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Campaign heats up on Sonoma County ballot Measure P to beef up law enforcement oversight

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Proponents of a ballot measure that would strengthen civilian oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office are condemning an opposition campaign for tying the proposal to a nationwide movement to cut funding for law enforcement, as it contains no such language.

Measure P, otherwise known as the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, would modify parts of the 2016 ordinance that established the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. That effort grew out of the aftermath of the fatal deputy-involved shooting of Santa Rosa teen Andy Lopez in 2013.

Supporters of the measure say its passage would give teeth to the independent office and guarantee more resources are funneled into it. The office’s current director, Karlene Navarro, and her predecessor Jerry Threet, have both said insufficient staffing has prevented them from fulfilling their role as the county’s law enforcement ombudsman.

The measure has drawn support from a wide range of the county’s local, state and federal representatives, as well as over 40 community groups, among them the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP and the grassroots organization Love & Light.

“Historically in Sonoma County, a lot of the abuse of power that has been shown by the (Sheriff’s Office) has been mainly toward Black and Indigenous people of color,” said Tavy Tornado, co-founder of Love & Light. “We’re fighting so hard for this because it’s something.”

The measure is staunchly opposed by Sheriff Mark Essick, the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Sonoma County Farm Bureau, among others.

Opponents claim it would infringe on authority reserved for the sheriff under the state Constitution and that it would result in overly burdensome and costly compliance for the department.

Sufficient oversight already exists for the Sheriff’s Office, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, whose board decided to oppose the measure in August.

“We feel the sheriff is doing an excellent job,” Tesconi said. “We feel (deputies) serve with compassion and are fair with the actions they take.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, through a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, declined to be interviewed about the ballot item. Navarro, the director of the county’s law enforcement auditor’s office, did not return several calls and an email requesting an interview about Measure P over the span of a week.

Among its proposed changes, Measure P would expand the range of internal affairs investigations that are automatically reviewed by the law enforcement auditor’s office.

If the measure passes with a majority vote, the law enforcement auditor also would gain subpoena power over records and witnesses involved in internal affairs investigations, be granted access to sheriff’s employees’ personnel records for investigative purposes, and be able to separately investigate whistleblower complaints involving the Sheriff’s Office. Currently, the auditor is charged solely with reviewing the department’s investigations into allegations of deputy misconduct.

The Board of Supervisors also would be required to tie the yearly budget for the oversight office, which currently includes Navarro and two staff members, to a level matching at least 1% of the sheriff’s budget, roughly tripling its funding. Navarro’s annual budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year was about $590,000, or about 0.3% of the $184 million sheriff’s budget.

County supervisors granted Navarro two additional attorneys for her office in September, though those positions will take several months to fill, the auditor’s office said in a monthly newsletter.

Nothing in the measure tells supervisors how or from where they are to allocate the additional funds.

But an opposition group calling itself Sonoma for Transparent Justice — which county and state elections officials had no record of as of Friday— has sought to insinuate, without any evidence, that extra funding for law enforcement oversight would come at the expense of the sheriff’s staffing.

“Don’t defund our deputies,” the group’s website proclaims. “Measure P just strips much needed funding from deputies.”

Measure P supporters are firing back, saying the opposition campaign is deliberately misleading voters.

“This measure does not say that the IOLERO money has to come out of the sheriff’s budget,” said Chris Rogers, a Santa Rosa Councilman and the campaign manager for the Yes on Measure P campaign. “I think it’s a straw-man argument.”

The measure has earned support from Sonoma County’s two congresssmen, Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, state Sens. Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire, Assembly members Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and Jim Wood, as well as nearly every Sonoma County supervisor, with the exception of David Rabbitt.

For stories about what is on the local ballot, go here

For the PD editorial board voter guide, go here

Retired Healdsburg police chief Susan Jones, Santa Rosa City Council member and former city police lieutenant Ernesto Olivares and former Los Angeles Police captain John Mutz also back the measure. Olivares and Mutz ran against Essick for the sheriff’s seat in 2018 but lost.

Opponents, aside from Essick and the DSA, include the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents dispatchers and jail staff, as well as Ron Collier, a retired Windsor fire chief.

Mike Vail, president of the DSA, was listed as the principal officer for the Committee for Transparent Justice, the official opposition group for Measure P. No financial statements for the committee were in the county’s database as of Friday afternoon. Vail did not respond to several calls regarding the measure over the span of a week.

The Sonoma for Transparent Justice website, which links to a No on Measure P - Sonoma Facebook page, did not include a list of endorsers nor the names of its organizers as of Friday night. Repeated messages sent to the No on Measure P Facebook page last week, on Monday and again on Wednesday requesting an interview were not answered. A notice in the chat indicated those messages were viewed by the page’s owner.

Tesconi of the Farm Bureau, and Damian Evans, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, refused to identify the organizers behind the Sonoma for Transparent Justice, citing what they called a professional courtesy to those individuals.

The California Secretary of State, which requires campaign finance reports from political groups that raise more than $2,000, has no filings from the group.

Supervisors unanimously voted to put the measure on the ballot in August following a wave of support for local police overhaul set off by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police who kneeled on his neck during an arrest.

The local effort was led by a coalition of activists who revived a previous attempt to place the item on the ballot as a citizen-initiated measure. Signature gathering for the earlier measure was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The initial proposed ordinance, written last year, was modified just days before county supervisors agreed to place it on the ballot to reflect recommendations from Navarro as well as the community council she oversees. Navarro and the council spent four hours collecting feedback from community members about the ordinance changes before forwarding those suggestions to the county board.

The revised version of the measure was approved Aug. 6, one day before the deadline to submit the required paperwork to place the item on the ballot.

Several of the activists who organized to revive the ballot item are involved with campaigning for the measure as well, Rogers said.

They include Tornado, the Love & Light co-founder, who is using the group’s social media platforms to share educational posts about the measure and organize informational get-togethers, she said.

The group is also helping recruit volunteers for Kimmie Barbosa, another activist who was hired to run volunteer phone and text banking in support of the measure through the North Bay Organizing Project.

“I think that it shows that people care about accountability and transparency,” Rogers said. “That this measure is an appropriate response to the voices that we’ve heard in our streets the last couple of months.”

He added the cost of operating the Sheriff’s Office was increasing as a result of settlements for civil rights lawsuits filed against the agency.

Multimillion-dollar settlements linked to excessive force or wrongful death claims filed against the Sheriff’s Office caused annual liability insurance premiums for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to spike by $2.7 million, an increase of 46%, next year.

Among the arguments against the initiative were that supervisors rushed to include the measure in the Nov. 3 ballot, that the measure would lead to costly bureaucracy and that it was unconstitutional, the Sonoma for Transparent Justice website said.

“The Sheriff is elected by the voters every four years, because the voters like to keep a handle on who they want as the chief law enforcement officer of their county,” said a post on the No on P Facebook page. “This measure moves certain constitutional functions away from the elected sheriff and into the hands of an un-elected body.”

Evans, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association president, said that while the association supported oversight of the Sheriff’s Office, insufficient input was garnered from association members in crafting the oversight measure.

“That’s what’s being missed here,” Evans said. “There was a huge missed opportunity for the county to work through an ad hoc with all the stakeholders ... to have the best measure possible on this program, and it got missed.”

Supervisors’ decision to place the measure on the ballot drew immediate opposition from the law enforcement labor unions and Essick, who said he supported the spirit of the initiative but criticized it as being legally flawed.

The board denied his request to hire an outside lawyer to review the measure in mid-August, though weeks later agreed to spend up to $50,000 defending their decision to advance the item to the November ballot item.

Allegations stemming from the two law enforcement associations about the measure’s placement on the ballot led the California Public Employment Relations Board to issue two complaints against the county last month that the county failed to discuss potential changes in workplace conditions, among other labor violations.

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, though a decision on the matter on that date is unlikely, Evans said.

Rabbitt, the lone supervisor to not endorse Measure P, said he agreed with opponents of the measure in that he and the rest of the board rushed to put the item on the ballot.

He would have preferred to have more time to work through the potential legal issues contained in the revised ordinance proposal, which were flagged by the county counsel’s office in the lead-up to the board’s decision.

“When we have our legal counsel telling us that this has significant legal issues and it will cost us money, I listen to that,” Rabbitt said.

He cast his vote in support of placing the measure on the ballot because “it was going to be on the ballot regardless” of how he voted on it, he added.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who backed the ordinance changes soon after its founders drafted it, said community members put work into the ordinance long before supervisors began to review this summer.

Provisions in the measure that would grant the county’s law enforcement auditor’s office the ability to issue subpoenas were of particular significance, she said.

“Without subpoena power, the office is toothless,” Hopkins said. “Sheriffs change over time, institutional cultures change over time so codifying oversight is very critical.”

Supporters of the measure contributed upward of $77,700 as of Sept. 19, the largest individual contribution coming from Puma Springs Vineyard owner and philanthropist Barbara Grasseschi to the tune of $25,500, according to public campaign disclosure statements.

Grasseschi’s husband, Tony Crabb, the North Bay Labor Council and Connie Codding, a local philanthropist and spouse to developer Hugh Codding of the Coddingtown shopping center, are among some of the other donors.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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