Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian asked his colleagues to sincerely reflect and answer this question: “Does our board believe it can have confidence in the administration of the sheriff’s department by current incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith?”
The answer, through an unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, was no.
The vote of no confidence, while symbolically quite powerful, does not have any authority to force the six-term sheriff out of office, but it sends a message to the public that Smith, whose budget is controlled by the board, does not have their support or belief that she can ethically, faithfully and effectively perform her duties of the role.
“If we do not share what we know and communicate with the public, the public cannot hold their elected officials accountable,” said Simitian, who co-authored the resolution.
The call of no confidence comes after what supervisors allege to be 23 years of jail mismanagement, sluggish reforms and several scandals which have resulted in millions of dollars in settlements, death and serious injuries of inmates, inhumane living conditions for those in county custody and a grave lack of transparency.
Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Simitian detailed Smith’s wrongdoings in a seven-page memo and pointed to 37 different elements to justify a vote of no confidence.
It’s a memo Smith said was riddled with false accusations and misleading information.
While Smith maintained she has some blame and responsibility for jail conditions, her accusatory tone indicated that systemic problems in mental health services and the criminal legal system were unfairly placed on her.
“You tasked me with being your bandaid and now you’re placing blame and not taking responsibility,” Smith said to the board ahead of the vote.
In her opinion, most of the mismanagement and horrible conditions were the fault of the Board of Supervisors and their “inaction or inability to know” how to address such systemic issues.
Smith said at least a quarter of the county’s jail population were those with mental health problems and emphasized they were thrown in jail by the District Attorney’s Office because no other alternatives exist.
“Currently, we have 47 people in custody who will stay in jail until a treatment bed becomes available. This is a low number, sometimes that number is as many as 100,” Smith said.
She pointed to a 2018 study by the California Hospital Association that found, of the nine counties with 1 million-plus population, Santa Clara County had the third-lowest number of acute care inpatient beds per 100,000 residents.
“How do you expect us to deal with people with mental health illness in the criminal justice system when we do not have alternatives?” Smith asked the board. “You (the board) are responsible first in acknowledging there’s a problem and then understanding that you must deal with the problem. It’s a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis.”
She instead threw her support behind reinvesting funding sources into building a new psychiatric hospital or mental health facility instead of a new jail — a call echoed by many of the same coalitions, social justice organizations and residents who spoke during public comment who ironically also supported the vote of no confidence.
“If you don’t address the real problem here of mental health, we do need a new jail, but enough is enough,” Smith said. “The estimate for a new jail is a staggering amount of $390 million for 535 beds. Do not build a jail.”
Smith said the $390 million could instead build 960 beds in a psychiatric hospital that the county desperately needs.
The call was a stark contrast to Smith’s support for a new jail two weeks ago at a news conference she held after San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called for her resignation.
Despite the shift, Simitian called Smith’s calls to address the mental health crisis in the county to be disingenuous.
“I am disappointed and frankly somewhat offended by the fact that folks with such great need would be used in a way to conflate and confuse the issue … in an effort to divert and deflect and deny responsibility,” Simitian said.
He continued that while Smith’s read on mental health services, or lack thereof, is correct, it is not an excuse for the case of mentally ill resident Michael Tyree, who was beaten to death by three officers while in county custody, “and that our county taxpayers were obliged to approve a $3.6 million settlement, presumably because there was negligence and liability on the part of the institution.”
Simitian also pointed to a couple of scandals the sheriff is allegedly involved in, including pay-to-play allegations that gun permits were provided to those who contributed to her campaign, and a scheme to evade the provisions of the Political Reform Act involving tickets at the Shark Tank at the SAP Center.
“It is not a mental health issue that a member of the sheriff’s own department testified under oath at a criminal grand jury hearing of (the Shark Tank) scheme,” Simitian said. “It is not a mental health issue that three people have already pled guilty to participating in a contributions-for-gun-permit scheme, as is documented in the resolution.”
And Smith’s “repeated and widespread refusal” to participate and testify during investigations of the scandal is also not a reflection of systemic issues, Simitian said.
Part of the no confidence vote also outlines a retirement and succession plan for Smith — a last minute addition by Supervisor Otto Lee that was opposed by Smith.
“There’s serious significant contributions from our Sheriff having worked with us for 47 years and I think that needs to be recognized,” Lee said.
A well-planned transition from Smith to her successor would also “minimize the interruptions, animosity, and enhance the continual building relationships and instill trust,” Lee’s memo read.
The no confidence vote comes two weeks after the board unanimously approved local, state and federal investigations of the Sheriff’s Office. If those investigations reveal any illegal activity, that is how the sheriff can lose her position.
In response, a confident Smith said to bring on the investigations because it would clear her name.
Simitian said it can take three to four years before investigations reveal any wrongdoing, which is why the board took this vote Tuesday.
Until then, Smith’s term is expected to end December 2022.