When longtime Sheriff Laurie Smith faced a corruption scandal in 2021, she kept her job for months with little consequences. County officials want to prevent that from happening again.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to explore a policy allowing the county to suspend an elected official if the person faces charges from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury. Right now the county has no way of doing so, said Supervisor Otto Lee, who proposed the plan. The lack of such a measure allows disgraced elected officials to dodge accountability and erodes public trust, he said.
“Under the law in California, the Board of Supervisors cannot vote a public official out, so how do you hold somebody accountable?” Lee told San José Spotlight. “And when somebody is accused of these types of wrongdoings, obviously they will focus on defending those charges and is no longer able to do whatever job they were elected to do.”
Lee’s proposal came after Smith, who served as the county sheriff for 24 years, stayed in office while facing corruption charges and a slew of investigations tied to mismanagement of the county jails and a pay-to-play scheme. Under Smith’s leadership, the county grappled with three high-profile incidents in which correctional officers assaulted and neglected mentally ill incarcerated people, resulting in tens of millions in dollars for settlements.
Local residents and officials, including former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, called for her resignation. County supervisors voted “no confidence” in her leadership in 2021 and requested the state to investigate the former sheriff. But the board had no authority to remove Smith from office and the no confidence vote yielded little consequences, officials said.
Smith resigned on her own terms in October, just days before her corruption trial ended. The jury found her guilty of six corruption and willful misconduct charges, effectively barring her from holding public office again. Still, Smith gets to keep her six-figured pension.
Supervisor Joe Simitian said he supports the proposal, but worries it could have unintended consequences.
“There’s a built-in tension here, and we’ve just been down our own very difficult path on this front,” Simitian said Tuesday. “On the one hand, we want to have a tool available if we have a challenging situation. On the other hand, we have to respect the fact that sheriffs are duly elected officials. We don’t want to be in a position where we further politicize a law enforcement function as an inadvertent consequence of this action.”
Supervisor Cindy Chavez shared similar concerns about the idea.
“Whatever we create could have a precedent setting for others,” Chavez said. “I do think elected officials need to be held at a much higher standard (but) my issue is more just thinking about the unintended consequences in a more aggressive manner.”
County officials also worry the new rule could be abused for political purposes. While the civil grand jury can’t bring charges or investigate all complaints, any resident can submit a grievance for consideration. Lee said he understands that could become a “political witch hunt,” but the process would only kick in once formal charges are filed.
“It would only happen when there’s actually evidence and facts of wrongdoings,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “My hope is we’ll be able to come up with good legislation down the road to provide more transparency and accountability to our elected officials.”
Lee said the county will also explore whether an individual’s pay should be suspended while they are on leave. The official facing charges would be put on leave until their trial ends but would not be removed unless they are convicted of wrongdoing, according to Lee’s proposal. County officials will report back on the policy idea in March.
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.
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