Sonoma County District Attorney’s Redistricting Investigation Finds Board of Supervisors and County Staff Violated Transparency Law

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and county staffers violated California’s open meeting law during the county’s contested redistricting process, District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office has determined.

A district attorney’s investigation found two instances where council and county officials failed to comply with the law, but those violations did not influence the redistricting outcome, Ravitch’s office concluded.

The findings were made public in a letter Thursday from Ravitch’s office, which opened an investigation in December at the request of County Attorney Robert Pittman, the county’s top attorney. Resident complaints also spurred the review, Ravitch said in his letter.

In the first instance, according to the district attorney’s office, the oversight board failed to properly inform the public of its reasons for participating in a closed meeting on Nov. 19, where the discussion centered on threats potential legal issues regarding the redistricting of the county.

This meeting sparked a bitter rift between supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Chris Coursey over the redistricting. Their dispute, in part, clouded subsequent weeks of public debate late last year over the new map redrawing the boundaries of the five supervisory districts.

In the second case, investigators found the board held a series of ‘inappropriate’ meetings in mid-November when staff drafted a memo summarizing supervisors’ comments on the redistricting and shared it with all five members. of the board outside of a public meeting. Investigators found no evidence that the summary was made public.

Ravitch said, however, that the two instances did not legally undermine the redistricting process, “either because no formal action was taken or because there was substantial compliance with the Brown Act.” , Ravitch said in a Wednesday letter to Pittman, released Thursday by the county, which outlines the findings of the investigation.

The investigation blamed the Board of Supervisors as a whole and unnamed county staff.

The investigation found that then-board chairwoman Supervisor Lynda Hopkins erred in relying on Pittman to document the legal threats she reported as the basis for the closed meeting. closed rather than cataloging them itself.

In the other violation, unnamed county employees were responsible for the memo shared with board members and not the public, Ravitch said in his letter, which included the investigation report, according to his office.

Hopkins said the findings, relayed by County Administrator Sheryl Bratton on Wednesday, “caused me to review how we approach the closed session ‘holistically.’

But she defended the redistricting process and the final decision, a map approved by council on December 14 – despite objections from at least nine of the county’s 19 appointed redistricting commissioners, who accused the council of ignoring their recommendations and neglecting their work.

“If there hadn’t been the opportunity for the public to comment or participate in the discussion process, there would have been a much stronger conclusion and a different conclusion,” Hopkins said in an interview Thursday.

No sanctions or fines were proposed. Ravitch’s office recommended council and aligned county staff take updated training on the Brown Law, which governs transparency for local governments, and publicly release the memo and documents that served as basis to council to go into closed session on November 19.

The investigation was launched after Pittman asked Ravitch’s office to review the circumstances of the November 19 closed meeting.

Sonia Taylor, a Santa Rosa political activist who works as a graphic designer for campaigns, also filed lawsuits accusing the board of Brown’s Law violations. Ravitch sent him a letter Thursday summarizing the findings of the investigation into his four complaints.

“I was very concerned about the County’s compliance with Brown’s Law while conducting the recent redistricting process and have filed five Brown’s Law Complaints covering what I consider to be specific violations of the law. Brown committed by the county,” Taylor said in a written statement.

At the time, Taylor had not fully reviewed the findings and said it was “too early for me to comment fully.”

Taylor has a fifth complaint, filed Monday, which the district attorney’s office is still investigating, according to Ravitch’s letter.

The existence of the investigation was not confirmed by The Press Democrat until Wednesday, and questions from the newspaper prompted county officials on Thursday to release the letters summarizing the findings.

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