ACLU supports Sonoma County legal challenge of labor board ruling against police oversight measure
A state labor board conducted a flawed legal review when it gutted a 2020 measure overwhelmingly approved by Sonoma County voters to bolster civilian oversight of the county Sheriff’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a court brief this week.
The ACLU, which favors stronger police oversight, is the latest entity to jump into the legal fight over Measure P, which began even before it was approved by almost two-thirds of voters in the November 2020 election.
Measure P sought to give the county’s independent law enforcement oversight office both greater powers and a significantly larger budget. It was opposed by Sheriff Mark Essick and two unions representing Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies.
The Public Employee Relations Board, an agency that adjudicates issues impacting local and state government employees, struck down parts of the measure last summer after it determined key components violated deputies’ collective bargaining rights.
The county appealed that ruling.
The amicus brief filed Tuesday in 1st District Court of Appeal by the ACLU’s Northern California affiliate, and joined by the local Committee for Law Enforcement Accountability Now, offers more information in support of the county’s appeal for the court’s consideration.
The case represents one of the ACLU’s first rebuttals against California law enforcement associations using labor law to push back against attempted police reform, according to Allyssa Victory, a staff attorney with ACLU of Northern California’s Criminal Justice Program, who drafted the brief.
“It’s one of the first where they’ve been able to impede countywide attempts at transparency and accountability and one of the first we’re getting involved in,” Victory said. “We really want to get involved and challenge the PERB decision because we don’t want it to become precedent for other counties.”
Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach for most of its seven-year existence has operated on a relatively small budget and with a limited mission: auditing public complaints about the Sheriff’s Office and reviewing the department’s investigations into use of force and alleged misconduct.
Measure P gave the watchdog agency significantly more funding and power — including the authority to independently investigate and subpoena the Sheriff’s Office and recommend discipline of employees for misconduct.
The PERB ruling said those investigative and disciplinary powers could not be granted by voters without the county first conferring with labor unions representing deputies.
But PERB erred in that finding, according to the ACLU brief.
“The ultimate question, whether the county had to bargain with the sheriff’s union as a procedural step before even placing Measure P on the ballot — PERB did not follow all of the steps in the legal analysis it announced itself,” said Victory.
Specifically, PERB did not establish that Measure P would cause “significant and adverse” changes to working conditions at the Sheriff’s Office, she said. That’s necessary for PERB to prove that the sheriff’s deputies had a right to negotiate the measure’s terms with the Board of Supervisors before the vote.
If the ruling stands, IOLERO will not have the authority to conduct its own investigations of deputies, publish body camera footage, subpoena personnel records including prior complaints made against an officer, recommend discipline or sit in on interviews during internal affairs investigations.
Cody Ebert, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, which represents the rank and file membership of the largest law enforcement agency in the county, said in an email response to the brief that he “remains confident that the unanimous decision by the Public Employment Relations Board will be upheld by the court.”
The Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents correctional deputies, joined the deputy sheriff’s group in challenging Measure P at the state labor board.
Ebert also questioned the ACLU’s expertise in collective bargaining law. Victory acknowledged that while Tuesday’s brief is a unique intervention for her organization, the legal struggle over Measure P is of particular concern.
Sonoma County is one of the few in the state with an established sheriff’s oversight office. Measure P could provide a model of civilian oversight for other counties, Victory said.
“Many other counties are just getting underway and exploring that,” she said. “We do not want that to be the law if this were to be challenged by the labor board in other jurisdictions.”