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Sonoma County supervisors seek to steer investments away from detention centers, fossil fuels

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Siding with advocates who have called on Sonoma County to divest from companies doing business with immigrant detention centers inside the U.S., the Board of Supervisors marked a largely symbolic change Tuesday, saying investment of the county’s $2.9 billion treasury should rest with socially and environmentally conscious companies.

The unanimous decision came after considerable back-and-forth between board members, the county counsel and the elected county treasurer over the legality of a more aggressive proposal first made by Supervisor Shirlee Zane. She wanted to prioritize social and environmental concerns over profit maximization — a stance that County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said would violate state law.

“I want to take out words like ‘maximizing profits,’ ” Zane said. “I want to say our highest goal is we will not invest a dime in a company that not only profits from human suffering but is contrary to our values as Americans.”

She teared up at one point during her comments while talking about a recent trip to Ellis Island, the New York way station that served both as port of entry for roughly 12 million immigrants and as a detention center.

But though her push drew applause from activists, the board ultimately backed away from her suggestion to challenge state law on investment of public dollars. Goldstein said it risked inviting lawsuits from investors and could even force Treasurer Erick Roeser into a court challenge against the county.

The board’s 5-0 vote “declared” that putting money in companies with ties to immigrant detention facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border wasn’t consistent with county priorities. Going forward, those priorities will give greater weight to investments thought to produce environmental and social good.

In its resolution, the board specifically sought to steer county investments away from two banks with ties to private prison companies, as well as the fossil fuel industry.

Passions were high Tuesday in the boardroom in north Santa Rosa, which was packed to near capacity. Attendees held signs urging the board to divest from the two banks — Wells Fargo and BNP Paribas.

The county is no longer invested in BNP Paribas, a French bank that does business locally as Bank of the West. The bank still has at least $2.5 million invested in private prison companies Core Civic and Geo Group, according to county documents.

Wells Fargo was harder to pin down, Roeser said, as the money tied up in private prisons there could be funds managed for other investors, Roeser said, adding that it was “hard to tell.” The county has more than $38 million sunk in Wells Fargo investments, he said.

The global financial marketplace hides its responsibility for sustaining places that cause human misery, activists said, echoing a point that Zane also made from the dais.

Henry Kaku, with the Japanese American Citizens League, recounted the harrowing details of his own family’s forced separation during World War II. His parents, who were born in the United States, were held at an internment camp during the war and then stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported to Japan.

“At that time, almost no one stood up to defend Japanese American citizens,” Kaku said. “Today I’m here to say, ‘Not again!’ ”

Though the county did not pull out of its investment with Wells Fargo or prohibit future investments of any kind, activists and allied officials cheered Tuesday’s board action.

The Facebook page for Divest from Immigrant Detention Centers, one group behind the campaign, declared “We did it!”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins proclaimed on her own Facebook page that “Our local taxpayer dollars will NOT go to fund immigrant detention centers or the fossil fuel industry!”

The language in the county resolution didn’t proscribe such a clear-cut policy. The resolution simply “guides” the treasurer away from such investments, and only “to the extent that other, more socially responsible investments achieve substantially equivalent safety, liquidity, and yield.”

That language, fine-tuned on the fly Tuesday, conforms with California law requiring the treasurer to adhere to three key tenets: safety of capital, liquidity and maximum rate of return. It’s the same law Roeser cited this past summer, when activist calls were just heating up.

So what really changed?

“From my perspective, the board went on the record with a resolution that identifies their priorities,” Roeser said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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