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