Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Emerald Triangle’s Top Cops Slam Legislation Mandating They Run for Office During Presidential Elections

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin announced on Friday he will retire on December 30, 2022, just days before his third term as sheriff was slated to begin. Speaking to residents of Lake County in a video on LCSO’s Facebook page, Sheriff Martin cited Assembly Bill 759 as a major influence in his decision. 

This bill, quietly signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom in late September, temporarily extends the term length of county sheriffs and district attorneys for six years resulting in their next election cycle coinciding with the 2028 presidential elections. From now on, residents of the Golden State will vote for their sheriff and district attorney on the same ballot they choose their Command and Chief. 

California Assemblyman Kevin McCarty representing the greater Sacramento area authored AB 759 argued holding the election of sheriffs and district attorneys the same years as presidential elections will increase voter turnout providing underrepresented communities greater voice in the election of their local law enforcement officials. On Twitter, McCarty celebrated when Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law saying it promotes “political equality and enhanced citizen participation in county elections.”

The Public Policy Institute of California corroborated McCarty’s claims. They found the most effective mechanism to increase voter turnout in local elections is moving all nonconcurrent elections to coincide with presidential elections. Their research estimated 1.7 million more California voters would participate in local elections if concurrent elections were implemented.

However, Sheriffs in and around the Emerald Triangle feel differently. Lake County’s Sheriff Martin told residents his decision to retire before his third term began  “was largely in part” because of the legislation. Martin’s retirement allows the voters of Lake County to maneuver around the timeline established by AB 759. Instead of serving a six-year term, Sheriff Martin’s replacement will be appointed by the county’s Board of Supervisors serving two years. In 2024, Lake County voters will choose their new sheriff who will serve a standard four-year term.

Sheriff Martin is the sole Sheriff in California’s Northern Reach to abdicate his position in the wake of AB 759. But, once again, the rural sheriffs of the Emerald Triangle find themselves united in their opposition to the policies set by leaders in California’s State Capitol.

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Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall [Photo from MCSO’s Facebook page]

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told us AB 759 is another attempt by Sacramento to “control California’s sheriffs and district attorneys.” 

This state’s efforts to erode the independence of county law enforcement grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sheriff Kendall said the pandemic was an “eyeopener for the Governor’s office. Governor Newsom wanted enforcement done by sheriff’s offices, threatening to withhold funds if not followed.” Kendall and other sheriffs’ refusal to “arrest people for walking around without a mask” prompted legislators to enact policies that would provide the state “complete and total control.” 

The legislation, packaged as a means to maximize voter engagement, only affects law enforcement officials. If the goal was to maximize voter engagement for all offices, Sheriff Kendall asked, “Why wouldn’t they include all constitutional offices? The Board of Supervisors? The Assessor?”

Due to AB 759, California voters will choose their future president while simultaneously picking their sheriff and district attorney. The bill’s author argues this is to maximize voter participation. Sheriff Kendall is concerned this could bring partisan politics into non-partisan, local elections. 

“The partisan politics in America are killing us,” Sheriff Kendall argued. The two-party system has pushed representatives to “serve their party, not the people.”

Sheriff Kendall also commented that AB 759 changed the California Constitution, a significant event in a democracy governed by these founding documents, and legislators seemingly approved it with little to no communication to constituents. 

AB 759 fundamentally changed California’s Constitution, specifically section 1300 of the Election Code. For something so major, there was little coverage of the legislation by the media or the public information apparatus that regularly churns out press releases for elected officials. 

A smattering of local papers reported on the bill’s implications for their local officials including the Orange County Register, The Desert Sun, and the Voice of San Diego. California’s newspapers of note (Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee) did not publish any articles about the legislation.

A mere bullet point mentions Governor Newsom’s signing of the bill published in a late September Legislative Update. Assemblyman McCarty lists the bill under his legislative priorities, but his office neglected to issue a press release that a bill he authored was signed into law.

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For legislation that fundamentally altered California Election Code, voters were in the dark. 

George Washington University Political Science Professor Christopher Warshaw published a study in May 2019 entitled Local Elections and Representation in the United States. Warshaw’s findings validate the underlying assertion of AB 759 that coupling local elections with the presidential elections will result in greater participation. 

His research found that a primary contributor to low voter turnout is that “many local elections are not held concurrently with high-profile federal elections.” These low turnout rates often provide a disproportionate voice to affluent homeowners. These light ballot boxes provide an opportunity for special interest groups such as public labor unions to have an inordinate influence on the results of these elections. While the well-off and special interest groups are overly represented, local elections tend to underrepresent racial minorities and those in poverty. 

Many will describe the tendency for conservatives to engage in local elections while liberal voters are engaged more during presidential elections. This dynamic might prove accurate during presidential elections, but Warsaw’s findings indicate that local elections are more often informed by a constituency’s partisan tendencies during presidential elections. Simply put, if a community votes Democrat during presidential elections, that preference is often reflected in local elections. If the community votes for a Republican presidential candidate, its local leaders will most likely be Republican. Warshaw did find there was a distinct lack of research regarding the influence of political ideology on sheriffs’ races.

Warshaw’s research questions the concept of a “non-partisan” election. Informed by national political discourse, he found local voters analyze candidates through a partisan lens using platforms and political agendas to determine likely political parties. 

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal [Picture from HCSO’s Facebook page]

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal has led his agency for five years. His defiance of Sacramento went viral in April 2020 when he refused to close the state beaches within Humboldt County’s borders. On social media, he told his community, “As Sheriff, I am the protector of constitutional rights in Humboldt County, and if an order is issued that I believe violates our constitutional rights, I will not enforce it.”

Regarding AB 759, Sheriff Honsal said this legislation is another example of Sacramento focusing on “trivial matters while neglecting to address California’s severe mental health crisis, rising crime rates, high overdose death rates, and lack of affordable housing for all.”

Regarding the legislation’s stated goal to encourage voter participation in a local election, Sheriff Honsal fears the opposite. He fears “these important elections could cause local elections to not receive the amount of attention or scrutiny necessary to ensure an open and fair election.”

Sheriff Honsal framed the legislation as a “power grab by Sacramento” that “takes control away from the people in each County.” 

Like Kendall, Sheriff Honsal noted that AB 759 exclusively addressed sheriffs and district attorneys. “Did our legislators not think the assessors were important enough to be included in this bill? Makes you think a moment about their true intent.” If legislators were attempting to maximize voter turnout, Sheriff Honsald asked, “then should the Governor and all legislators be included in this so that the greatest number of voters can have an impact?”

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Sacramento’s Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the author of AB 759 [Photo from his campaign website]

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty provided a brief argument for AB 759 in the documentation  available from California’s Legislative Information Database. The foundation of AB 759, he argues, is the local government’s “immediate and direct effect on our daily lives.” This reality calls on legislators to implement policies that could allow more voters a voice. “Voter turnout for local elections fluctuates significantly depending on what year elections are held,” he said. Assemblyman McCarty cited Sacramento County where “voter turnout was 14-16% higher in presidential election years compared to gubernatorial election years.” Changing the election of these county officials to presidential election years could “promote political equality and enhanced citizen participation in county elections by aligning those elections with the presidential election.”

Comments offered regarding the assembly bill provide insight into Sacramento’s process of legislative consideration. California-specific data shows that “In the last 40 years, voter turnout as a percentage of eligible voters has averaged 32.7% in presidential primary elections compared to 26.9% in gubernatorial primary elections.” Looking at general elections over the same time period, “voter turnout in presidential elections has averaged 57.3% of eligible voters compared to 42.4% of eligible voters in gubernatorial elections.” These trends indicate moving county elections to presidential years could very well bring more voters to the table.

The legislative documents did acknowledge coupling the sheriff and district attorney elections with presidential elections would force local candidates to compete for voter attention with presidential candidates. This could result in local officials being drowned out. This issue could be exacerbated if the legislator pursues similar changes to Election Code putting municipal offices, school boards, or other offices on the ballot. The presidential ballot could become packed furthering the challenge of messaging to candidates.

A statement from the League of Women Voters said, “Democracy is strongest when our representatives are chosen at elections with the highest rates and broadest diversity of voter turnout. ” They emphasized “including youth Black, Latino, and Asian American” voters arguing that bringing a larger body of diverse voters to the ballot box “is critical to making democracy work.”

From a fiscal standpoint, the California Senate Appropriation Committee found the bill would result in the creation of a “state-mandated local program” thus imposing a “higher level of service on local agencies.” The exact magnitude of expense is “unknown”. Local agencies doing the work could claim reimbursement from the state potentially costing “millions of dollars annually.”

Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon [Photo from the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page]

Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon has served the least populated corner of the Emerald Triangle since 2018. Standing alongside Humboldt and Mendocino, during the COVID-19 pandemic Sheriff Saxon asserted his autonomy, skeptical of Sacramento’s “one-size-fits-all approach” arguing California’s rural outposts did not require the same pandemic restrictions due to a “limited population, large areas that are undeveloped and natural terrain that restrict the movement of large crowds.”

Similar to his criticism of Sacramento’s COVID-19 protocols, Sheriffs Saxon argues AB 759 erodes the voice of county residents and leaders. “I do not support this bill because it takes more decision-making authority away from the county Board of Supervisors and the people that they represent,” Sheriff Saxon told us. 

Sheriff Saxon condemned lawmakers for “changing state-wide Constitution Rules without a vote of the people.” The legislation will not result in more voter engagement, Sheriff Saxon argued, “ but it will let the politicians in Sacramento know that they can change those rules whenever they desire to fit their agenda.”

Humboldt County’s District Attorney Maggie Fleming was elected in 2014. She wrote to us that AB 759 will result in DAs becoming “political figureheads” rather than their “critical roles in day-to-day decision-making and leadership.” 

DAs should be chosen not by partisan preference, Fleming argued. Instead, voters need to consider “candidates’ honesty, temperament, experience, knowledge and demonstrated understanding of what it means to be a fair and effective prosecutor.”

Fleming is concerned the inescapable partisanship of presidential elections will inform voters, rather than each candidate’s disposition and merit. “Voters will achieve better results if they do not apply simple political frameworks when selecting District Attorneys,” she said.

Mendocino County’s District Attorney David Eyster called the legislation in an email to us “a bait-and-switch piece of legislation.” Both voters and candidates made their decisions based on long-established term lengths. “The Sheriffs and DAs elected in the 2022 primary were for 4-year terms, not 6-year terms”, Eyster said.

Eyster took to Facebook to voice his opposition to the legislation stating unequivocally, he was “opposed to the Legislature and Governor adding two years to his upcoming fourth term in office, that term to still commence in January 2023.”

California’s Capitol Building in Sacramento [Photo by Andre m from Wikicommons]

The seemingly unanimous disapproval of AB 759 by local law enforcement leaders was not reflected in the region’s political representatives in Sacramento

State Senator Mike McGuire and Democratic Majority Leader representing Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Marin, Sonoma, and Del Norte Counties voted in favor of the legislation. 

Assemblyman Jim Wood represents Del Norte, Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties, plus northern and coastal Sonoma County. He was entered as “no vote recorded”, essentially a no vote. Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry represents all of Lake and Napa Counties and portions of  Colusa, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo. She voted in favor of AB 759.

AB 759 has provoked another dust-up between California’s urban, political centers and the gritty, self-reliance of its countryside. Legislators see an opportunity to empower voters; sheriffs and district attorneys see government intrusion on their autonomy. California’s urban/rural divide is part of the state’s ethos. Great cities of commerce and order juxtaposed with pioneers living on the frontier. 

Despite the protests of the region’s local leaders, Governor Newsom’s ink has dried. California’s Constitution has been changed. Citizens of the Golden State will see their top cops serve terms 50% longer than originally thought. In 2028, when the United States is in the midst of choosing a Commander and Chief, residents will also vote for their Sheriff and District Attorney. 

The lawmen of the Emerald Triangle are troubled by what they see as a Sacramento power grab grinding away the self-determination they say is needed to protect California’s rural north.

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  1. Life in a one party state is not a democracy at all. Little by little and often in big bites such as AB 759, Sacramento is effecting more and more control over local jurisdiction. In the future, in order to represent underrepresented minorities (whatever the that illogically is) perhaps only felons will be allowed to run for Sheriff.

  2. David Eyster just scored some much needed points in my book by stating the obvious but important point: voters elected the sheriffs and DAs for 4 years, not 6. Not only that, but the next presidential election is in 2 years, not 6! Why wait 6 whole years if you are, pretty much illegally, changing the whole system anyway?

  3. LAnyone considering doing this should watch a YouTuber called confessions of an ex cop.”

    Please do yourself and the world that reads news a favor and make this site your own not an offshoot of Kym’s. Nobody likes her and nobody thinks she’s a news hero. Your copy of her site is waaaay glutchy with headlines loading on top of headlines and freezing up. Please fix your site and promote yourself and only yourself, not her. Humboldt’s news desert needs to be filled with real factual investigative reporting not self promoting nonsense portrayed as news, promotion of corporations, lies, or BS! A reporter who not only bans comments but personally files false reports to have another local reporter’s videos s removed from the internet is not filling a void but making one. Her rising tide will be blocked by my ocean wall, got it? Disassociate yourself from that lady.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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