Sonoma County law enforcement watchdog appointed to superior court bench

Karlene Navarro will leave the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach after 2½ years on the job.|

Karlene Navarro, the head of Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog office, has been appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the Sonoma County Superior Court bench.

She was among 11 new superior court judges whose appointments were announced Wednesday by the governor’s office.

She will fill the vacancy created by the 2020 retirement of Judge Allan D. Hardcastle and serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in 2022. She’ll be up for election at that time.

Navarro was appointed director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, or IOLERO, by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2019. Created in 2016, the agency is tasked with auditing misconduct complaints against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Wednesday’s announcement of Navarro’s imminent departure from IOLERO took some county officials and others who work with her by surprise.

Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Chris Coursey said he only became aware of the news around the time the statement from Newsom’s office was released.

Coursey said he wanted to “congratulate Ms. Navarro and wish her well in what is a really nice move up in the legal system.”

Evan Zelig, chair of the Community Advisory Council, which works closely with IOLERO in engaging and communicating with the public, said he also learned of Navarro’s appointment when it was announced Wednesday. He said it is well deserved.

"I have no doubt that she will be fair and good,“ Zelig said. ”In her two years, I think we’ve had quite a few accomplishments. She did her best with a short budget and understaffed office.“

During her tenure at the oversight office, Navarro spearheaded changes to the Sheriff’s Office’s use of force and deescalation policies, he said.

She also was poised to oversee a significant expansion of the agency’s budget and investigative powers with voters’ 2020 passage of Measure P. The initiative was meant to address continuing concerns about law enforcement use of force and bolster citizen involvement in cases of suspected department wrongdoing.

Measure P has run into a legal challenge led by deputies and supported by Sheriff Mark Essick.

Navarro’s career in Sonoma County includes serving on the county conflict panel, which represents people who cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office. She also served as a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law in 2018.

And between 2007 and 2013, Navarro worked as a public defender in Solano, San Francisco and Fresno counties, according to the governor’s news release.

She will join her husband, Christopher Honigsberg, on the superior court bench.

Her new position will come with a pay bump. According to the governor’s statement, each of the newly appointed judges will make $223,829 a year. As of 2020, Navarro’s salary as director of IOLERO was $161,769, according to county records.

A gubernatorial appointment to a superior court requires that a hopeful appointee apply. It was not immediately clear when Navarro submitted her appointment application or when she will leave her current post at IOLERO and begin on the superior court bench.

Reached Wednesday evening, Navarro declined to comment on her appointment and her departure from IOLERO.

Coursey said county supervisors will devise the search for Navarro’s replacement in a closed session in the coming weeks. They may look internally or locally for possible candidates, or initiate a broader recruitment. Typically, he said, the hiring process takes several months.

After news of Navarro’s appointment broke, local defense and civil rights attorneys voiced their hopes for IOLERO’s future leadership.

Local defense lawyer Omar Figueroa urged the Board of Supervisors to conduct a nationwide search for the next director in an email to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, which he shared with The Press Democrat.

He said this is vital “because there is a dearth of local candidates with the requisite qualifications.”

Bernice Espinoza, an immigration lawyer with Corazón Healdsburg, hoped that the person chosen for the job will be able to meet both of the primary responsibilities of IOLERO: oversight and outreach.

“I hope that the county will be able to find a director who is able to be a bridge between the community and the county,” said Espinoza, who added that finding “a person who has the sensitivities to navigate both is difficult.”

Zelig cautioned the county not to be too hasty in appointing Navarro’s successor.

"Any time a county office loses their director on fairly short notice, that can have some short-term effects,“ he said. ”But what the county cannot and should not do is rush into hiring an IOLERO director simply because they’re trying to replace someone quickly.“

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @vv1lder.

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