Santa Rosa is hiring a special investigator to look into complaints by residents who say they’ve been misled by petition gatherers trying to get rent control overturned.
City officials say they’re doing so because District Attorney Jill Ravitch has said, contrary to their initial understanding, that her office “will not take on that role.”
Interim City Attorney Teresa Stricker said she’s been “round and round” this week with Ravitch’s office over who’s jurisdiction such crimes are, and the decision was ultimately made for the city to investigate the complaints.
“We think it’s important that issues of alleged election fraud are investigated,” Stricker said. “Since there seems to be no other alternative, so we’re going to deal with it.”
The city had received 93 complaints by Friday from residents claiming that they were misled by petition gatherers and mistakenly signed in support of a referendum to overturn the city’s recently passed rent control law.
The city is telling those who want their names removed from such petitions to send a signed letter making that request to City Clerk Daisy Gomez. The city also previously instructed residents interested in filing a complaint of election fraud to contact the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office or the Secretary of State’s Office, saying it did so after speaking to both those agencies.
But after a Sept. 9 Press Democrat article outlined that guidance, Ravitch clarified that it was not her office’s place to field such complaints.
“We have an investigative bureau, but they are not first responders,” Ravitch said. “We don’t go out and collect the information. We don’t have the resources, and that’s not our role.”
Ravitch said her deputy held a meeting with city officials last week and explained that residents reporting voter fraud should call the relevant law enforcement agency where the crime allegedly took place.
In most cases, that’s the Santa Rosa Police Department, but it could also be the Santa Rosa College District Police, since some complaints stem from people gathering petitions on campus.
Ravitch said district attorneys in larger counties can conduct a broader array of investigations, but her office isn’t staffed for that.
Her 14 investigators take the lead in specialized matters like child abductions and Brown Act violations of public meetings, and at times will partner with law enforcement agencies to conduct sting operations in contractor fraud cases, she said. They also respond to officer involved shootings and conduct a wide range of duties to help move cases toward prosecution, she said.
But allegedly misrepresenting the nature of a referendum to obtain signatures is not the kind of crime for which her office would initiate an investigation, she said.
Local law enforcement, including the junior college police, are qualified to handle such cases, she said. If they ask for help, her investigators, most whom are former peace officers, can be brought in to assist, she said.
Stricker said initial complaints should be made to the nonemergency police line, and those complaints will be forwarded to a special investigator for follow-up. She said the investigator will work under her supervision and will need special training that police officers don’t normally receive.
“This isn’t what they do. Election fraud isn’t really a police matter,” Stricker said.