The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has denied Sheriff Mark Essick's request for approval to hire legal counsel to explore litigation against the county over a ballot measure that would strengthen the office that oversees his department.

The supervisors earlier this month unanimously voted to place the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance on the county's November ballot. But Essick said there were legal flaws in the ordinance that would make it difficult for him to perform his duties as sheriff.

“I have not made a decision to litigate at this point, but I need to seek advice,” he told supervisors at their Aug. 12 meeting, describing his request as a “procedural” matter.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein told the board that Essick needed supervisors' approval to seek outside counsel because it would be a conflict of interest for county attorneys to advise Essick if he is exploring whether to sue the county.

As Goldstein put it during the meeting, “Since that possibility exists, we cannot represent the sheriff if he's exploring potential litigation against the Board of Supervisors.”

Measure would allow broader oversight

The county's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, or IOLERO, is charged with investigating use of force by sheriff's deputies and complaints against Sheriff's Office personnel, as well as conducting community outreach.

If the ballot measure were to pass, it would give the office added powers including increased access to personnel records and camera footage from body cameras.

Essick said his objections to the ordinance had nothing to do with oversight.

“The Sheriff's Office is not opposed to transparency and accountability. We hold ourselves to a high standard and I hold the deputies to a high standard,” he said.

He said supervisors had refused to take part in a joint effort to work on the ordinance that could have resolved his concerns.

Essick came in for sharp criticism from Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Shirlee Zane, who voted against his request.

“I'm opposing this because I don't believe opposing the democratic process is part of the sheriff's duties,” Hopkins said. “It strikes me as more political and less procedural.”

Zane said, “We made a choice (to place the measure on the ballot) because we saw that there was still so much mistrust (of law enforcement) in our community. When the threat is to file a lawsuit against five other fellow electeds, it's not a good path.”

After the meeting, in response to a request for comment or an interview with Essick, Juan Valencia, a Sheriff's Office spokesman, said: “It's a very complex situation and we're exploring our options at this time.”

He did not respond to a question about whether Essick would appeal the board's decision in court, which he is entitled to do.

Sheriff's request falls short

Essick needed a majority vote to win approval, but got only a split vote. Supervisor David Rabbitt was absent. Supervisors James Gore and Susan Gorin, the board chairwoman, supported his request.

Gore said he voted to place the IOLERO measure on the ballot, and would vote for it in November. But, he said, he agreed with Goldstein's analysis.

“An independently elected Sheriff also has rights, so even though I don't like it, I'm voting to support it,” he said.

Gorin said it may still be possible for the sheriff's concerns to be resolved.

“If the sheriff is interested, if the director of IOLERO is interested, we can still engage in that conversation to see how these provisions will play out,” Gorin said.

More than 80 emails were sent to the board related to the sheriff's request. Zane said those received by her office were overwhelmingly opposed to it. At least 25 people spoke during the meeting's public comment period; all were opposed to the sheriff's request, as were all but one of about 40 voicemail comments played for supervisors.

Many callers opposed the use of taxpayer funds to support efforts by the sheriff to fight the IOLERO ordinance.

Essick said: “I realize that this is taxpayer money and I take my responsibility in spending taxpayer money seriously. This is money that is already in the department's budget ... this is not taking money away from some programs in the county.”

The Board of Supervisors clashed with Essick in May, too, when he briefly said he would no longer enforce the county's public health orders intended to slow the spread of coronavirus, saying they were inconsistent and county health officials had failed to be transparent.