Yates County District Attorney candidates Valerie Gardner and Todd Casella addressed questions from Yates County voters  who attended a meet the candidates forum hosted by Yates County SCOPE (Shooters Committee on Political Education) Oct. 12 at the Penn Yan Elks Lodge.

Both candidates spoke about their support for Second Amendment rights, their personal pistol permits, and rating by the SCOPE organization. While some questions touched on gun rights issues, most questions from the audience centered on their experience in the courtroom, and their priorities for prosecution.

With courtroom battles over nominating ballots behind them, the two squared off over conviction statistics and their approaches to prosecution. Neither missed an opportunity to challenge previous claims made by the other.  

Gardner, the incumbent, whose name will appear on the Republican, Conservative, and Women’s Equality Party lines, said the job of Yates County District Attorney requires very specific skills, especially having an understanding and knowledge of the local community. “We’re families and we’re connected,” she said, noting that her experience in the county means she’s also familiar with the criminal element.

She said she has kept her promise to reduce costs, cutting over one-third of the DA’s office budget while screening cases carefully to achieve a 99 percent felony conviction rate and protect the county from liability.

Casella, the Steuben County Assistant District Attorney who is challenging Gardner, will be listed on the Reform and Independence Party lines of the Nov. 7 General Election. He says he loves being a prosecutor. He says he has geared his career toward seeking justice rather than simply seeking convictions. 

“The goal should be that we not interact with them (the accused) again, and we need to safeguard drug treatment court from dealers and violent criminals,” he said.

Both candidates said New York’s SAFE Act is unconstitutional. “People aren’t educated about what it means and what impact it can have on their lives,” said Casella, explaining the law should be repealed, but changes need to be made in state representation with downstate lawmakers convinced to respect the needs of upstate gun owners.

“Bad people will do bad things, but why should we suffer?” he asked.

Referring to the Fifth Amendment, Gardner said the state should be forced to compensate people for the devaluation of their property (guns) that has occurred since the law was adopted.

When asked the most important aspect of the DA’s job, Casella said case management using a holistic approach, ensuring all the information is collected for the prosecution. He said that is why the relationship with law enforcement is so important.

Gardner said it’s difficult to identify only one, but said public safety and victim safety are her priorities.

When it comes to statistics, they each had numbers to share regarding index crime rates and conviction rates, with Casella claiming of the 4,000 criminal cases in Steuben County, “Not a single one has been dismissed because I mishandled it.”

Gardner said according to the Division of Criminal Justice, the index crime rate in Yates County has dropped since she took office in 2013, when it was 435. In 2014, it was 321, in 2015 it was 299 and in 2016 it was 320. She said in Yates County the average time from first appearance to sentencing is 320 days, and later added “I do not put my statistics above doing the right thing. As much as I love serving you, I will never put that above the truth,” she said.

Casella noted he is endorsed by the New York State Police Benevolent Association, Yates County COPS, the Deputies bargaining unit, and the Steuben County Police Chiefs. “I have the law enforcement endorsement because they believe in my ability,” he said.

Gardner says the most important endorsements for her are from a defendant serving time in jail who sent a letter to the editor thanking her for saving his life, and a victim who never registered to vote before, but has done so in order to vote for her this year.

Comparing experience in managing a DA’s office, Gardner pointed to her four years experience which comes after 19 years of managing her private practice, supervising staff, and administering an office.

Casella said he is given autonomy, and he has handled more cases in Steuben County alone than the Yates County office has handled in total. He said he is confident in his ability to mange resources because other ADAs ask him for advice.