidate was asked why a defendant in a murder case is being held in the Lyon County jail. Trotter said the reason is for the defendant’s protection. Richards said he is still presiding over the case and can’t comment.
A Churchill County sheriff’s corporal directed a question to Trotter, challenging him on his prior answers about ethics and an investigation.
Trotter said he has made the CCSO a better place during his eight years as sheriff. Trotter said he was not willing to embarrass the agency. He said lately, he was accused of something.
“I run on my track record,” he said.
Jeff Cooley, a 21-year employee of CCSO, however, held up a copy of a memorandum issued by the county’s human resource director revealing the outcome from an outside contractor that said Trotter had violated both the county’s Title 3 code on ethical standards and Nevada Revised Statues. Don Christensen conducted a fact-finding investigation into several counts lodged against and ruled on a complaint on June 4, 2018, that Cooley had filed in March.
Deputy District Attorney Ben Shawcraft said the memorandum with the investigator’s results is public record. The memorandum, though, was also posted on individual Facebook pages. According to Christensen, Trotter had commented in front of others about Cooley’s “untrustworthiness” and also to Cooley when others were present. The findings also stated Trotter transferred Cooley from investigations to patrol and removed his access to the evidence vault.
“In the opinion of the investigator, your actions and comments were not related to the manner in which Cooley performed his duties, but were in response to your perception that Cooley was seeking to harm you and your political ambitions,” the memorandum stated.
The LVN contacted Trotter about the memorandum, and he reiterated his comment about not embarrassing the county or CCSO. Trotter also questioned the timing of the memorandum at Candidates Night.
“In my mind, the matter that has been raised recently related to personnel issues, and that is how I handled the matter at the time. Others have chosen to characterize the same matter as raising an ethics issue. I disagree with that characterization.
“There was investigation by an outside attorney hired by the County. I was concerned at the time that the investigation did not take into consideration all of the information and background that I thought was important. Certainly the attorney who advised the County did not see the situation as I did at the time I made the decisions that led to the inquiry. I still think that the investigation was flawed.
“Though I believe it would be beneficial to me to just tell the whole story and let everyone draw their own conclusions, I have been advised by my attorney that I should not do so at this time, because the matter is not completely resolved. Because I am not able to discuss this matter as openly as I would like to, I am also concerned about having the reputation of the Sheriff’s Office unfairly tarnished.
“I have spent almost eight years working to build up this agency’s image, to improve our service in this community, and to make things overall better. I have literally thrown everything I have at these goals. Even though it might cost me the election, I will not allow myself not be drawn into a debate whereby I might do damage to the image of my agency or my profession. I care too much about the Sheriff’s Office and the people working in that office to air our dirty laundry publicly. There will be a time and place when I will be free to discuss these matters openly, but I have been told that that time and place is not now.
“We’ve seen repeatedly of late that you can file or say anything you wish about someone, regardless of the motive. Saying something does not make it true or accurate. This is a single incident where an employee filed a personnel complaint against me. There was an investigation, but I was not allowed to review the investigative report or comment on it. Based on that investigative report, the County adopted the argument of the employee. That is what I know. That, and the fact that I believed at the time I made it, that I made a necessary personnel decision for the good of my agency. I am open to being convinced otherwise, but this personnel action should not be an issue in this election.
“I have a well-known track record in our community as a public servant, and as someone who gets things done. I have proven myself to be an open-minded and reasonable community leader. I ask that the people of this community not base their view of my time as Sheriff entirely on this single situation. Look at the timing of this complaint, and then compare that with the many very positive things I have been able to get done for the good of the people in this Churchill County,” Trotter said.