SAN FRANCISCO — After 10 hours of emotional public testimony and difficult deliberation, the city Ethics Commission on Thursday found that Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi had engaged in official misconduct by inflicting "physical violence" on his wife during an argument and pleading guilty to falsely imprisoning her.
But at the end of the day, his fate was no clearer.
The commission did not explicitly vote on whether Mirkarimi — who has been suspended by Mayor Ed Lee — should be permanently removed from his job. John St. Croix, executive director of the panel, said that action was unnecessary because the "City Charter says he's automatically removed" if the charges against him are upheld.
The commission rejected many of the charges levied against the sheriff by Lee, including allegations that Mirkarimi had tried to keep witnesses from going to police and had threatened his wife — Venezuelan telenovela star Eliana Lopez — that he would use his "power" to gain custody of their 3-year-old son.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, weighing the commission's findings, will have the final say on whether Mirkarimi should remain as sheriff. Nine of the 11 members must vote to remove Mirkarimi or he will stay in office. That decision probably will not be made until the middle of October.
If Mirkarimi is reinstated, political analyst David Latterman said, the question is "Can he even do his job? He doesn't have the cops behind him. They can't stand him. He doesn't have the city behind him."
After the ethic commission's 4-1 vote, David Waggoner, an attorney for the sheriff, said: "We respectfully disagree with the end result that they've reached tonight, even as they've rejected the vast majority of the mayor's allegations of wrongdoing.
"We look forward to making our case before the Board of Supervisors."
In a written statement, the mayor said he was "pleased that the members of the Ethics Commission, following a careful review of the evidence, and in the face of a sustained campaign to distract and misdirect them from the facts, agreed with me that Ross Mirkarimi's actions constitute official misconduct and fall below the ethical conduct we expect of the sheriff, our top law enforcement officer."
The meeting began with attorneys on both sides addressing the panel and then fielding questions. It ended with more than two hours of public deliberation by the commissioners about what they should do.
In the middle was a three-hour stretch of passionate and, at some points, peculiar public comment that had no official role in the decision made by the commission, which was charged with considering facts and law.
This being San Francisco — an inclusive place with its own brand of democracy — everyone who wanted to be heard Thursday was. All 103 of them: Greens, Democrats, one Republican, youth group members, domestic violence advocates, Mirkarimi's mother. Some of those who weighed in didn't even live in within the city's borders.
And then there was Walter, a City Hall regular who typically croons his comments as audience members snicker and officials strain to appear polite. On Thursday, to the tune of "Wichita Lineman," he sang of Mirkarimi: "He is a sheriff for the county...." For the record, Walter was on Mirkarimi's side.
Not all of the public commentary was entirely on point.
One speaker described being arrested 55 times and complained about a mysterious 500-pound sheriff's deputy (she, too, was a Mirkarimi supporter). Another invoked Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder accused of assault and rape who was just granted asylum in Ecuador.
Mirkarimi is more than a third of the way through 52 weeks of domestic violence training mandated by his plea agreement. The most persuasive evidence in the case, many commissioners said, was a video depicting a tearful Lopez displaying a bruise on her arm, the result of theNew Year's Eveargument with her husband.
Still, much of the commentary and questioning Thursday revolved around exactly what constitutes domestic violence.
"I believe that domestic violence is a serious offense and, as such, am glad that the allegations in this case were brought forth and taken seriously," said a Mirkarimi supporter named Danielle. "But I do not believe any serious offense was committed here."
Another supporter said: "I can tell you about domestic violence. It's when I had an infant in my arm and my husband shoved me, not a little tug on the arm.... Some people bruise quickly and easily. That's no proof of violence."
Activists against domestic violence were outnumbered at the hearing, and many rued that the proceedings had minimized the issue. But they were clear about what Mirkarimi as sheriff would do to a city that has a long history of innovation in violence prevention — particularly in its jails.
"The facts are clear in this case," said Beverly Upton, head of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium. "Ross Mirkarimi pleaded guilty and was convicted of the crime of domestic violence against his partner. He … cannot be the supervisor of one of the world's best domestic violence programs.
"We urge you to remove this sheriff," she continued. "He has lost the confidence of San Francisco. The world is watching."