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Conflict of interest decided, contract withdrawn, memorial ordered

January 5, 2022 — The question of a conflict of interest between the sheriff’s office and the Board of Supervisors has been decided. According to a court order signed by presiding Judge Ann Moorman on December 30, there is a conflict of interest with the County Counsel’s office advising the sheriff on issues surrounding information and technology, but not the remaining matters. That includes the question of his personal liability for incurring non-emergency costs that have not been approved by the Board.

The judge also denied Sheriff Matt Kendall’s request to hire the law office of Duncan James. And she characterized the Board’s decision in November to hire Southern California law firm Manning and Kass as defiant, interpreting it as “an effort to circumvent the court process.”

After a three-week break, the board reconvened for their first meeting of the year, albeit remotely. In the morning session, they voted unanimously to withdraw a contract they approved with acting County Counsel Christian Curtis in the consent calendar at last year’s final meeting.

And the Board unanimously approved a $95,000 memorial to fallen law enforcement officers, which will be installed near the flagpole at the sheriff’s office. The monument will be funded with asset forfeiture monies, but the question of where the additional $20-30,000 cost of installing it will come from is still uncertain.

Yesterday’s meeting focused largely on organizational details. Supervisor Ted Williams is the new chair, and Supervisor Glenn McGourty is the new vice chair. The Board approved a continuation of remote meetings, in light of the fact that a state of emergency due to covid-19 is still in effect. 

The question of a conflict of interest between the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff has been bubbling away since last summer, when Kendall cited four reasons he believed the Board should authorize payment for outside legal advice. Two were related to his information technology infrastructure, which he feared would be compromised if it was consolidated into the county’s larger IT system. He also complained that his department’s budget had been reduced. But the biggest issue was a suggestion during budget hearings that he could be held personally liable for cost overruns that had not been approved by the Board.

In her write-up of the matter, Judge Moorman concluded that there would be a conflict of interest if County Counsel advised the sheriff about “the law and possible avenues of recourse to resist efforts at partial or total consolidation” of the sheriff's IT department. The sheriff is required by law to satisfy staffing and security requirements that other county departments do not.

But Moorman found no conflict of interest regarding the sheriff’s budgetary allocation, which was supplemented by PG&E settlement funds. Moorman wrote that “There is no evidence of a subsequent request to the BOS to re-visit that shortfall, but even if there was and no change was made in the budgetary allocation, that does not give rise to a conflict of interest on the part of County Counsel in advising the Sheriff on the budget process…this conclusion is buttressed by the lack of evidence showing County Counsel has much, if any, involvement in budgetary process or the specific budgetary recommendations to the BOS.”

Moorman remarked that “The Sheriff’s decision to seek separate counsel on this issue was motivated by the unfortunate fact that one or more members of the BOS have publicly seemingly threatened to hold him personally liable for any such expenditure(s)” under county policy, which is aligned with Government Code 29601.

She decided that it would be reasonable for Kendall to seek advice about incurring “unapproved non-emergency expenditures,” but that the general concern does not rise to a conflict of interest until an actual request or expenditure is made.*

At their last meeting three weeks ago, the Board approved a four-year contract with Acting County Counsel Christian Curtis, to retain him as head of the department with an annual salary of $192,436. For two years now, Curtis has been compensated at the same rate he was paid as the assistant to former County Counsel Katherine Elliott, who left her position in September of 2019 to take a job with Nevada County. According to Transparent California, in 2019, Curtis was making $179,363 in salary and benefits.

His new contract was on the consent calendar in December, though it was pulled for separate consideration. This led to a complaint with the District Attorney about a possible Brown Act violation.

Williams explained why he asked his colleagues to rescind the contract and re-approve the last meeting’s consent calendar without the controversial item. “While I do support County Counsel being compensated as such, and I understand that his wages are based on his position prior to his appointment as County Counsel, I think it’s best for the county that in an abundance of caution, we have a clean record,” he said. The proceeding garnered the approval of Amy Ackermann, an outside attorney hired by the county to oversee the correction.

In another item regarding the sheriff’s office, Kendall asked the board to approve a contract with Bell Memorial, of Clovis, California, to order a monument to fallen law enforcement officers, consisting of three large stones with the names of nine who have been killed while on duty. Undersheriff Darren Brewster laid out the sources of the funding.

“The Bell Memorial cost is a little over $95,000 for the monument itself,” he told the Board. “That money is comprised of non-general fund dollars. Sixty thousand of that comes from the DA’s office, and the remainder of that would come from our asset forfeiture funds. I’m guessing the rub with the Board on this is the installation of the Peace Officer Memorial, which I’m guessing is between twenty to thirty thousand to install. If the county is unable to finance that, we can come up with our public donation and asset forfeiture money to pay for that as well.”

McGourty tried to move approval for the contract with up to $25,000 from the general fund for installation, but it was unclear where exactly the funds would come from. Brewster reiterated his confidence in the generosity of donations and referred to recent high value asset forfeitures. With supply chain uncertainties and the price of marble climbing steadily, the board voted unanimously to approve the contract without specifying how the installation would be paid for.

Audio version
*The morning broadcast provided a contradictory explanation of this point and was corrected for the evening airing.

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