Sonoma sheriff's office poised to challenge oversight ballot measure

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick appears poised to challenge a ballot measure that would give more powers to the watchdog office that oversees his department.

The ballot measure, placed on the November ballot by the county 
Board of Supervisors last week, would add to the powers of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, or IOLERO, which is charged with investigating use of force by sheriff's deputies and complaints against Sheriff's Office personnel, as well as conducting community outreach.

The unanimous vote by the board on Thursday followed nationwide protests against police brutality and racism and months of campaigning by community and criminal justice advocates whose efforts to gather signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot were thwarted by the pandemic.

Essick in October said parts of the proposed ordinance are legally 
deficient -- including sections that deal with personnel records and funding -- and that he would challenge it on constitutional grounds if it made it onto the ballot.

His request for $50,000 to hire legal counsel because he is 
"exploring potential litigation" related to the ordinance appears on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' Tuesday consent calendar. The money is in the Sheriff's Office budget and already earmarked for legal services, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Misti Wood said.

If it passes, the measure would give the oversight office, helmed 
by law enforcement auditor Karlene Navarro, increased access to personnel records and camera footage from body cameras, robust additions to its investigative powers.

The measure would also allow the auditor to review all use of 
force cases, whether or not complaints had been filed with the Sheriff's Office or IOLERO, and the office could also review cases that lead to civil lawsuits against the Sheriff's Office.

Navarro's office would also have access to prior complaints made 
against deputies her office audits, as well as related investigations and disciplinary records. An amendment enabling the office to accept anonymous whistleblower complaints from deputies was also added by supervisors.

Essick is asking for funds to hire outside counsel to research 
ways to "remedy" the board's action because it would be a conflict of interest for county attorneys to offer him that advice, according to a staff report.

The measure also would set the oversight office's budget at 1 
percent of the Sheriff's Office's, potentially tripling its annual 
allocation. The oversight office's budget is $590,000 for the current fiscal year, while the Sheriff's Office has a budget of $184 million.

The oversight office was created in 2016, developing out of 
community outrage about the 2013 fatal shooting by Sonoma County sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus of 13-year old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa.