Have you ever wondered why Sacramento County government seems like a rural outpost in the middle of California’s liberal state capital?
Here a Donald Trump-loving sheriff flouts his authority with no consequences. Cops never get prosecuted for killing black men, no matter how egregious the killings, and deals to preserve this culture get scant attention from the public.
Which politicians are currently keeping Sacramento County stuck in the past and immune from the social upheaval pressing the City of Sacramento and other communities across America?
Spoiler alert: The guilty parties ARE NOT Republicans. They are Democrats.
You read that right: D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T-S.
On Tuesday, this phenomenon repeated itself again. The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors was considering moving the election cycles of the sheriff and the district attorney (both elected countywide) to coincide with presidential elections.
Why? Because more people vote in presidential cycles. Because a more diverse voting base votes in presidential cycles. And yet this idea that speaks to representative government was shot down – at least for now – because Democrat Don Nottoli wants to study it some more.
He wants a “commission.” He wants more deliberation. Hope of moving to the Nov. 3 ballot died because Nottoli sided with the Republicans on the county board who seem to fear making elections more accessible to more voters.
Counting the votes
This was not the first time a Democrat chose to go along with Republicans. But before we close the circle on why local Democrats need to start putting some serious heat on some Democrats on the county board, let’s focus on what happened Tuesday.
The numbers don’t lie: Going back 20 years in Sacramento County, voting statistics show that far more people vote in presidential elections than midterm elections. In the last presidential vote in November 2016, almost 75 percent of Sacramento’s registered voters cast a ballot. In June 2018, when Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert were re-elected, fewer than 42 percent of registered voters bother to cast ballots.
In June 2018, Jones received a total of 145,740 votes to “beat” a field of tomato cans running against him.
In that election cycle, 740,537 registered voters were in Sacramento County. That means Jones was “elected” by less than 20 percent of registered voters in the county. But the most tragicomic number of all is this one: In June 2018, 310,881 Sacramento County voters cast ballots. If you subtract Jones’ “winning tally” of 145,740 from 310,881, you get 165,141.
That’s right: Almost 20,000 more people voted against Jones or left their ballot blank than voted for him in 2018. Again, the problem was that three flawed candidates canceled out each other so that Jones could just squeak by with more than 50 percent of the total vote.
My colleague Phillip Reese did a heat map of voting in Jones’ election and it shows how most precincts in the City of Sacramento voted against Jones. Jones picked up the lion share of votes in Folsom, Orangevale and Rancho Murietta.
People fed up with Jones’ horrible record ask me all the time, how did he get elected? This is how: Low vote totals with support from precincts farthest from the City of Sacramento.
The cost of those votes
How have low vote totals benefiting Jones worked for Sacramento County?
The Sacramento Bee estimates the county has paid more than $16 million in excessive force damages brought against Jones’ department in the last decade. The county had to pay a separate $27-million personal injury case levied against Jones’ department – the largest civil suit in county history.
Jones has abused his authority, his picked fights with the state auditor, a former Sacramento police chief. He’s allowed the Main Jail to be used for an exploitative TV show.
And these are just some of Jones’ “highlights.” Jones is the one of the primary inspirations for proposed legislation to provide more oversight of sheriffs like him. AB 1185, authored by Sacramento-based Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, would allow counties to establish oversight boards for sheriff’s departments.
Jones proved this was necessary when, in 2018, he locked the county inspector general out of his buildings when he didn’t like that the IG – former Sacramento Police Chief, Rick Braziel – questioned whether his deputies needed to kill a man in a foot pursuit.
The ensuing controversy mobilized advocates to fill the supervisors’ chambers and demand that Jones be held accountable. In December 2018, Jones was rebuked loudly by the public, including Holocaust survivor Bernard Marks. “Just because you hand someone a gun, that does not give them the authority to shoot,” Marks said Dec. 4, 2018.
Supervisors were supposed to come up with new language for an inspector general who could not so easily be thwarted by Jones. But board chair Patrick Kennedy let the issue fizzle in 2019, draining all the community momentum behind it. Sadly, Marks died just three weeks after that meeting, though his moral courage won’t be soon forgotten.
Escaping public scrutiny
I think Kennedy, Nottoli and board members Sue Frost and Susan Peters got scared by real public participation at their meetings. And I argue that their actions since then have demonstrated a desire to escape the public scrutiny they felt in December 2018.
Last year, Kennedy voted with Republicans Frost and Peters to deny moving supervisors’ meetings to evening sessions so more people could attend. Day meetings make attending difficult because, well, people need to work. By voting down night meetings, Kennedy, Frost and Peters made it easier for supervisors to duck citizens who disagree with them.
On a five-person board of supervisors, Democrats have a 3-2 advantage. But Kennedy sided with the Republicans and against citizen participation.
Earlier this year, both Nottoli and Kennedy voted with the Republicans to approve Jones’ obscene budget allocation of $277 million – by far, the largest piece of the county budget. As I wrote earlier this year, that allocation is 105 percent of what the county collects from you and spends on social services. It’s nearly 30 times the net county cost for regional parks in Sacramento County.
Supervisor Phil Serna is not going along to get along like Kennedy and Nottoli. He’s actually using his position to attempt to provide oversight and be a voice for all voters and not just those who voted for Jones.
But the other two Democrats on the board? Nope.
On Tuesday, Schubert argued that moving the sheriff and DA elections (and that of the county assessor) to presidential cycles needs more deliberation, which is not particularly surprising.
She fielded 174,967 votes in 2018, which is better than Jones. But it was still less than 24 percent of registered county voters in 2018. It shouldn’t be up to Schubert or Jones to exert influence because clearly they have a conflict of interest.
That’s where independent supervisors would be useful.
So what are we left with? Less than 20 percent of county voters elected the sheriff, the most powerful law enforcement officer in the county. And less than 24 percent of county voters elected the district attorney. That is the system that is being defended.
Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the Sacramento Labor Council, called Nottoli’s vote “deplorable.”
“This and recent decisions by this board has shown us who’s with the people and who couldn’t care less,” Sasso said. “When our elected leaders won’t stand up for justice, it’s time to replace them.”
Unless Gregg Fishman wins his race in November to replace Peters and unless local Democrats find better replacements for Nottoli and Kennedy, nothing is going to change in the county. People will still wonder why more people don’t care about the county. And the county will keep electing people like Jones.
Don’t blame the Republicans. Blame the Democrats.