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D'Agostini set to be new sheriff, inherits big challenges

Hard-fought campaign leaves fences that need to be mended for new lawman
By: Raheem Hosseini, Telegraph Correspondent
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The election may be over, but the campaign isn’t. Two days after narrowly edging El Dorado County sheriff’s Capt. Craig Therkildsen to become the county’s next sheriff, Amador County criminal investigator John D’Agostini wearily recounted the experience of two supporters who were asked by a reporter if D’Agostini coerced them to display his campaign signs on their property. “Haven’t they poked me enough?” wondered D’Agostini, whose lead over Therkildsen had risen to a likely insurmountable 3.09 percent by 5 p.m. Friday. Barring an unlikely swing in outstanding vote-by-mail and provisional ballots, D’Agostini is primed to take over a department divided by politics, threatened by budget cuts and viewed as out of touch. Whether the reporter came up with the coercion question on his own or was fed the rumor by one of D’Agostini’s opponents isn’t clear. What is certain is that Sheriff-elect D’Agostini will have some fences to mend when he takes office Jan. 2. Tops on his breaking-bread list could be District Attorney Vern Pierson, a longtime friend who endorsed Therkildsen, and Supervisor Ron Briggs, who questioned D’Agostini’s character and accused him of fraternizing with outlaw motorcycle gangs in a letter to The Telegraph. While D’Agostini admits there will be “trust issues” to iron out when he takes office, he says he’s looking to turn the page on a nasty election and get to work. “Like I told (acting Sheriff) Fred Kollar, we’ve got to move on,” D’Agostini told The Telegraph. “My train is going to be moving down the tracks and everyone’s welcome to get on.” D’Agostini sat down with Kollar last week to draw a bead on a department in belt-tightening mode. The county is looking to slash $11 million before the next fiscal year, and a good chunk of that is expected to come from law enforcement coffers. The sheriff post pays $163,404, according to the county’s website. Kollar told his predecessor the department found $1.1 million to trim and should be good until summer, when the next round of cuts is expected. D’Agostini is hopeful budget projections will turn a little rosier by then, but isn’t counting on it. “You always hope for the best and plan for the worst,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with forecasting and no one has a crystal ball.” Few predicted a sheriff election that once boasted six candidates would come down to D’Agostini, a lifelong county resident who spent his career in Amador, and Therkildsen, whom Jeff Neves picked as his successor before resigning his sheriff post last December. Appropriately, El Dorado County’s most divisive race was a neck-and-neck battle most of Election Night. Up until the election, the two candidates were trading barbs in an increasingly heated race that saw two men with similar positions on concealed weapons permits, resident deputies and the department’s fiscal climate look for ways to differentiate themselves. D’Agostini was charged with pandering to bikers with disputed ties to motorcycle gangs during an appearance in Placerville several weeks ago, while critics accused Therkildsen supporters of misusing department funds to get their candidate elected. While the next sheriff’s goals — chief among them facing a multimillion-dollar deficit — may be the same, “how to get there is the difference,” Therkildsen, a multi-decade veteran of the department and commander of the county jail, said before the election. D’Agostini, seeking office in his home county while working a drug task force in neighboring Amador, has said community service would be at the center of his administration. “The sheriff’s office is one of the only public agencies that can engage in a public relations campaign on a daily basis, and that (focus) does set me apart from my opponent,” he said. The results are semi-official, as there were still thousands of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots to tally at the end of last week, said elections spokesman Joe Zizelberger, but Therkildsen’s camp seemed resigned to coming in a close second. “It’s mathematically possible but not likely that Craig will get the votes needed to climb into first,” Therkildsen campaign consultant Greg Jones said. On D’Agostini’s Facebook page, congratulations comments were being posted. Becky Hypolite wrote, “I’m so proud of you, Johnny. You haven’t changed since we were kids in high school. You always got what you wanted and never stopped until you got it. … Watch out, the new sheriff is in town.” Stephen Hart wrote, “Congratulations, John. You always impressed me with your desire, and actions, to connect with the community.” The new sheriff is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 11, 2011. Therkildsen and Briggs didn’t return requests for comment.