Sheriff oversight proposed in Monterey County Board of Supervisors authorizes exploration of proposal to create a watchdog board.

| CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors this week asked its staff to look into the creation of an oversight board to serve as a third-party monitor on the Sheriff’s Office.

Legislation signed into law in 2020 authorized California counties to create oversight boards to help boards of supervisors keep tabs on activities within sheriff’s offices. According to the summary, the bill authorizes supervisors to appoint civilians and to create an “inspector general” to issue subpoenas when necessary to investigate issues in the departments.

The request by Supervisor Wendy Root Askew comes during strained relationships between Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal and the Board of Supervisors. Bernal announced last year that he would not seek reelection this year following a string of administrative issues that were exposed in the department, many by Voices of Monterey Bay.

Supervisors formally censured Bernal in May and later asked the Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate his department. 

Root Askew has said she has been disturbed by what she learned about Sheriff’s Department practices after joining the Board of Supervisors. Some of that has been made public but numerous personnel issues within the department have remained confidential.

Root Askew said she is trying “to utilize every opportunity for the Board of Supervisors to exercise proper authority over every county department, to use every available tool.”

She said she believes the timing is right. “We are getting ready to get a new sheriff and that provides a chance to establish a new relationship with the Sheriff’s Department. I want to create the expectation that we expect the transparency the public expects.”

She said it too early to predict whether the full board will go along with her but she recalled that she was surprised last year when the board unanimously agreed to the censure she proposed after the sheriff inappropriately used public monies to sponsor a convention for a private trade organization, the state sheriffs’ association, and to send a complaint about the sheriff’s activities to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which decided not to investigate. She said she has had several concerns about the sheriff’s performance, “including his refusal to work with the board on vaccinating his staff, among others.”

The supervisor said she wants to see how other counties taking advantage of the state legislation structure their sheriff’s oversight boards. She said it would be best if the sheriff cooperates and that various elements of the community could be represented, including at least one victims’ right advocate.

The oversight board legislation is relatively new; Sacramento County has started the process to create its own board but a quick survey of other counties indicates that few have followed suit.

She said she has already heard from one sheriff candidate, Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto, who said she supports the idea.

She and the rest of the board asked that county staff prepare a report that includes bylaws, a formation resolution and an “outline of administrative capacity needed to support the oversight board, and to report back to the board in a month.

Note: This story has been rewritten to reflect the Board of Supervisors action on Jan. 11.

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Voices of Monterey Bay is a nonprofit online news source serving California's Central Coast.

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