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Legal filings in fight between Sheriff and County proliferate

September 6, 2021 — The promised battle between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors has entered the phase of inconclusive meetings and lengthy court filings.

In July, Sheriff Matt Kendall asked the board to authorize $50,000 to hire local attorney Duncan James so he could fight a policy that would make department heads responsible for exceeding their budgets. He’s also stated that the county is trying to take over his IT department, which he believes is an infringement on his rights and duties as sheriff.

Kendall and County Counsel Christian Curtis agreed that it would be a conflict of interest for Curtis to represent Kendall, since Kendall is disputing the county, which Curtis represents. But the question of the exact nature of the conflict remains. 

Kendall argues that his department, which regularly exceeds its budget, is structurally underfunded, particularly when it comes to overtime. He stated in a court filing at the end of July that his office is underfunded this year in excess of $2 million, and that he’s worried his ability to solve crimes is hindered by  “the county threatening to sue me personally to recover any budget overage.” (Earlier in the filing, he stated that the CEO’s budget recommendation to the Board of Supervisors included a reduction of approximately $1.5 million dollars.) 

In a court filing last week, Curtis reported that at the close of budget hearings in June, the board adopted a budget that “gave the sheriff everything he had asked for other than $1,275,500 for vehicles and equipment and the $255,000 for salary and benefits.” On August 3, the board funded the request for vehicles and equipment with money from the PG&E settlement, leaving only a quarter million dollar shortage in salary and benefits, not an excess of two million dollars. 

Kendall was hostile to a recent proposal for an independent financial audit of his office, leading Supervisor Ted Williams to point out that the board has not seen data to back up his claims of underfunding.

Kendall told the board he wants Duncan James to represent him because of his lifelong friendship with James and his family as well as the experience of James and his associates in government litigation. James served as District Attorney for ten years, and told the board that the county counsel’s office was created upon his request. Doug Losak, an associate at his firm, served as County Counsel for twelve years.

Curtis argued against the appointment of Duncan James, citing a protracted, expensive battle between the City of Ukiah and the Sanitation District when James represented the District. Curtis also advised against hiring James because James is currently representing Harinder Grewal, the former county Ag Commissioner, in Grewal’s suit against the county. Grewal, who was the third Ag Commissioner to be installed in the first few months of 2018, filed suit against the county in January of last year, claiming wrongful termination, hostile work environment, and violations of labor code and due process. A summary judgement in that matter is scheduled for September 17. The date for a jury trial has been set for February of next year. 

Curtis told the board in July that he would “generally recommend against using a firm that is actively suing us.” Curtis also characterized the amount of money that was spent in the fight between the City and the District as along the lines of “what you might expect to see...with multinational corporations fighting each other over some pretty important issues, where they’re almost engaged in a sort of economic warfare.”

In a 52-page filing with the court at the end of July, James fired back, saying Curtis’ estimate of the attorney fees was “grossly inaccurate and demonstrates the County Counsel’s biased approach and his total lack of knowledge about the case.” James wrote that six law firms including his own were involved in the fight between the City and the District, and that the total amount paid out to all of them was a little over five and a half million dollars.

At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Curtis sought to minimize the possibility of department heads’ being held personally liable for budget overages. He said the original discussion at budget hearings in June lacked context. Also, the problem doesn’t appear to require a solution, since there  are already legal provisions in contract law and agency  law for addressing unauthorized spending by department heads.

In his filing last week, Curtis clarified the board’s position on the conflict of interest between the board and the sheriff. He said the board agreed to provide outside legal counsel on the issue of the sheriff seeking independent IT and email service.

However, Curtis wrote, “The Board does not concur the County Counsel is ethically prohibited for (sic) advising the sheriff on which expenditures require board authorization.” He wrote that “the Sheriff appears to be upset about the process used to arrive at that budget, and concerns about what may or may not be included in future budgets...the complaint...is not that he didn’t receive the monies, but rather that he had to request them...these issues don’t present any legal question that require either County Counsel or an outside firm.”

A hearing before presiding Judge Ann Moorman is scheduled for September 13.

At last week’s meeting, supervisors voted unanimously to a vague resolution to use the budget process to mitigate unnecessary concern that impedes civil servants’ ability to perform their duties. They agreed to keep an eye on the budget and have a free flow of information. Asked if department heads generally adhere to their budgets, CEO Carmel Angelo offered little detail:

“I can say, in the fourteen years that I have been here, it has been fairly consistent that our department heads do everything they can to stay on budget,” she attested. “There have been bad years, and there have been good years.”

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