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Who is an elected sheriff really accountable to?


Current Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal is not running for reelection. Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses and Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto are vying to replace him.

Sara Rubin here, reflecting on who an elected sheriff is really accountable to. The Sheriff of Nottingham is perhaps the most famous sheriff. While he’s a fictional bad guy, the role for sheriffs in those days wasn’t that far off his character. Sheriffs originated in England in the 9th century, according to the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the job included peacekeeping, maintaining jails, serving orders for the royal court and collecting taxes.While some of those roles have since been farmed out to other officials (like tax collectors), the sheriff role is still thriving. In the United States, it adopted certain democratic principles, such as elections. Of 3,083 sheriffs in the country, the NSA reports, 98 percent are elected. In California, electing sheriffs is enshrined in the state constitution.

It means that sheriffs are theoretically accountable to the public. But it also has the strange effect of meaning that sheriffs are accountable to seemingly no one.

As scandal after scandal unfolds in the office of outgoing Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has been reduced to issuing press releases chastising him and giving a pep talk to line-level staff: “The board commends the hundreds of employees within the department who continue to do their important work despite the stress and pressure of recent news events,” an Oct. 11 statement read.

That statement was prompted by revelations that a commander was on leave and an employee of healthcare contractor WellPath was forbidden from entering the jail, amid an investigation into narcotics that went missing from the jail. That came after a statement by the board regarding revelations of sexual harassment by the recently retired undersheriff; more women have since come forward, and two have sued the county, with a second case filed today. And more recently, Sgt. Bryan Hoskins was placed on leave amid an investigation connected to his overtime pay. Records show that last year, Hoskins earned $263,996 in overtime – more than double his $103,182 regular pay.

The list of issues in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office is long. On Oct. 25, the Board of Supervisors discussed a short list of possible actions, and voted 5-0 to pursue four: 1) refer recent matters to the California Attorney General (who may or may not investigate); 2) to refer the Sheriff’s Office to the Civil Grand Jury (which may or may not investigate); 3) to seek a consultant to do an audit of Sheriff’s Office policies and compliance; and 4) to explore the creation of an oversight committee, something made possible thanks to a 2020 state law, AB 1185.

“It’s important that the public knows this board takes these matters seriously,” said Supervisor Luis Alejo. When the board originally discussed creating an oversight committee starting nine months ago, they tabled it, awaiting a new sheriff. Now, Alejo said, it’s time: “We are moving, we are not waiting.”

Of course the board also discussed how they are hamstrung in overseeing the Sheriff’s Office. The Peace Officers Bill of Rights governs disciplinary proceedings, for one thing. And the sheriff is an elected official who does not report to the board – he reports to the voters.

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That’s where all of us come in. Two candidates, Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses and Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto, are vying to replace Bernal. Both are interested in a sheriff’s oversight committee (No. 4).

Both come with new ideas and good qualifications. And of course, both also come with detractors. In May, Marina Police Cmdr. Donna White filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging Nieto denied her reasonable accommodation due to a disability. In 2013, when Nieto was at LAPD, Officer Susan Garcia sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging retaliation by Nieto and failure to properly communicate a safety plan after a death threat. The city paid $1.3 million in a settlement.

Meanwhile in Monterey County, Moses has presided over the jail during a time in which multiple inmates have died from suicide and one from Covid. There have been at least two hunger strikes, family members protesting outside the jail and lawsuits against the county.

When the Board of Supervisors next meets, it will be Election Day. Any steps toward creating an oversight committee will not happen until after a new sheriff is sworn in.

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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