OPINION by SARA SEMMES
Is the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adequately weighing the risks of adopting a county charter for the singular objective of circumventing a governor appointment should another supervisor seat become prematurely vacant?
Are the supervisors considering the potential long-term consequences of changing our form of government from a General Law County to a Charter County? A change that opens the door to amendments that could reduce the authority and jurisdiction of current and future sheriffs, compromise the structure and boundaries of current and future Board of Supervisors, and substantially reduce the direct representation of our electorate.
As a Charter County we would be only one amendment away from the sheriff’s office being reduced from the chief law enforcement in the county to the keeper of the jails.
San Diego’s County Charter defines the sheriff’s jurisdiction in Section 6.105. “The sheriff shall: Keep the county jail.” San Diego’s Charter takes their reappropriation of power one step further with the creation of their Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board. This board investigates complaints or allegations against the sheriff’s department and or probation department.
They make recommendations relating to the imposition of discipline and recommendations relating to any trends in regard to employees, review and make recommendations on policies and procedures of the sheriff and the probation officer, establish necessary rules and regulations for the conduct of its business, and so on for an entire page of responsibilities vs the brief paragraph that is the sheriff’s responsibilities.
San Francisco County’s charter also defines the authority of their sheriff in Section 6.105. It states that the sheriff shall keep the County Jail. Rewriting the authority of the sheriff is only possible as a Charter County. The only way to guarantee long-term protection of the sheriff’s authority is to remain a General Law County.
As a Charter County we would be one amendment away from the Board of Supervisors being restructured. California Constitution – Article XI – Local Government – Section 4 states, “County charters shall provide for: (a) A governing body of 5 or more members, elected (1) by district or, (2) at large, or (3) at large, with a requirement that they reside in a district…”
In other words a Charter County could vote to: grow exponentially in terms of the number of its districts, vote for each supervisor by the entire county rather than by the residents of the district they will represent.
Do not for one minute operate under the false sense of security that supporting a charter written with a single function today, will by any means guarantee it will remain unaltered in the future. Influential parties will push for amendments at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, amendments are not rare. Every single Charter County in California has had and will continue to have amendments. San Mateo has been amended 16 times, San Bernardino County Charter has been amended 36 times, El Dorado County’s Charter seven Amendments. That’s not counting modifications, revisions or deletions.
We would also be only one amendment away from being a charter county, with all of its inherent risks, but returning the power to fill board vacancies to the governor as Los Angeles and Butte Counties’ charters have done.
The structure of a Charter County is designed to be continuously amended. It will start with the creation of a Charter Commission, which according to California Code section 23701, will consist of 15 members who are to be elected at the next general or special election.
A Charter Commision may also create its own committees and subcommittees. They meet for six months every 10 years to recommend revisions to the Board of Supervisors for the charter. Then there will come the Charter Review Committee, they will be appointed. This committee’s sole purpose is to review the charter and, after public hearings, makes recommendations for amendment or revision to the board.
Becoming a Charter County means an inevitable surrender of direct representation of our electorate by our supervisors. It sacrifices the direct dialog between voters and their representatives by inserting between them endless commissions, committees, sub-committees, boards and administrators.
The county manager or county executive will also be appointed. They will be the chief administrative officers of the county. They in turn, appoint their county executive pro team. All of these will have more communication with and influence over the Board of Supervisors than will the electorate.
The only way the integrity of our county government is protected is to remain a general law County. Only a Charter County is subject to this level of vulnerability to change.
If you are concerned about the risks inherent in becoming a Charter County please email the Board of Supervisors by May 17th for agenda item 42 County Charter. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Semmes has lived in rural Atascadero for more than 20 years.