Top government officials in Santa Clara Co. clash over jail reform actions

It sounds like a Hollywood movie script – “Smith v. Smith.” But this story has no bad guys, just an on-going power battle between two Santa Clara government titans. 

The warring factions are separated only by North San Pedro Street, but are worlds apart. On one side, the county jail, operated by long-time incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith. And on the other, county executive Jeff Smith.

“She’s trying to hijack this jail management system that we need to get implemented for jail reform,” said Jeff Smith.

He says the dispute with Sheriff Laurie Smith (no relation) centers on new technical infrastructure needed to modernize jail operations. The upgrades are part of jail reforms ordered and agreed to a couple of years ago. 

Jeff Smith used his emergency powers to reassign six IT workers within the sheriff’s office to make the installation. 

An IT expert who has no stake in the project or conflict says it’s better to have tech people in early, not later.

“The earlier you are working on a problem the more likely you are to address those potential issues that might come down the pike. And the earlier you can address them, the better it is,” said Mark Branom.

Sheriff Smith, who commands the jail and employees within, pushed back against a perceived challenge to her authority. She saw the re-allocation of workers as a cut to her staff, and ordered the six IT workers to stand down. 

Sheriff Smith declined an on-camera interview request from Fox 2, and instead released a statement which reads, “The arbitrary and contrived decision to cut almost one-half of the IT staff from the Sheriff’s Office will irrevocably harm public safety and those we serve. We must retain our exceptional staff to ensure the safety of the public, our deputies and our partner officers of allied law enforcement agencies.”

“What she’s saying is garbage. It’s just not true,” said Jeff Smith, in response to Laurie Smith’s emailed response to Fox 2.

With the IT workers facing possible discipline from one or both Smiths, there’s been a days-long stand-off. And Jeff Smith says implementation of jail reforms – which he says are already about a year behind schedule – have further slowed.

“She’s way over reaching. So what we’re going to do is after a year of struggling for agreement, we’re just going to implement the system without the state data. Without what’s called the cletz data. It’ll be less functional, but it’ll still be useful to comply with the decent decree,” said Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith says his reassignment of workers is a common occurrence in order to complete priority projects, such as the jail reform. He says he’ll meet with the six IT workers Friday afternoon in his office and ask them to start work on the upgrade, but won’t order it. And he won’t threaten them with insubordination if they refuse.