Fight for stronger Sonoma County law enforcement oversight continues two years after Measure P approval
Nearly two years after Sonoma County voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to increase civilian oversight of local law enforcement, supporters are still fighting to implement it while opponents challenge it in court.
Measure P, passed by a 2-1 margin in November 2020, was designed to grant the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, or IOLERO, broad new powers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing involving the Sheriff’s Office.
In recent weeks, Measure P supporters and the county’s own IOLERO advisory council have alleged that those powers were weakened after the county entered into agreements with two Sheriff’s Office employee unions that sought to have the measure tossed by a state labor board.
Police oversight advocates want the county to renegotiate.
“We're trying to figure out how to best see that Measure P is implemented as the voters intended and that’s what we want,” said Evan Zelig, a Santa Rosa attorney who chairs the watchdog agency’s Community Advisory Council. The panel’s next public meeting is Oct. 3.
Pressure to restore Measure P’s original provisions, which included subpoena power for the watchdog agency, has grown following the July 29 fatal shooting of 36-year-old David Pelaez-Chavez by sheriff’s Deputy Michael Dietrick.
The Santa Rosa Police Department is investigating, but Measure P supporters say the watchdog office should be conducting its own concurrent investigation — under the broader powers granted by voters in 2020.
“We had another killing and the entire campaign was so that if this were to happen, we would have immediate independent investigation,” a member of the North Bay Organizing Project, a social justice advocacy group, told the Board of Supervisors during a Sept. 13 meeting. “It’s unfathomable that this is happening after Measure P was passed so unanimously by the public.”
Supervisor James Gore, the board chair, said he believed the agreements with the two Sheriff’s Office unions kept Measure P intact.
“The agreements were signed in June and the assessment was that this was fully in line with Measure P,” Gore said. “That was the legal advice at the time.”
Still, the Board of Supervisors is under mounting pressure from Measure P supporters and the agency’s advisory council members to revisit its agreements with the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association.
In an Aug. 2 letter to the Board of Supervisors, the council said the deals, announced June 23, “undermined the intent of Measure P and the will of the voters.”
Members of the public echoed that point in critical comments at the Sept. 13 board meeting and in emails to supervisors.
Gore called that criticism “complete crap.”
“I was one of the people who voted to put Measure P on the ballot and it’s absolutely ridiculous for people to come in and shout at us, ‘You people aren’t doing the will of the voters,’” he said in an interview.
The back-and-forth comes as county officials are holding “informal discussions” on how to move forward amid the pushback over the extent of the oversight agency’s powers, according to County Administrator Sheryl Bratton.
Two court decisions strengthening the legal ground for Measure P — and narrowing, at least for now, the case brought by the Sheriff’s Office employee unions — are in play in those conversations.
The first decision came in June, when the California 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that a state labor board had erred when it invalidated key components of Measure P, siding with the unions on the grounds that it violated collective bargaining rights.
The appellate court’s June 23 decision found the Public Employee Relations Board had no basis for that ruling. The labor board appealed, but on Sept. 14, the California Supreme Court declined to review the case.
The decision means the labor board must revisit complaints against the county and Measure P using a different legal analysis. That still leaves the door open for parts of the measure to be invalidated.
“It’s not over,” said Rick Bolanos, an outside attorney representing the county.
The case is being closely watched by powerful interests across the state, including the American Civil Liberties Union, a defender of voter-backed civilian police oversight, and law enforcement groups, many of which have opposed such oversight even in the wake of high-profile cases of police brutality.
Dispute over impact of union agreements
The county’s independent law enforcement watchdog office was set up in 2015 in the aftermath of the 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy.
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