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Measure P: Voters overwhelmingly approve more power for sheriff’s watchdog

For 2020 election results, go here.

Sonoma County voters handed a landslide win to advocates of greater civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office, expanding the powers and funding of the independent law enforcement auditor during a time of national reckoning over police accountability.

Yet supporters of Measure P were anticipating potential legal and regulatory reviews in the weeks ahead, with Sheriff Mark Essick’s attorney in court pursuing funding for an outside legal review.

Two-thirds of Sonoma County voters whose ballots were counted by Wednesday afternoon supported the measure, pushing it far past the simple majority supporters needed to secure a win and maintaining a trend seen in the first wave of election results released Tuesday night.

Up to 80,000 votes could still need to be counted, though Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, an early opponent of the measure, said he didn’t think the outcome of those ballots would swing the race.

“The passage of this measure clearly states the intention of the voters of this county. That police accountability, transparency and police reform is on their mind and I think it is incumbent on me as an elected official to take that information ... and implement their wishes,” Essick said.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers, the Yes on Measure P campaign manager, said supporters of the measure feel confident it’ll pass. But there was still the looming possibility that the measure could face challenges in court by Essick or some other opponent , Rogers said.

“I think that’s the most immediate next step, working on that end,” Rogers said.

Essick has repeatedly pointed to parts of the measure he feels contradict state law and legal precedent, legal flaws that could serve as a the basis for a lawsuit.

Sonoma County Supervisors previously blocked Essick from using county funds to hire an outside lawyer to help him review the proposed ordinance, with county leaders pointing to concerns that the advice could be used to help Essick sue the county over the measure.

Lawyers representing Essick and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors met before a Sonoma County Superior Court judge on Wednesday to hear arguments over whether supervisors are required to provide Essick such funding.

A decision is expected sometime this week, said Linda Ross, an attorney representing the county board.

“At this point, I’m not prepared to say I’m going to challenge it or not challenge it,” Essick said. “The most important thing I can say right now is that I need competent legal advice.”

That advice was needed to plan the implementation of certain aspects of the measure with the auditing office and other county staff, Essick said.

He cited one law that prevents him from sharing certain personal information such as one’s criminal history, which he says could conflict with Navarro’s new ability to subpoena records.

There also is an ongoing case filed against the county with the California Public Employment Relations Board following supervisors’ decision to place the measure on the ballot. That could lead to parts of the measure being struck down if the state finds labor code violations, Essick said.

Damian Evans, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, one of two labor groups representing Sonoma County deputies that launched the allegations with the state board, said the group wanted to work with other stakeholders and the state board to iron out questions that still remained about the measure.

A decision on the California Public Employment Relations Board complaints will take at least several weeks, he added.

Karlene Navarro, the director of Sonoma County's law enforcement auditor's office, did not respond to requests for interviews Tuesday or Wednesday. But in a newsletter published Wednesday, she said recruitment for two additional lawyers to help staff her office could begin in November, though the process could take months.

The extra staff will be instrumental to helping the office complete the additional duties that result from the measure's passage, such as filing subpoenas, she said. The measure goes into effect 30 days after its passage, Navarro wrote.

“Getting (my office’s) budget adjusted and the office fully staffed will take time,” Navarro wrote. ”I am doing everything necessary to complete the process as expeditiously as possible.“

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

For 2020 election results, go here.

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