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Sonoma County sheriff signals unity with supervisors, but public criticism is scathing

Sheriff Mark Essick made a special appearance Tuesday before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, seeking to make peace with fellow elected leaders after an abrupt split and bruising conflict at the top of county government last week over his unexpected decision to stop enforcing local health restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The display of unity at the board’s virtual meeting followed an agreement announced Monday to have his department resume enforcement of the health order based on what he and board Chairwoman Susan Gorin said would be greater transparency and collaboration on a more balanced approach in deciding what business operations and public activities can resume in the coming weeks and months.

Essick acknowledged Gorin and other supervisors for their leadership and willingness to work together, as well as that of county Health Officer Sundari Mase and her boss Barbie Robinson, the director of health services.

“I’m very optimistic that we have a clear path forward that is agreeable to all of us, and it is in the best interest of Sonoma County,” the sheriff said.

It’s not clear how easily Essick will win back the trust of constituents who disagreed with his stance, however. Dozens of outraged residents wrote and called the board, or spoke during the online meeting to express disapproval and disgust with his stand. Many called for his ouster.

Santa Rosa attorney Bart Weitzenberg said Essick had displayed a “delusional sense of power.”

Public health decisions, said Chris Hunt of Healdsburg, should be made by the health officer, “not through back-of-the-napkin analysis by a sheriff who is neither trained nor elected to make such decisions.”

Essick had left the meeting when those comments were aired.

In an afternoon interview, he said he was aware of passionate opinions on the matter. Taking in criticism is “part of being an elected official,” he said.

But he said his stance “spurred some robust conversation and, at the end of the day, I worked with our other elected officials and we reached a compromise, one that we all feel good about, one that we all felt we could stand behind 100%.”

His brief board appearance capped a whirlwind few days sparked by his shocking announcement Thursday afternoon that his department would no longer enforce provisions in the county health order that were more restrictive than what the state prescribed.

His decision came two days after Mase decided to hold back on allowing in-house restaurant dining, appointments at barbershops and salons, reopening of more retail stores and limited indoor worship services even though Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized such activities where allowed by counties.

Mase, who now says she is likely to permit all such activities beginning this weekend barring a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases, said last week it was premature to move forward because of a sudden increase in illness and hospitalizations. She also said she needed to wait to see if there was any impact from a round of newly allowed activities permitted just days earlier.

But Essick said the decision ignored the suffering of individuals and families crushed by the despair of lost income and work, and reinforced a system that allowed certain business sectors to operate while others could not, though he contended they offered no greater risk of viral exposure.

He argued instead for what he said was a risk-based approach to decision-making that Mase said has always been at the root of state and local health orders.

Despite the agreement announced Monday, Mase said Tuesday that she believed her office had always been transparent, communicative and collaborative, contrary to Essick’s complaints.

“Nothing’s going to change from the Public Heath Department’s perspective,” she said during the regular daily press briefing Tuesday.

During the earlier board meeting, Gorin and other supervisors acknowledged the severe, negative social impacts of the economic shutdown and mass unemployment - fallout that Essick said fueled his decision to hold back enforcement of the county health order.

“These are the things that I think keep us all up at night,” Hopkins said. “I believe we truly are in an era of least-worst decisions.”

Gorin, who invited Essick to join the board next week in a spirit of closer partnership and greater collaboration, voiced some regret over last week’s conflict, which featured a head-spinning series of announcements that left the public dazed over the status of pandemic leadership at the top of county government.

“We probably could have handled it a little better,” said Gorin.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he shared Essick’s interest in seeking better ways to curb the spread of coronavirus while helping businesses get back on their feet. He noted that it had been 77 days since the county’s initial shelter-in-place order was imposed. Some residents have seen their incomes evaporate entirely during the period, he said.

“If you aren’t frustrated with the entire ordeal that we’re in the midst of, you aren’t paying attention,” Rabbitt said.

He also said that elected officials need to be “constantly questioning” the decision-making process to make sure they are “doing the right thing.”

Those who commented on Essick’s move were far less forgiving, however, though it appeared many submitted their remarks before the compromise was made public on Monday afternoon.

While a handful of people supported Essick, a 26-year department veteran and first-term sheriff, many said his position was divisive and dangerous.

One caller whose name was not immediately available Tuesday referred to Essick’s “arrogance and I-know-better attitude.”

Another caller, Veronica Jordan, identified herself as a family physician from Santa Rosa.

“We need to have experts helping us make decisions, and Dr. Mase is using evidence-based guidelines to do so,” she said. “Sheriff Essick’s response is totally unethical and irresponsible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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