Puppetry and politics

Last week, when Don “Hutch” Hutcheson called Perry Reniff, his opponent in the Butte County sheriff’s race, “Pinocchio Perry,” he apparently was trying to put a fairy-tale gloss on a serious charge: that Reniff was a liar.

Reniff, the incumbent sheriff, wasn’t buying either the soft-pedaling or the charge. He visibly bristled when Hutcheson used the epithet, saying bitterly, “We don’t need that in this discussion.”

The occasion was an April 27 candidates’ forum in the Chico City Council chambers, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Reniff has been a lawman for 34 years, all of them working for Butte County, slowly moving up the ranks to become sheriff. He understandably doesn’t appreciate being called a liar. For the rest of the night, the two men didn’t look at each other.

Hutcheson is a former Chico police officer who retired 15 years ago after being injured while apprehending a criminal. He went back to school, got a law degree (though he hasn’t practiced), has taught at Butte College’s Police Academy and owns a successful driver training school.

He’s running primarily, he says, because Reniff is not managing the department well and there simply aren’t enough deputies on the streets, especially in the Paradise/Magalia area. There’s nobody patrolling up there after 2 a.m., he charged.

Reniff strenuously disagreed with Hutcheson on that point. “My opponent’s figures are wrong,” he said. Budget constraints have meant there are fewer deputies than he would like, he said, but it’s nothing like Hutcheson charges. He said he invited Hutcheson to his office to see the patrol schedule, but his challenger never came.

That’s when Hutcheson launched the “Pinocchio Perry” insult. He’d received no invitation, he insisted.

The candidates agreed on a number of matters: that methamphetamine was the county’s biggest crime problem and that BINTF (the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force, on which Hutcheson once served) was doing a good job. Hutcheson said he wanted to get mental-health workers more involved with meth users, but Reniff said they already were involved. Hutcheson wanted to revive the D.A.R.E. program in the schools. Reniff countered that studies had shown D.A.R.E. wasn’t effective, so instead he was using the funding to put officers in secondary schools as a deterrent to drugs and violence.

On many issues, the candidates differed mostly in degree of emphasis and focus. Their principal bone of contention had to do with how the Sheriff’s Office was being managed. There they had utterly different visions.

To Hutcheson, morale was low, deputies were leaving and ideas weren’t being listened to. “There are 11 positions that aren’t filled,” he said. “It’s not hard to fill those positions if you have a good department, a happy department.”

Reniff said funding shortages had hurt the department in the past, and some deputies had gone to work for the city of Chico, which paid 12 percent more. But a recent pay raise had increased morale greatly, he said, and not a single officer had left since then.

He used his concluding comments to list his endorsements, and they were many: the county employees’ association as well as the deputy sheriffs’ association, all of the supervisor candidates, all of the mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs in the county, and so on. “Pinocchio Perry,” Reniff seemed to be saying, had a lot of support.