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Sonoma County to fight for Measure P in court, meet with unions

Sonoma County plans to appeal a recent state labor board ruling that gutted Measure P, the landmark sheriff’s office oversight initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, officials said Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors voted during a closed session to challenge in court the California Public Employee Relations Board’s recent ruling that core provisions governing independent investigations of Sheriff’s Office personnel should have been subject to collective bargaining.

While pursuing the appeal, the county will simultaneously open discussions on the contentious provisions with the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represent sheriff’s deputies, jail workers and other staff.

Following Tuesday’s vote, the next step for the county will be to formally file the appeal in the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

The labor board’s ruling struck at the heart of Measure P, a broad set of reforms aimed at increasing the authority and budget of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. Although the ruling left intact an increase in the watchdog agency’s budget, it set aside expansions of its abilities to conduct its own investigations of deputies, publish body camera footage, subpoena personnel records and recommend discipline or sit in on interviews during internal affairs investigations.

“The County feels strongly that the (labor board) decision is clearly erroneous as a matter of law and contrary to the public’s interests,” Board Chair Lynda Hopkins said in a news release announcing the decision Tuesday night. “At the same time, the County is committing to sitting down with DSA and SCLEA representatives to explore resolution through the meet and confer process. We’re hopeful that we will be able to complete this process in a way that preserves the integrity of the oversight infrastructure that voters approved overwhelmingly last fall and have it implemented as soon as possible.”

Since the labor board’s ruling in late June, supervisors have faced calls from champions of Measure P to appeal the ruling, as well as an effort from the Sheriff’s Office’s labor unions to push the county into negotiations over Measure P.

Pursuing both the appeal and conversations with the unions gives the county its best chance at successfully implementing the reforms, Hopkins said.

“The board of supervisors is very committed to fulfilling the will of the voters and implementing Measure P,” she said.

When supervisors first placed Measure P on the November ballot, county counsel warned the reform package may be legally vulnerable, a warning that supervisors weighed against impassioned pleas by local activists who pressed their case for urgent reform by marching for weeks following the death of George Floyd, the Black man who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.

Saying the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association has “never been against oversight” and only wants to follow the proper legal procedure, Zachary Lopes, the union’s counsel, said his group is ready to enter conversations with the county in good faith.

“If they are upset at the way things have gone, they only have themselves to blame,” Lopes said.

Looking to move quickly, the board directed its counsel to contact attorneys for the two unions as soon as possible, Hopkins said in an interview.

While welcoming upcoming negotiations, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association criticized supervisors’ decision to appeal the labor board’s ruling.

“From the beginning, the County has refused to acknowledge its legal obligations and the appeal is just a continuation of its refusal,” said Damian Evans, the union’s president, in an emailed statement.

“We are committed to transparency and are in full support of increasing community trust,” Evans said. “But we must follow the lawful process to enact change that supports and protects our members and the community. The unlawfully implemented amendments will have a real-world impact on our members and raise significant safety issues.”

The Deputy Sheriff’s Association is not concerned about the county simultaneously pursuing an appeal, Lopes said.

As for the Board of Supervisors, the question is when it should have entered conversations with the unions. According to Hopkins, the board intended to include the associations later on.

“It was always the board’s intention and assumption that we would be meeting and conferring with DSA and SCLEA,” said Hopkins.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

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