Madera County Historical Society
In 1975 Sheriff Ed Bates was fighting for fuel for his patrol cars. The next year he was fighting something else — the kidnapping of 26 Chowchila school children.
America had a fuel crisis in the 1970s and it trickled all the way down to Madera County where the price of gasoline had climbed to an incredible 54 cents a gallon. That is why Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates asked the Board of Supervisors for more fuel money, and when he didn’t get it, the county’s top lawman dropped a bombshell in 1975.
Bates’ public reaction to the board’s rejection of his request for an additional $21,000 turned into a dream-come-true for the media. Television and newspaper coverage throughout the state focused on the Madera County Sheriff’s Office when Bates announced that he was calling a halt to all patrols in the county by his deputies and said, “If I were a criminal, I’d come here. Why take a chance of being caught in Merced or Fresno Counties?” Bates said that no cars would move out of the yard except in “life and death” situations or “crimes in progress.”
By 1975, no one was surprised at Bates’ ability to hold his own with the supervisors. Early in his first term he had engaged them in a fierce tug-o-war over money, and he showed then that he was fully capable of using the media to make his point. Now at the beginning of his second term the high-sheriff once again drew the line in the sand.
Originally the sheriff’s automotive budget had been set at $60,000 for the 1974-1975 fiscal year, but by February 1975 rising fuel costs had taken all but $12,000 of that amount, so Bates put out his hand for more money.
County Administrative Officer, Donald Handly, recognizing that Bates did not have the funds in his budget to make it to the end of the fiscal year, proposed that the board transfer $21,000 from the county’s unrestricted reserve into Bates’ automotive budget. He knew that a majority of the board would accept the move, but he wasn’t quite prepared for what followed.
When the board took up the budget transfer request, Supervisors Elmo Del Bianco, Lonnie Cornwell, and Chairman Bill Hill voted in the affirmative, but to no one’s surprise, Jack Schmitz, Bates’ nemesis on the board, turned thumbs down. Under normal circumstances that would have been the end of the story; however, in this case the law stated that the transfer from the unrestricted reserve required a four-fifths majority. The sheriff needed the vote of the board’s newest member, Al Ginsburg.
Ginsburg had been elected just a few months before and was well known as a fiscal conservative — level headed but extremely frugal with the public’s money. When the question was called on the transfer, Ginsburg sided with Schmitz and voted no. Thus, two members on the five-man board stopped the transfer, and Bates declared war.
After publicly announcing his plan to halt rural patrols by his deputies, Bates was as good as his word. The next day, the sheriff’s 17 patrol cars sat idle in Madera, Chowchilla, and the mountain area. The only lawman from the Sheriff’s Office who remained on patrol was Bates himself. He hit the road in his own four-wheel drive vehicle, using his own gasoline.
Meanwhile, the board majority realized that it had a problem. Reporters from all over California were preparing to descend on Madera, and when they got here they would find the sheriff attempting to patrol the entire county all by himself while his deputies remained in the office doing paperwork. Clearly something had to be done.
Hill, Cornwell, and Del Bianco knew that the sheriff held most of the cards. Their best bet was to persuade either Schmitz or Ginsburg to change his vote and allow the budget transfer, so Hill sat up a meeting between Bates, Ginsburg, and himself.
Hill knew that it would have been a colossal waste of time to try to bring Schmitz and Bates together. The long time supervisor from District Two had been Bates’ most persistent opponent on the board, and he had gone on record as describing Bates’ withdrawal of patrols as a “political maneuver” and “childish.” Schmitz compared the whole situation to “giving a kid a bag of candy and telling him it has to last, and then having him come back for more the next day. Then when you say no, he throws a tantrum.”
Ginsburg, on the other hand, seemed not to be quite as entrenched. When he cast his no vote the day before, he said that he was doing so to make a point. He wanted the Sheriff to accept some of the burden himself by finding additional funds within other parts of his budget. Ginsburg told the Tribune that he fully expected there to be another request for funds from the Sheriff and hinted that he would vote yes at that time. Ginsburg, however, had reckoned without the sheriff’s resolve. Bates declared that he had no intention of going back to the board. The patrols would remain idle until the supervisors made the transfer he had requested.
On Thursday afternoon, in a meeting with Bates, Ginsburg promised to change his vote at the next board meeting. In return for this “gentleman’s agreement,” the sheriff called off the patrol boycott and by Friday, deputies were once again on patrol. Ironically, on the same day seven new patrol cars earmarked for the Sheriff’s Office arrived in Madera.
At its meeting on Tuesday, February 18, 1975, the board approved a transfer of $18,000 from the unrestricted reserve to the sheriff’s automotive budget, but not without another outburst of acrimony. When Ginsburg accused Bates of looking for an “open end” budget, the sheriff responded by calling the supervisor a liar and challenged him to take a lie detector test.
Nevertheless the crisis in law enforcement was defused. County patrols resumed, and an uneasy peace settled in as the supervisors awaited the next test of wills that would surely come as long as any member of the board thought he could make Sheriff Bates toe the mark.