Sheriff preparing for legal fight with Supervisors

Jul 27, 2021

July 27, 2021 — The sheriff is preparing for a fight with the Board of Supervisors over what he terms overreach and extortion, while board members want more data to support his contentions.

Last week, Sheriff Matt Kendall asked the supervisors to hire Duncan James to represent his office as independent counsel on two points. Kendall and County Counsel Christian Curtis both believe there’s a conflict of interest, with Curtis representing positions the sheriff finds objectionable.

One is that Kendall says that there are laws giving him exclusive authority over his IT department, and he believes the board has overreached its authority in that regard. A Grand Jury report released this month stated that Information Services is not one of the typical responsibilities of the sheriff-coroner’s office, and that Mendocino County could benefit from a consolidated IT model that requires background investigations into staff supporting the sheriff’s IT.

But the main point of contention is the budget, and accountability. The county has a policy that department heads will be personally responsible for coming in over budget, which the sheriff’s office regularly does. Kendall believes the department is structurally underfunded, which puts him in a position where he has to weigh public safety against his own financial well being. “I am not goin to make decisions about how to serve the public based on financial things that could be done to me,” he said. As one example of structural underfunding, Kendal mentioned overtime, which often comes out to $1.4-$1.8 million, and for which he said he receives “a heck of a lot less.”

Supervisor Ted Williams brought up Kendall’s recent opposition to an independent financial audit that he thinks would have provided more solid data to support the sheriff’s position.  “Where is the data that shows that we’re falling short, and in what areas are we falling short?” he asked. “And what is the proposal so that you’re not structurally underfunded? We haven’t seen it.”

By statute, the board has to approve the contract with the firm that will oppose it. Kendall was staunch in his selection of Duncan James’ firm, which charges between $300 and $425 an hour, depending on which associate is doing the work. Curtis found other firms that charge much less, and which he thinks have relevant experience. If the two parties can’t agree on a lawyer, a judge will decide.

Curtis advised the board against hiring James for two reasons. One is that James’ firm is actively suing the county in another case, which Curtis said could be disadvantageous to the county. “I generally would recommend against using a firm that is actively suing us,” he remarked. Another issue that Curtis said sent up red flags for him is that, according to a 2019 Grand Jury report, the Sanitation District paid three times as much as much as the City of Ukiah in litigation that was steered by Duncan James, the District’s counsel. “The amount was well in excess of what I would expect to be spending, frankly, for even some pretty complex litigation,” Curtis told the board. “It’s more in the lines of what you might expect to see in a bill with sort of multi-national corporations fighting each other over some pretty important issues where they’re almost engaged in a sort of economic warfare.”

Curtis estimates that litigation between the board and the sheriff could take two years and cost a quarter of a million dollars. Supervisor Dan Gjerde suggested putting the contentious policies on hold while waiting for an opinion from the State Attorney General, which Curtis thought would take about a year and come at no additional cost. Kendall demurred, saying he was not sure he should answer the question without an attorney.

Curtis will provide the board with the names of two law firms he thinks are suitable to represent the sheriff on or before the next meeting on August third. None of the supervisors was prepared to hire Duncan James.