In an unusual and unprecedented move against a fellow elected official, on Tuesday the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously issued a vote of no confidence against long-time sheriff Laurie Smith and “exhorted” her to retire when her latest term is up at the end of 2022.
The Board also voted unanimously in a companion resolution to urge Sheriff Smith to not wait until she retires in 2022 to begin a plan of succession, a plan the board in its resolution said should start within 60 days.
The Board’s action comes after years of incidents at the county’s jails which Sheriff Smith oversees. It also follows the indictments of two top Sheriff’s officials by a criminal grand jury looking into a pay to play scheme involving the exchange of campaign contributions for rare concealed carry weapons permits of CCW’s.
It also follows calls two weeks ago from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo for Sheriff Smith to resign.
The 7-page resolution calling on a “no confidence” was introduced by Supervisor Joe Simitian and co-sponsored by Supervisor Susan Ellenberg.
The 7-page resolution lists 33 different “Whereas” clauses or problems that need action.
Among them NBC Bay Area’s investigation into the awarding of CCW permits where the Investigative Unit discovered that donors to Sheriff Smith’s re-election were 14 times more likely to get a coveted and rare Concealed Carry Weapons permit than those who people who did not give campaign contributions to the Sheriff.
Also listed in the resolution by the county supervisors was NBC Bay Area’s investigation into the beating of a police informant who was put into the general population at the Elmwood jail. The informant escaped with his life after a severe beating at the hands of 31 other inmates including a suspect in a murder whom the informant had discussed with police investigators. That beating went on for nearly six minutes before any jail corrections officer came to the victim’s aid. The beating was captured on jail surveillance video and was not revealed to the public or to an independent oversight body despite an agreement with the sheriff. The incident only became public when NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit uncovered it and first reported it some six months after it happened.
There have been several other beatings of mentally ill inmates at the jails while under the supervision of corrections officers over the years. Then, there was the beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree in 2015 at the hands of three deputies. All three were later convicted of second-degree murder after a 4-month trial. They were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the murder.
Supervisors Ellenberg and Simitian say that all these incidents taken together prompted Tuesday’s call for a vote of no confidence.
“From my perspective what we are looking to do with this vote of no confidence is very carefully and meticulously lay out dozens of statements that simply reflect behaviors and actions of the Sheriff’s office over the last number of years,” said Supervisor Ellenberg. “So that the public can see clearly exactly what we are talking about and what we are concerned about.”
“Let’s not misplace the center of this conversation,” said Supervisor Simitian referring to Sheriff Smith’s leadership and oversight of the jails. “There is one question and one question only before our Board today. And that is ‘Does our Board believe it can have confidence in the administration of the Sheriff’s Department by the current incumbent?’”
In his remarks during the nearly 90-minute discussion around what he acknowledged was an unusual and unprecedented move against a fellow elected official, Supervisor Simitian said the board could no longer stay silent in the face of all the issues surrounding Sheriff Smith’s handling of her office and the jails.
“The gun permits, the bail capping, the ticket scandal, the beating, the settlements all compel us to say we have no confidence,” Simitian said. “When the Sheriff in a criminal grand jury proceeding, rather than cooperate, pleads the Fifth and says ‘No I will not testify to assist with this investigation;’ when the Sheriff says ‘No, I will not enter into an agreement with our civilian monitor’ which the civilian monitor tells us has not been a problem with other departments within our own county or in other jurisdictions where his firm has worked previously; when our management audit firm tell us that they are not given the information that they need to deliver a responsible audit; and when we learn about a beating in the jail six months after the fact by watching television footage on the news rather than pursuant to the information sharing protocol which should have been but wasn’t followed, it seems to me that we can’t help but conclude we do not have confidence in the Sheriff’s department.”
In the meeting, Sheriff Smith responded by lashing out at the Board of Supervisors although never answered most of the allegations listed in the resolution.
Instead she focused on the issue of mental illness among inmates housed in local jails.
“How do you expect us to provide services we are required to provide without adequate staffing. I can only surmise that you don’t care,” Sheriff Smith said. “You’ve laughed at my attempts to ask for more staff. And when we can’t perform the functions you blame.”
Sheriff Smith said the Board of Supervisors had repeatedly ignored her calls for services for the mentally ill and had not funded appropriate programs over the years. Smith called on the Board of Supervisors to stop construction on a new jail and instead spend the $390 million meant for the new facility on a new mental health hospital instead.
As for the allegations listed in the board’s resolution the Sheriff asked for an outside independent investigation just as she did after San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called on her to resign.
“I am again asking for an investigation. A lot has been said. A lot has been said… is being said by Simitian. And we don’t see the real nature of those allegations,” Sheriff Smith said. “And seriously I’ve asked for investigations. You are prompting investigations. And should a person really be condemned before the allegations are known. Or the investigation at least is completed?”
Smith also personally attacked Supervisor Simitian calling him repeatedly by just his last name saying he was bullying her.
“I will withstand your coordinated wrath especially when impartial entities will investigate your spurious allegations,” Smith said. “I hope that he rallies to support his criticism. I hope that those that he’s rallying understand that he’s attempting to deflect and blame. I guess you guys are joining in believing in his mission.”
“I think that bullies want to make up reasons to justify their actions and garner support,” said Smith. “Problem is now I’m standing up to bullies. I’ve stood up publicly to Simitian. And I know that I’m expecting what’s going to come from him next. The mayor of San Jose asked for my resignation. What does the mayor know about our progress in the jails? He doesn’t acknowledge his role in helping those with mental health crisis. I submit that he should take care of his city. And look at in his own mirror.”
“That is an attempt by Simitian to make what he says, factual. That is wrong,” Sheriff Smith went on. “I am also asking…Because of the outlandish and often false and misrepresented allegations that we have the benefit of an investigation and a quick investigation.”
“For the Board of Supervisors, I guess blaming others for your failure is the direction you wish to take. It must be tough to find the person to blame instead of looking in the mirror at yourself,” Smith said. “You’re voting no confidence about a job and a role that none of you understand.”
In response, Supervisor Simitian said the issue of mental health in jails, while important, is not the focus of his resolution or his call for a vote of no confidence.
“I’m disappointed and frankly somewhat offended by the fact that folks in such great need would be used in this way, to conflate and confuse the issue. In an effort to divert and deflect and deny responsibility,” Simitian said.
Just before the vote on the no confidence resolution, Supervisor Otto Lee surprised everyone and put forward what he called “a friendly amendment” which was, in fact, a separate resolution to the no confidence vote.
Lee’s resolution exhorted Sheriff Smith to retire when her term was up at the end of 2022. Lee’s resolution also called on her to start a plan of succession for a new sheriff to begin in 60 days.
“I really do think that any of these types of changes really do need to help the transformation that needs to take place,” said Supervisor Otto Lee. “We really want to work with her so that this type of transition, when the time comes, will be smooth.”
Lee’s companion resolution also passed unanimously along with the no confidence vote.
In her 10-minute public response to the vote of no confidence and to Lee’s resolution urging her to retire, Sheriff Smith, again, began talking about things other than the issues cited in the resolution. Instead the Sheriff spent much of her time talking about treating the mentally ill and asking for an F-B-I investigation.
In response to Otto Lee’s last-minute resolution the Sheriff said she hadn’t read it, wasn’t prepared and needed more time. She asked that Lee’s proposal be deferred by the Board. The Board did not grant that request.
Sheriff Smith did say it was all a surprise, calling it outrageous and saying it and the no confidence vote were based on false and misleading allegations.
Even so, the County Board of Supervisors’ action was a rare public rebuke for long-time Sheriff Smith, who in December 1998, became the first female sheriff in California. Smith has served as Santa Clara County Sheriff ever since, winning re-election each time with relative ease.