.Labor agreements renew struggle over Sheriff review agency’s powers

The latest chapter in a yearslong fight over the powers of Sonoma County’s law enforcement review office started in late June.

A set of labor agreements Sonoma County entered into with two unions representing employees of the county Sheriff’s Office while the county fought the same groups in court triggered the latest struggle.

At issue is the implementation of Measure P, a November 2020 ballot item intended to strengthen the powers of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), which reviews the actions and policies of the Sheriff’s Office. 

Critics of the labor agreements argue that they amount to significant, behind-the-scenes changes to the voter-approved ballot measure.

In an Aug. 1 letter to the Board of Supervisors, the IOLERO Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a group of community members who advise IOLERO, wrote that “it appears that the County has done exactly what community members most feared would happen” by undermining “the intent of Measure P and the will of the voters by the concessions it made in the Letters.” 

Meanwhile, Garrick Byers, the interim director of IOLERO, and Richard Bolanos, an attorney who represented the county in the negotiations with the labor unions, argued at two CAC meetings this summer that the agreements do not substantially restrict the scope of Measure P. 

Reached by phone on Sept. 1, Byers said he believes Measure P can be fully implemented now, thanks to the labor agreements. He declined to comment on his interpretation of specific elements of the agreements, because he wanted to leave the matter to John Alden, who took over as IOLERO’s permanent director on Tuesday, Sept. 6, after the Bohemian’s print deadline. 

IOLERO was formed in 2016 following years of public protest and meetings after the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sheriff’s deputy in October 2013. Almost since it was formed, the scope of the IOLERO’s power has been the subject of political struggle over the independence of the Sheriff who, unlike a city’s police chief, is directly elected by voters and largely shielded from outside oversight.

Under the original legislation creating IOLERO, the office was tasked with reviewing the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations of possible misconduct by Sheriff’s employees, offering non-binding policy recommendations and conducting public outreach. 

However, IOLERO proved weaker than local community advocates had hoped, with the Sheriff’s Office wielding the ability to “lock out” IOLERO from files needed to complete investigations. 

Advocates took the issue directly to voters. In August 2020, after renewed public pressure due to that year’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Board of Supervisors added Measure P to the November 2020 ballot. Measure P would significantly increase IOLERO’s budget and strengthen its investigatory abilities and access to documents.

However, two unions representing Sheriff’s employees, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association and the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, quickly filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Review Board (PERB), arguing that the county had violated state law by failing to adequately “meet and confer” with Sheriff’s employees before adding Measure P to the ballot. 

That November, Measure P passed with support from 65% of voters. Still, the legal battle has dragged on, delaying the full implementation of the measure.

In June 2021, PERB ruled largely in favor of the unions, overturning core aspects of Measure P. The county appealed the case and, on June 23, 2022, the Court of Appeals released an opinion in favor of the county, throwing out most of PERB’s decision.

In a press release the same day, IOLERO announced that, after negotiations, the county had reached agreements with the law enforcement unions “to strengthen law enforcement oversight in the county.”

“The agreement strikes the right balance between increased transparency and oversight and fair and consistent investigatory procedures for the affected [Sheriff’s Office employees],” Damian Evans, president of Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, said in the release.

Measure P’s supporters were alarmed, however. In effect, the agreements sign away some of the elements of Measure P which the court ultimately upheld, critics argue. And, while the county was required to bargain with the labor groups in good faith about the implementation of Measure P, it was not required to agree to weaken the voter-approved ballot measure.

In two monthly meetings following the release of the agreements, the IOLERO CAC grilled Byers and then Bolanos about the agreements.

At an Aug. 1 meeting, Bolanos said that the county entered into negotiations with the unions last year while the lawsuit dragged on, in hopes that they could implement Measure P as quickly as possible. The county had also heard that PERB might challenge the Court of Appeals’ decision by taking it to the state Supreme Court, potentially delaying the implementation of Measure P again. (PERB has requested that the state Supreme Court review the Court of Appeals decision. That case is ongoing.)

In an Aug. 1 letter to the Board of Supervisors, the CAC laid out concerns about three elements of the labor agreements:

  1. Although Measure P would have allowed IOLERO to conduct investigations into a death resulting from the actions of a Sheriff’s employee while the Sheriff’s Office is investigating the matter, the labor agreements specify that IOLERO’s investigation will not begin “until the Sheriff’s Department has completed its investigation and sent the incident to IOLERO,” the CAC letter states. Because such internal investigations can drag on for months, the CAC raised concern that, by the time IOLERO investigates, “witnesses’ memories will have faded and documents and other physical evidence [are] likely to be lost, essentially rendering any investigation by IOLERO virtually meaningless.”
  2. The labor agreements state that whistleblower complaints received by IOLERO must be referred to “the appropriate enforcement agency” after an intake process. In contrast, Measure P specified that such complaints “shall not need to be reported by IOLERO to the sheriff-coroner, including the Internal Affairs Division.” The CAC is concerned the “appropriate enforcement agency” could be interpreted as the Sheriff’s Office, potentially outing a Sheriff’s Office employee who filed an anonymous complaint with IOLERO. Bolanos acknowledged at the Aug. 1 CAC meeting that the wording of that section “could be more clear” about the fact that whistleblower complaints should not be referred back to the Sheriff’s Office for enforcement. 
  1. Lastly, the CAC’s letter notes that the labor agreements weaken IOLERO’s access to documents. While Measure P directed the Sheriff’s Office to share documents IOLERO requested as part of investigations, the labor agreements “allow” IOLERO to “request” such documents, leaving the decision of whether to share them in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office. 

Although the state Supreme Court case may drag on for months, the labor agreements are in effect and have no sunset date.

Local groups, including the Santa Rosa-Sonoma County NAACP, Community For Law Enforcement Accountability (CLEAN) and North Bay Organizing Project have called on the county to renegotiate the labor agreements. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s labor associations would both have to agree to reopen negotiations.

Only time will tell how IOLERO’s brand new director, John Alden, will handle this ongoing mess.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The blue cloud, the blue wall, the blue secrets wants to hide what they do especially when something wrong is done. The contract agreement is what it is—time to change it when it is time to renew the contract. Open information will get rid of the bad cops (few) and support the good ones (most).

  2. “Ongoing mess”, indeed. Too much bureaucracy, this is crazy.
    I strongly support unions, but these 2 Associations are blatantly trying to block their members from being investigated for brutalizing (& killing!) citizens. Hopefully the trend towards transparency, & accountability will triumph.

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