Sacramento Report: Jones, COVID-19 and the Irony of Remote Voting - Voice of San Diego

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Sacramento Report: Jones, COVID-19 and the Irony of Remote Voting

Sen. Brian Jones’ positive COVID-19 test disrupted the Senate’s sprint to the finish line, police reform bills are in trouble and more in our weekly roundup of news from Sacramento.

Sen. Brian Jones appears at Golden Hall on election night. / Photo by Megan Wood

On Friday, the state Senate will work frantically to weigh hundreds of bills before this year’s abbreviated session ends on Monday — and it will be doing so remotely, thanks to one San Diego County lawmaker’s positive COVID test.

Sen. Brian Jones announced this week that he’d tested positive for the coronavirus. That had some major ripple effects: “Unfortunately, the nature of the gathering that resulted in the exposures was such that virtually every member of the Republican Caucus is now unable to enter the Capitol without violating public health orders,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins wrote in a press release. Atkins announced that quarantined senators would be allowed to vote remotely from home to avoid exposing anyone.

That raised a particular irony, since Jones himself is arguably the Capitol’s biggest opponent of remote voting.

Earlier this year, Jones sent out a press release condemning the idea of remote voting and arguing that it’s unconstitutional. He said he respects the lawmakers who recovered from COVID-19 earlier in the session and returned to vote in person, and that he doesn’t take any issue with colleagues deciding not to return to Sacramento out of fear of catching the virus and bringing it home.

“But if legislators want to vote in Senate or Assembly Committees, or on the Senate or Assembly Floor, they must be present to do so.  Our Constitution requires it and our voters demand it,” he said in the release.

He has some heft to back up his position: In May, Jones requested clarity on remote voting from the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

The legislative counsel wrote that “legislating remotely arguably violates the constitutional guarantee of open and public meetings,” and that it could also violate Prop. 54, which extended open meetings requirements. But the letter also ended with a collective shrug: “In our opinion, the California Constitution does not contemplate that members of the Legislature may participate and vote in legislative proceedings, including floor sessions and committee hearings, by means of remote access.”

The Sacramento Bee editorial board eviscerated Jones and noted that he exposed fellow San Diego lawmaker Assemblyman Randy Voepel, and attended a “freedom feast” at a local church, where he was photographed with church-goers without a mask.

“And though we do not lack for examples of Jones’ peculiar blend of hypocrisy and stupidity, we should note that he also serves on the state senate’s Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response,” the board wrote.

Police Decertification Bill Is in Trouble

A statewide reporting project that included VOSD and dozens of other newsrooms last year found that California was only one of five states that doesn’t automatically decertify police officers for certain offenses and misconduct. Those decisions are made by local jurisdictions following internal investigations.

That means cops with dubious records sometimes get bounced around police agencies.

The Mercury News found that a small town in Central Valley had hired officers investigated in a federal child porn probe and burglary ring. Another was accused in a lawsuit of threatening to jail women if they didn’t have sex with him. Others had been convicted for DUIs.

State law already prohibits officers with felony convictions from serving, but many plead down to misdemeanors with the consent of prosecutors.

Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, told the Assembly Judiciary Committee Wednesday that there are mechanisms for getting rid of bad politicians, doctors, lawyers — but not the people with legal authority to commit force and take lives.

“The truth is the public doesn’t trust law enforcement to police itself,” he said in support of SB 731.

Despite the public expressions of support during the recent round of Black Lives Matter protests, lawmakers are wavering. Bradford’s bill is part of a slate of police reforms championed by the Black Legislative Caucus but with only a few days to get through the Assembly and Senate, it “teetered near the brink of failure,” the Sacramento Bee editorial board wrote.

If it survives, SB 731 bill would do a couple of big things. It would make changes to the Bane Civil Rights Act, which prohibits anyone from interfering in the constitutional or statutory rights of another person, and grant new powers to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum criteria for applicants.

POST, as it’s more commonly known, would be allowed to investigate an officer’s fitness and to strip anyone who’d engaged in “serious misconduct.” If SB 731 is signed into law, POST would also create a nine-member advisory board that holds public meetings and reviews investigative findings.

Agencies would be responsible for reporting any changes in an officer’s employment or any complaints or misconduct charges. If in the end the commission revokes an officer’s certification, the relevant records become public and must be retained for at least 30 years.

The bill passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a 7-3 vote that broke down along partisan lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. Members of both parties took issue with some of the finer points in the bill and urged Bradford to make clarifications as it headed to the Assembly floor.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez questioned whether an officer could be decertified before he or she was terminated, because members of the public would be able to bring complaints to POST directly. She identified a potential conflict between the commission’s authority and a police officer’s employment rights.

In the meantime, Gonzalez also said she was working on a financial analysis of what the bill would cost to implement but didn’t plan to pull the bill into the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which she chairs.

At times, Bradford sounded exasperated by the pressure he was getting on all sides. He later told the Associated Press: “We were quick to show up for photo ops, but when it comes to doing the real work some of them are not true believers. This shouldn’t be a moment, but a true movement, and I hope they find the courage to do the right thing.”

Not surprisingly, the strongest opposition to the bill came from police unions and other law enforcement groups, which argued that they were open to a statewide decertification process but didn’t like this version of it.

Part of their hang-up was over the makeup of the new advisory board, whose selection is made by various appointments. The board would include three current or former police officers and six members of the public. One is supposed to be an attorney with “substantial experience” in police oversight and another is related to someone who’s personally experienced or is related to someone who’s experienced excessive force.

Several police groups issued a statement ahead of the hearing saying the board would invite “members whose qualifications are inherently based on negative encounters with peace officers.” They also complained that the law would vest the board with the “authority to overturn local agency and District Attorney recommendations and discipline.”

A representative of the San Diego Deputy Sheriffs’ Association registered opposition to the bill Wednesday. Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, also told me Thursday that his group is opposed to SB 731 but deferred questions to Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California and an SDPD officer.

“As our state legislators move these bills through the legislative process, and as the ongoing dialogue about public safety reform continues, our overarching message to them is simple — tell us what you want from law enforcement, and then let’s work together to find common ground that keeps our communities and peace officers safe,” Marvel said in a press release. “We’re here to serve you.”

A spokesman for San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said her office has not taken a position on the bill, though she wrote in a July op-ed that “we should continue to look for solutions that prevent bad actors in positions of trust from moving from department to department.”

During the hearing, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, a Republican from Big Bear Lake, questioned whether the bill’s lack of specificity would cause police to be decertified for traffic tickets or violating non-criminal statutes.

SB 731 gives several examples of “serious misconduct.” Cops, for instance, couldn’t intimidate a witness, lie in the course of an investigation or participate in a law enforcement gang with “a pattern of rogue on-duty behavior.” But it leaves the specifics to POST to figure out.

“I think most police officers agree that it helps them if we establish laws that prevent bad officers from moving to department to department to department,” Obernolte said. “But unfortunately, the way this bill is written, it’s … very difficult for anyone who cares about police officers to vote for it.”

Others argued that Bradford’s bill was good enough and long overdue. Mark Stone, the committee chair, said lawmakers had a responsibility to move it along, let POST craft the necessary regulations and then serve as an oversight body.

“Too often in this Legislature we pass a bit of policy and then we wash our hands of it and nobody cares about implementation,” he said. “That’s not what’s going to happen here.”

Golden State News

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