Can everyone be powerless? That was the overriding question left on Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors' defeat of a proposal to create an oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department. Opponents claimed a commission would be powerless to oversee an independently elected sheriff, and supervisors argued that they too were powerless to change that fact absent a statewide vote revising the California Constitution.
And they demonstrated, in a stark and troubling fashion, that the public is powerless to bring its concerns about jail and patrol abuse to a public forum where it will be heard. The supervisors sat politely enough while public speakers testified this time, but weeks upon months upon years of board meetings at which members of the public spoke about their own experiences with abusive sheriff's deputies went without corrective response — until those same people brought their concerns to the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence. That attention resulted in a report that began an overhaul of the jails and the Sheriff's Department, and it's important to note that it came from a temporary commission that was, on the books, powerless.
In fact, the Board of Supervisors does have the power to establish a commission to oversee the sheriff, just as its counterpart has done in San Diego County. And a commission here would have the power, if the board gave it to them, to review documents, conduct investigations and request the sheriff to appear and respond to questions and complaints. The public then would begin to regain some of the power it has lost to an unaccountable and byzantine county government.
A different power — of the kind written in statutes and constitutions and enforced by judges instead of merely by public outcry and political pressure — could come over time, but the county must take a first step forward. On Tuesday, the supervisors took a step the other way.
In addition to rejecting the commission, they created, or at least purported to create, an attorney-client relationship between themselves and Inspector General Max Huntsman, making clear that Huntsman works for them and will report to them, perhaps in closed session, instead of directly to the public. That means the public will hear only those things about the sheriff that the supervisors believe won't subject the county to lawsuits or themselves to scrutiny.
Because the candidates running for county supervisor and sheriff in November have supported the idea of an oversight commission, the county will probably have one sooner or later. But like jail reform and public confidence in the sheriff and the board, it will be foolishly and unnecessarily delayed. That is a shame.