It’s been a busy month for activists backing a local ballot initiative meant to strengthen oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
At an August 6 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to add an ordinance relating to the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) to the county's November 3 ballot.
The ordinance, which is known as the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance but will be titled Measure P on the ballot, is intended to bolster the efforts of IOLERO, an office tasked with reviewing the Sheriff’s internal investigations and other matters.
The county formed IOLERO in 2015 following protests after a Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy, in Santa Rosa’s Moorland neighborhood in 2013. Law enforcement oversight advocates have long argued that IOLERO is too weak and underfunded.
But, within a day of the board’s August 6 vote, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick made it known that he is considering a legal challenge to the ordinance.
According to a county staff report, the Sheriff requested permission to use up to $50,000 in funds already budgeted to the Sheriff’s Office this fiscal year to hire Jones and Mayer, a law firm which, according to its website, works for several statewide law enforcement associations, including the California State Sheriff's Association.
After over an hour of public comment at a meeting Wednesday morning, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors deadlocked on the issue with a 2-2 vote. In effect, the board rejected Essick’s request for permission to hire an outside law firm to explore “potential litigation” against the county over the legality of Measure P. Under the state code in question, Essick may file an appeal of the board’s decision in court.
Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore voted in favor of approving Essick’s request while Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Shirlee Zane voted against it. Supervisor David Rabbitt did not attend the meeting.
The issue came to the board after Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein determined that offering the Sheriff legal advice about Measure P would constitute a legal conflict of interest for the county’s attorneys. Under regular circumstances, the county’s in-house lawyers, the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office, would give the Sheriff’s Office legal advice. However, since the Sheriff may end up suing the county, Goldstein advised that the Sheriff hire an outside firm to advise him.
If the Sheriff chooses to sue the county, the County Counsel will need to hire an outside attorney to defend the county in court, Goldstein said during the Wednesday morning meeting. The total cost of funding both sides of the possible legal fight could run around $100,000, or $50,000 for each side, Goldstein estimated.
Under the state code in play, Government Code 31000.6, the Sheriff will be allowed to appeal the Board of Supervisors’ decision in court. The same code also states that, if the court determines that a lawsuit by the Sheriff’s Office against the county is “bad faith” or “frivolous,” the Sheriff’s Office will be required to pay the legal costs of both sides.
Whether the resulting legal fees come from the county or the Sheriff’s Office, local taxpayers would be on the hook either way.
During the meeting, Essick said his request was “procedural” and that he was simply exercising his ability to obtain legal advice about Measure P, which he has argued may hinder his ability to complete the constitutional requirements of his office and violate current state laws.
Lynda Hopkins, one of the two supervisors who voted against the Sheriff's request, disagreed that the Essick's request was "procedural."
“To me the request appears to be part of a personal political agenda, not the official duties in (Essick’s) capacity as Sheriff of Sonoma County, especially since we have seen broad opposition from Sheriffs across the state of California to legislative proposals moving forward with any kind of oversight or reform,” Hopkins said during the meeting.
Jerry Threet, the former director of IOLERO and one of the authors of the Evelyn Cheatham Ordinance, as well as other supporters of the measure have defended the legal basis of the ordinance.
“The (Evelyn Cheatham Ordinance) ECO does not in any way implicate the Sheriff’s independent authority. Every input offered by IOLERO to the Sheriff if the ECO passes would be advisory. The Sheriff will retain every aspect of his independent state authority,” Threet said during the meeting on Wednesday.
The ACLU of Northern California supported the legal backing of the ordinance in a letter to the Board of Supervisors last month.
“The Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, as drafted, aligns with the law and constitution of this state and gives Sonoma County the opportunity to similarly increase law enforcement transparency and accountability,” the group’s July 13 letter states in part.
According to Bay City News, the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs Association, which represents the department’s sworn deputies, is considering filing a separate legal complaint against the county with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board if Measure P stays on the ballot. Goldstein, the County Counsel, told Bay City News that the county had followed the “required policies and statutes” when placing the ordinance on the ballot.
If passed by voters in November, Measure P would significantly increase IOLERO’s budget by locking its funding at one percent of the Sheriff’s annual budget. Measure P would also strengthen IOLERO’s powers in numerous other ways including giving the IOLERO director the ability to legally compel the Sheriff to release various internal documents to IOLERO. Currently, the IOLERO director may only request that the Sheriff release those same documents.