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Sonoma County supervisors place law enforcement oversight measure on November ballot

Five years after the creation of Sonoma County’s first-ever law enforcement auditor’s office, the Board of Supervisors late Thursday agreed unanimously to place a measure on the November ballot that, if passed, would greatly strengthen the oversight body and increase its funding.

Supervisors made their decision during a virtual public meeting, in which they started the conversation expressing wide support for the drafted initiative and a slate of changes backed by Karlene Navarro, the county’s current law enforcement auditor, and the Community Advisory Council she oversees. However, they spent part of the evening weighing whether to add another amendment that would allow the board to modify the ordinance that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the oversight office.

The board ultimately opted to put the measure on the ballot without giving itself the power to modify the ordinance, after a majority of the people who participated in the public comment portion of the meeting emphatically opposed it.

“This loophole did not come from the public, the Evelyn Cheatham Committee or director Navarro,” said Jim Duffy, an organizer with the group that created the first draft of the ordinance and a former member of the Community Advisory Council. “It is more supervisor shenanigans.”

After the vote, several supervisors thanked community members who weighed in on the discussion.

"We can never fear transparency, we can never fear oversight, and that's why I'm supporting it," Supervisor James Gore said.

The amendments favored by Navarro and the Community Advisory Council would give the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Oversight greater access to personnel records and body-worn camera footage, a significant expansion of its power.

Changes sought by Navarro and community members included allowing the auditor to review all use of force cases, regardless of whether complaints are filed with the Sheriff’s Office or the oversight office. It would also allow the review of cases that result in a civil lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.

Amendments that would grant the auditor access to prior complaints, disciplinary records and investigations into deputies who are the subject of audits, as well as the ability to accept anonymous complaints from deputies wishing to report wrongdoing, were also added.

At a meeting on Tuesday in which the ordinance and amendments were discussed, Sheriff Mark Essick suggested parts of the ordinance may pose legal issues. Staff at the Sheriff’s Office said he was unavailable for an interview about the proposals on Thursday, and it was unclear whether he participated in Thursday’s meeting.

Several people who called in to the meeting also demanded supervisors not alter language in the drafted initiative that would set the civilian oversight office’s annual budget at 1% of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Navarro’s office has a budget of $590,000 for the current fiscal year, while the Sheriff’s Office has a budget of $184 million. The watchdog’s funding could roughly triple if Sheriff’s Office funding levels remain constant.

That provision was one of several components of the proposed measure that Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein flagged during Tuesday’s meeting as having the potential to pose future legal concerns. The provision may be in conflict with a 1985 Butte County court case that determined county budgets could only be set by county supervisors.

A different case from 2006 that originated in Ventura County found voters in a what is known as general law county, such as Sonoma County, cannot set future minimum annual budgets through ballot initiatives, Goldstein said

The initiative, named The Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, was first written last fall by a group of local criminal justice activists, including Navarro’s predecessor. Efforts to gain enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot were derailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The item was revitalized in recent months in the wake of national calls for police reform born out of recent deaths of Black men and women during interactions with police.

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

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