◼ Paul Gallegos prepares to leave office after 12 years as Humboldt County district attorney. - Juniper Rose, Eureka Times-Standard 01/03/15, 10:09 PM PST
Maggie Fleming handily won the June 2014 primary election for Humboldt County district attorney, and will be sworn in Monday, becoming the first woman in county history to hold the job. TIMES-STANDARD FILE PHOTO
Twelve years ago, District Attorney Paul Gallegos said he took on a responsibility that would put serving Humboldt County before everything else — including his children and his father’s funeral — but come this week, he won’t be on call anymore.
“It was a time to give back, and it seemed like the right way to do it,” Gallegos said. “I’ve done it.”
Taking over the position, District Attorney-elect Maggie Fleming will be sworn in Monday at noon.
The 55-year-old former deputy district attorney, who most recently served as deputy county counsel, said she is no stranger to strenuous time commitments that can push one’s personal life aside, and she is ready to put her more than 25 years of experience toward becoming a leader that both the attorneys in her new office and the people of Humboldt County can depend on.
“I think I have always understood how important the district attorney position is,” Fleming said. “So much of the decision-making process, and the confidence the public has in the decisions made, comes down to someone running the office who is knowledgeable, has integrity and who understands both the laws and the facts.”
REFLECTING ON AN ERA
Gallegos, 52, announced last November that he was not going to run for a fourth term. The decision was multifaceted, Gallegos said.
“I saw that the job as a district attorney is to make tough decisions all the time,” Gallegos said. “To make tough decisions on behalf of the community, and to protect the individual from the community and to protect the community from the individual.”
Over the years, Gallegos launched a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the Pacific Lumber Company, survived the resulting recall attempt, was re-elected twice, saw many of his experienced prosecutors leave, and was criticized for his office’s charging decisions in several cases, but along the way he persistently maintained that his No. 1 priority was equal access to government for all of the citizens of Humboldt County.
Gallegos said he prefers not to dwell on the past 12 years, and that it is time for him to move on.
This realization was spurred by his oldest son — who wasn’t even in elementary school when Gallegos took office — leaving for college.
“Because the community had entrusted me with this position, I felt that my priority needed to be the community,” he said. “Twelve years later, my kid is getting ready to go to college and I was confronted with all the things I wanted to do with him that I hadn’t done. I am not going to let that happen with my other kids, I won’t get to undo those things, but I’m going to be there for my kids.”
Gallegos also has a daughter in high school and a son who is 12.
He plans to return to working with his wife at the private law firm they started together and take the time to surf, hike and climb mountains with his kids. He said his wife tells him almost every day how happy she is about his decision.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
According to Maggie Fleming, she hadn’t planned on seeking the office of district attorney. But then, about 18 months ago, she said people began asking her to consider it.
In June, defeating three other candidates, Fleming became the first woman in Humboldt County ever elected to the job.
Fleming said that while diving into politics was a hard step, she saw campaigning for the position as the right thing for her and the community.
“I really care about the district attorney’s office,” she said. “I went to law school to become a prosecutor, and that is really what I have done since then. Going back to the office as a district attorney really felt as though it was what I really wanted to do.”
Fleming, who said she was drawn to Humboldt County by the redwoods, ocean and mountains, moved to the region with her husband after working in several law offices during law school and spending seven years as a deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County. Then, after 17 years as a deputy district attorney in Humboldt County, Fleming moved to a position as deputy county counsel.
“My years of experience and my current position as county counsel really prepared me for the administrative role,” she said.
As district attorney, Fleming said she plans to spend less time in court and more time overseeing the cases being handled by her attorneys than her predecessor.
“I think helping mentor the attorneys is a critical task — currently the office is young career-wise as prosecutors,” she said.
Fleming said she also intends — with the hopes of additional funding from Measure Z, a countywide half-percent general sales tax passed by voters in November — to bring the number of attorneys from 10 back up to around 15, as some positions are currently empty and others are frozen.
There will also be new challenges, Fleming said.
Following the November passage of state Proposition 47, certain drug and property crime sentences have been reduced from felonies to misdemeanors.
“Traditionally, programs, treatment and resources for those with substance abuse issues have all focused on felons, and now we have eliminated the felony status with those crimes,” she said. “We really need to figure out how to address the substance abuse problem in a different way, so I think that is going to be a big transition.”
Fleming also plans to get involved as the county is confronted with how to move forward with the regulation of marijuana, as legalization is considered a likely event in California in 2016.
“It is the environmental degradation as well as water use and land use — it is a huge problem,” she said. “We have to really carefully address those pieces of the puzzle as we move forward toward legalization.”
Fleming said her priority is “to make sure that every case is handled professionally, ethically and that decisions are made on the facts and understanding the law.”
“I hope to be in office as long as I am able to make a difference in the daily operation of the district attorneys office,” she said.
Contact Juniper Rose at 707-441-0506.