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Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick accused of bullying by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins has accused Sheriff Mark Essick of harassment and bullying after she felt threatened by his comments during a phone call last August amid the Walbridge fire, an encounter that left a lasting fissure among the county’s top elected leaders.

Hopkins filed a formal complaint against Essick with the county counsel’s office, leading to a rare investigation into the behavior of an elected sheriff.

The findings of that investigation, concluded in December, remain secret. Essick has sued the county to bar release of records of the investigation and its findings, arguing he is protected by the same laws giving privacy to most misconduct investigations into peace officers.

But the conflict has strained the relationship between Hopkins, who now chairs the Board of Supervisors, and Essick, who oversees a $194 million law enforcement agency that obtains its funding from the county but operates independently under his direction.

Essick declined to answer questions about the phone call or offer his perspective on the exchange with Hopkins, referring questions to an attorney who declined to comment.

The Aug. 20 nighttime phone call occurred three days after the Walbridge fire broke out in Hopkins’ district, forcing the evacuation of thousands of county residents.

Hopkins recalled asking Essick questions about her constituents seeking access to animals in evacuation zones, she said in an interview last week. Essick almost immediately met her query with hostility, she said. Hopkins claimed the conversation grew heated and Essick made what felt like a threat to her that left her feeling fearful for her and her family’s safety, exacerbated by the fact she lives in Forestville, where deputies answer calls to 911. She said her husband heard part of the exchange because she was using her cellphone’s speaker function.

Hopkins would not describe what Essick said to her, citing the court order temporarily blocking the county from releasing the documents and barring officials from describing their contents.

The call left her so rattled she immediately alerted County Administrator Sheryl Bratton and filed a formal complaint.

“He threatened me,” Hopkins said. “To me it’s just a line that you don’t cross, and he crossed it. The sheriff is the most powerful law enforcement official in the county. He controls law enforcement where I live. And he oversees the agency that investigates threats against the Board of Supervisors.”

Essick declined to provide his view of the encounter.

Essick said that despite the controversy he saw no barriers to working with Hopkins or any other county official.

“My relationship with the supervisors is business as usual,” Essick said. “I regularly speak with supervisors by telephone and Zoom meetings, so there has been no change in that regard either.”

Hopkins said she remained confident in the integrity of rank-and-file deputies and other personnel with the Sheriff’s Office, but said she would not feel comfortable speaking with Essick alone again.

“I have not spoken with him since the incident, nor would I feel safe interacting with him without someone else present in the conversation,” Hopkins said. “I miss having that collegial professional relationship that I had with prior sheriffs.”

The phone call between Essick and Hopkins took place at a tumultuous political time in Sonoma County, which was battling a surge in COVID-19 infections and an out-of-control wildfire.

In late May, Essick publicly rejected the county’s public health officer’s authority to restrict business activities and public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “I’m not following this f--king health order,” he declared in a May 29 interview, saying deputies would only educate the public about the local health order, but not enforce it. The position put him at odds with a majority of the Board of Supervisors and stoked a lingering controversy over whether his office would enforce these rules as the pandemic worsened. Although Essick ultimately backed down, the Sheriff’s Office issued no citations over public health orders during a nearly 11-month period ending in February, public records show.

In June, Hopkins took a leading role advancing a proposed ballot measure to strengthen the authority of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, a civilian oversight program that reviews complaints against the Sheriff’s Office. Essick vehemently opposed Measure P, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in November.

The telephone call between two elected officials resulted in a formal investigation conducted by Oppenheimer Investigations Group, a Berkeley law firm that provides impartial investigations of workplace complaints, according to Michael Colantuono, an attorney defending the county against Essick’s lawsuit. Essick, Hopkins and additional individuals were interviewed.

The Press Democrat requested copies of any complaints lodged against Essick in December. The county determined the records were public and agreed to release them. Essick asked a Sonoma County Superior Court judge to intervene, arguing the records should not be released to the public.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Arthur Wick issued a temporary restraining order barring the county from releasing the records while the court hears arguments in the matter. That case is still pending.

In response to questions about his perspective, Essick said the matter was confidential and referred questions about the complaint and investigation to his attorney Diane Aqui. She declined to speak with a reporter.

“There’s not a whole lot I can say,” Essick said. “I’m represented by an attorney. There are a lot of confidential personnel things going on both sides of the table.”

Core to his argument in court documents asking for privacy are the strong confidentiality rules for misconduct complaints and investigations into peace officers in California. Most details of those records are barred from release, apart from cases involving shootings, sexual assault, dishonesty and deadly encounters.

But the county contends Essick is primarily an elected person, a high-ranking government official with significant responsibility that requires greater transparency to the voters.

Former Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who ended her 12-year run on the board in January but was still a supervisor last year and privy to the investigation and its findings, said she believes Essick acted improperly toward Hopkins. She felt the investigation into the matter was flawed but couldn’t disclose details.

“She (Hopkins) spoke up and she got attacked by a male authority figure,” Zane said. “And if you tell somebody you don’t have any friends and you’re the head of the law enforcement body to protect people who live in the unincorporated area? That’s a threat.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he felt the county responded appropriately with an investigation and he hoped everyone would move forward and set disagreements aside.

“You don’t necessarily get to pick and choose who you work with. But in my opinion, it’s important to be able to maintain relationships and have a working relationship to make sure you can take care of the people’s business that you’re responsible for,” Rabbitt said. “There will be hiccups. There’s gonna be frustration along the way.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin too said she supported the investigation and believes Essick, as an elected official, should be required to provide the same level of transparency as any elected official. She said she has a positive working relationship with him.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but the future comes through folks sitting down together and working out a collaborative relationship that would be a benefit to all,” Gorin said.

Supervisor Chris Coursey said he couldn’t discus the matter but said the conflict has not seemed to have disrupted business between the board and the Sheriff’s Office.

Supervisor James Gore couldn’t be reached.

Essick, who was elected in 2018 against two opponents, agreed to talk about his ability to lead his office and collaborate despite the disagreement with a key elected official in a district served by his office. He said the public should feel confident he’s met the formidable challenges posed during his first two years of his term: major wildfires, a significant Russian River flood, a global pandemic as well as loud nationwide calls for police reform and social change.

“We have a lot going on and I think the Sheriff’s Office in this county has been incredibly responsive to the needs of this community,” Essick said. “We’re going to continue to do that.”

Petaluma Argus-Courier Editor Tyler Silvy contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Editor’s Note: Chris Coursey did return a call requesting comment. The story has been updated to reflect this.

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