Mary Duan here, writing about a most unusual event that will take place tomorrow at the Monterey County Board of Supervisors meeting, the result of a long-simmering dispute between one elected body (the supes) and another elected official, Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal. But before we get to the unusual event, let’s go through its origin story.
On Friday, May 21, in response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Weekly, County Administrative Officer Charles McKee released the written summary of a Monterey County District Attorney’s Office investigation into whether Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal had misused public funds, stole county property and facilitated timecard fraud in how he staffed and ran the 2019 California State Sheriffs Association Conference, which took place that year at the Monterey Marriott Hotel and at various venues throughout the county. The largest issue, per the report, was that deputies were on the clock when they were brought in to act as de facto chauffeurs for conference attendees—sheriffs and their invited guests—driving them to golf outings, to various conference events and on errand runs to the mall. They were brought in under the guise of providing security, according to the DA report, but were ill-equipped to do so (told to wear only a conference-issued polo, cargo pants and a service weapon, but leave the bulletproof vests at home, a violation of the department’s regulations) and never told their mission was security; instead, they spent a lot of time sitting around and waiting to start their cars and drive to the next event.
The investigation was completed last year, given to the Board of Supervisors and there it sat. After the media found out about the report, there was a bizarre game of tag between the county and the DA that went something like this.
County to the DA: You release the report. DA to the county: No, YOU release the report.
One PRA request and a little more than a month later, the county took the plunge after the DA waived privilege on keeping it from the public view.
Per a letter to McKee from DA Jeannine Pacioni, her office could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that either Bernal or anyone acting on his behalf committed any crime. But Pacioni included a notable line that hints at why she sent the report to the supes in the first place: She thought it was necessary to bring the facts concerning the expenditures to the attention of the county government, “which like Sheriff Bernal, represents the taxpayers of Monterey County.”
As I’ve written before, the Sheriff and the county Board of Supervisors enjoy a bizarre relationship. As an elected official, the sheriff doesn’t answer to the supervisors—he ultimately answers to the voters. But since the supes hold the pursestrings to the sheriff’s $100 million-plus budget, he has to go to them every time he needs a budget adjustment. But when something goes wrong, and the supervisors want to have a public conversation about it, the sheriff doesn’t have to answer to them and in most cases, chooses not to.
Tomorrow may well be one of those instances. At the end of the day Friday, the County Clerk posted an updated agenda for tomorrow’s board meeting and on that agenda is the following: “Consider adopting a resolution censuring Bernal for failure to faithfully perform his duties by allowing inappropriate expenditures of county funds during the 2019 CSSA conference.”
In reporting that piece of the story after-hours on Friday, I spoke to someone at the sheriff’s department to get their take, and that person asked me what it means to censure someone.
“It’s when a group of elected officials gets together and publicly calls out another elected official for being a dumbass,” I said. Sheriff’s office spokesperson John Thornburg told me on Friday the department would have no comment on the censure resolution until they had a chance to review it. I reached out to Thornburg again this morning to ask for a comment on the censure, and he responded, “We still haven’t read it.”
In the end, a censure will have no meaning. What will have meaning, though, is what the supervisors do the next time the sheriff needs a budget enhancement. To check in on the censure item, the supervisors’ meetings stream live or you can attend in person.