Sonoma County sheriff faces harassment complaint based on text messages, phone call

Supervisor alleges sheriff said she was 'using gender as a cover' to hide 'failures as a leader'

Sonoma County sheriff faces harassment complaint based on text messages, phone call

The county’s board of supervisors was not the sheriff’s employer, given that it lacked the powers to hire, fire, and discipline the elected public official, the California Court of Appeal said in a recent case.

In Essick v. County of Sonoma et al., a county sheriff participated in an August 2020 town hall meeting regarding wildfires in Sonoma County to give evacuation strategy updates. In response to a question from the public, he refused to allow evacuated residents to re-enter mandatory evacuation zones to feed pets and animals. He cited safety concerns.

After the meeting, an elected member of the county’s board of supervisors sent text messages to the sheriff to share her belief that there should be an evacuation process for pets and livestock. The sheriff replied dismissively and told her to “quit with the crap and come together for our community.”

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The supervisor alleged that, in a later phone call between them, the sheriff told her that she was “using gender as a cover” to hide her “failures as a leader” and that he would expose her as a fraud. On the other hand, according to the sheriff’s version of the call, the supervisor called him a bigot, a misogynist, and a “small man with a fragile ego who is afraid of women.”

The supervisor filed a harassment complaint against the sheriff. An independent investigator’s report, commissioned by the county, found that the sheriff made statements to the supervisor relating to their political differences, which could be considered a veiled threat.

The board of supervisors notified the sheriff about the investigation’s outcome. The board’s letter said that the sheriff’s comments and conduct breached the county’s governance standards, wilfully disregarded his role, showed a lack of professionalism, and could not be tolerated.

A local newspaper asked for the disclosure of certain documents, including the complaint and the investigator’s report, in line with the California Public Records Act. The sheriff requested that the trial court bar the release of the documents.

When the trial court rejected his request, the sheriff appealed. He argued that the documents were confidential under an exemption to the California Public Records Act because it was either a personnel record or findings relating to a citizen complaint against a peace officer under California’s Penal Code.

The California Court of Appeal for the First District agreed with the trial court’s refusal to bar the documents’ release. First, Sonoma County was not the sheriff’s employer, which was a requirement for his arguments with respect to personnel records or citizen complaints, the appellate court ruled.

The county sheriff was ultimately responsible to the public as a voter-elected official, the appellate court explained. He was not responsible to the board of supervisors, which was acting on the county’s behalf, or to anybody else within the county’s government.

According to the appellate court, the board of supervisors:

  • lacked powers to appoint, to terminate, or to discipline the sheriff,
  • chose to pay its elected officials, but this fact did not affect its relationship to the sheriff;
  • had oversight responsibility over the sheriff, but had no power to direct how the sheriff performed official duties.

The appellate court further held that Sonoma County did not become the sheriff’s employing agency by commissioning the independent investigator’s report. When it commissioned the report, the board of supervisors was fulfilling its duty under law to supervise all county officers’ conduct.

The report did not act as a disciplinary action from which the sheriff could appeal and did not lead to any consequences for his duties, tenure, compensation, or benefits, the appellate court concluded.

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