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Public labor board guts aspects of Measure P, Sonoma County’s law enforcement reform initiative

A state labor board on Wednesday rejected key components of Measure P, the landmark initiative backed by nearly two-thirds of Sonoma County voters that increased civilian oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

If the board’s ruling stands, the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach 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.

The California Public Employment Relations Board, a commission of four government appointees that rules on issues impacting government labor groups, found those provisions of Measure P violated Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department deputies’ collective bargaining rights.

Measure P, which conveyed many of those powers to the watchdog’s office, passed with nearly 65% of the vote, following a summer when thousands of Sonoma County residents flooded local streets and town squares seeking increased police accountability after a Minneapolis police officer murdered Black man George Floyd and sparked months of protests nationwide.

The labor board, which describes itself as a “quasi-judicial administrative agency,” ruled that Measure P’s changes amounted to a “parallel investigative scheme” that could result in discipline, or, in the case of the posting of body camera footage, reduced workplace safety for deputies. As such, the labor associations representing law enforcement should have had the opportunity to negotiate with the county, the board ruled.

The ruling “appears to essentially delete IOLERO’s independent investigatory power in its entirety and voids IOLERO’s subpoena power,” Karlene Navarro, the director of the law enforcement oversight office, wrote in an email.

“This decision is not a reflection of the constitutional merits or legality of these provisions," Navarro said.

Supporters of the measure expressed dismay over setback to the voter-approved law enforcement reform effort.

“Who is in charge of law enforcement oversight?” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said. “Is it the more than 166,000 people in Sonoma County who voted yes on Measure P or is it the four members of the [labor board]?”

Hopkins described the measure as driven by a grassroots organizing effort, and said the supervisors were simply responding to a clearly expressed desire from their constituents.

“If a majority of Sonoma County voters do not have jurisdictional authority over law enforcement then who does?” Hopkins said.

Two local law enforcement groups, the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, brought the case before the board.

The county can appeal the decision in the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, and has around 30 days to do so, the labor board’s legal counsel Felix De La Torre said in an interview.

In a news release, the deputy’s union blamed the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for refusing to negotiate before placing the measure on the ballot.

“The Board of Supervisors rejected the appropriate legal process and squandered an opportunity to accomplish a mutually agreeable set of reforms,” union president Mike Vail said in a press statement.

In October 2020, Supervisor David Rabbitt, the lone supervisor to oppose Measure P’s placement on the ballot, told The Press Democrat county attorneys had warned of legal flaws.

The labor board sought to nullify parts of Measure P it said violated collective bargaining laws, while leaving other portions untouched. The ruling did not, for example, reference increased funding for Navarro’s office that was also part of the measure.

“The County has a substantial interest in increasing transparency and fostering community trust in policing and correctional services,” the ruling, written by board member Erich Shiners, said. “But for those Measure P amendments aimed in material part at investigation and discipline of employees, the benefits of collective bargaining outweigh the County’s interest.”

The other three men on the board all joined the ruling for the police associations. The process by which it reached a ruling was unusual, De La Torre and Zachery Lopes, an attorney for the deputy’s association, both told The Press Democrat.

In many cases, an administrative judge holds a hearing and issues a ruling on the measure. In this case, however, the board expedited the case and chose to take up the matter itself.

The ruling did not close the door on law enforcement reform in Sonoma County, Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association President Damian Evans said. It did, however, indicate that the associations representing law enforcement officers needed a seat at the table as those reforms are crafted, he said.

“Collective bargaining rights are a big deal for people,” he said. “It’s their livelihoods. We need to have the process so that everybody’s rights are respected.”

Navarro, the watchdog office’s director, said she would have to confer with the county supervisors about what routes there may be to place the accountability measures voters backed into county ordinance.

Meanwhile, she said, “the decision of whether to appeal (the board’s ruling) lies with the Board of Supervisors just as the decision to place the matter on the ballot did.”

Hopkins said she would ask county counsel to advise the supervisors on legal options. “I am absolutely interested in what our legal actions and next steps could be,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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