Will the Supervisors Do the Right Thing? Don’t Count on it.
By Doug Porter
Here we go again. San Diegans are about to be told what’s best for them by the incumbent political class. We’ll soon see if elected officials can once again circumvent democracy’s vetting process.
County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has announced her retirement, effective July 7. Her anointed replacement, Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, is widely expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, following a cursory vetting process.
Or maybe not. A coalition of groups took out a full-page ad in Sunday’s paper urging the Supes to chose a candidate who signs a pledge not to run for District Attorney in 2018 and to open up the selection process for public scrutiny.
Sponsors for the plea included the American Civil Liberties Union, Alliance of Californians for Community Engagement, Center for Policy Initiatives, Climate Action Campaign, Employee Rights Center, Main Street Alliance, Mid-City Community Action Network, San Diego Organizing Projects, and Service Employees International Union 221.
What’s Supposed to Happen
At this week’s meeting, the Board is supposed to set the application period along with candidate requirements and announce dates for two public hearings.
According to the County’s policy for appointment replacements of elected officials, each applicant is given three minutes for an oral presentation at the first hearing, and supervisors can ask questions. Up to five finalists will then be selected. Three days later, following background checks, the Board gets another chance to question the finalists. The first candidate to get three votes becomes the appointee.
Summer Stephan has already announced she’s running for the position in the 2018 election. Jason Roe, the political consultant who handled Mayor Faulconer’s re-election campaign, has been hired to run the campaign. The Voice of San Diego called her list of early endorsers “jaw-dropping,” noting it included law enforcement unions along with prominent Democrats Rep. Juan Vargas and City Attorney Mara Elliott.
Today’s Voice of San Diego features an interview with Stephan, wherein she walks right up to the line a disagreeing with her current boss on policy matters but doesn’t cross it.
Same As It Ever Was
This ‘process’ thus far is remarkable similar to what happened when former Sheriff Kolender resigned in 2009 before the end of his term. Sheriff Bill Gore — who has also endorsed Stephan — was appointed and ran as the incumbent in 2010.
When county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard announced plans to resign at a 2012 board meeting, supervisors immediately selected his assistant, Helen Robbins-Meyer, as his successor. They had no problem suspending the rules to take action by declaring the selection of a replacement to be an ‘urgent item.’
Enter Adam Gordon
Former Deputy District Attorney Adam Gordon has announced he’s seeking appointment as interim DA, and pledged not to run in 2018, regardless of whether he is appointed.
Gordon’s announcement highlights the fact it’s been nearly half a century since voters have had the option of voting without an incumbent in office:
The voters alone should decide the next District Attorney. A process which results in the appointment of a declared candidate as the Interim District Attorney defeats the community’s right to vet publicly, thoroughly and equally every candidate for District Attorney. I pledge not to seek election in 2018 even if appointed Interim District Attorney to ensure the voters have that full and fair opportunity.
For 48 years the voters of San Diego County have not had the ability to vote in an election without an incumbent District Attorney. Every applicant should make this same pledge to protect the voters’ right to decide the next District Attorney.Furthermore, I believe that the community should have the ability to directly nominate additional individuals for the position of Interim District Attorney.
The Taint of Corruption
All this comes as questions continue to surface about just how incumbent DA Dumanis has managed the office.
KPBS recently wrote about text messages and phone calls concerning the trial of Mexican billionaire Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, who has been convicted of (and is now appealing) making illegal campaign contributions. Then U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy was recused from the case, Dumanis was a witness in the trial.
“Ms. Dumanis is described as a ‘subject’ of the investigation in the case in a FBI 302 report,” wrote Azano’s defense lawyer Knut Johnson. “Based on that continued communication about this case between the recused U.S. Attorney and a subject of the investigation during the trial, Mr. Azano again asks this court to order the production of Duffy’s ‘written memorandum’; the reason for the recusal and emails, documents, letters or any other evidence…of any conflict.”
Last week, the Union-Tribune published a detailed story regarding contributions to Dumanis political campaigns from dozens of people with ties to marijuana dispensaries. Given the DA’s history of tough talking on pot and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers, this might seem a little odd.
As she did in the case of Azano Matsura, the District Attorney denied knowing anything.
“Neither I nor the campaign had any idea that we collected donations from marijuana dispensary operators or those who leased property to such businesses,” Dumanis told U-T Watchdog in a statement released by a spokeswoman. “We had no information that any of these individuals were violating city codes. We were not aware of any investigations and we did not have any way of knowing. I only found out when you brought it to my attention.”
But the digging by the UT revealed a pattern of donations coming on the heels of well-publicized lawsuits filed by City Attorney offices against landlords with properties being rented to illegal dispensaries. The cases were settled and potential fines were suspended or substantially reduced.
The landlords all deny anything questionable occurred.
An Arms Race
Then there’s this, from yet another article, published in Sunday’s Union-Tribune:
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office spent almost $100,000 in 2016 on weapons for its Bureau of Investigation, an amount greater than that spent by three other Southern California prosecutors’ offices and almost as much as the San Diego Police Department.
The office won’t say exactly what they purchased with the money.
Retired investigator Alex Garcia told the UT the monies were used to create a “front-line” police department within the office. The DA’s office says they were merely replacing outdated equipment.
According to the San Diego County district attorney’s annual report last year, the most common task performed by investigators was serving subpoenas, which was done more than 11,000 times. The report also said investigators participated in 458 surveillance operations and served 364 search warrants.
Hold That Thought
The local Democratic party is also seeking a say in the process and is circulating an online petition urging the Board to appoint a non-political “caretaker” as DA.
There is a long and sordid history in our county government of elected officials resigning early so the all-Republican Board of Supervisors can appoint a replacement rather than letting the voters decide. The appointee then runs for office with all the advantages of incumbency, scaring off challengers and nearly guaranteed to be elected.
That alone is reason to demand that the Board bring some integrity and democracy to their process. Add the DA’s connection to the largest political corruption scandal in county history — and the fact that the deputy whom Dumanis has endorsed as her successor is almost certain to seek the Board’s appointment — and the ethical and legal stakes are even higher.
If the Democrats sound as though they’re making this political, it’s because they are. The imposition of term limits along with the changing demographics of the electorate pose a serious threat to the future of caucasian conservatives ruling this particular roost.
Bonnie Dumanis is stepping down so she can consider a run for the Board of Supervisors to replace Ron Roberts. Despite the whiff of corruption accompanying her political career, she fits the bill perfectly: a Republican with a moderate image and high name recognition.
If we’re going to be electing these types of officials, the process of selecting a replacement County District Attorney ought to be transparent.
As the Union-Tribune editorialized:
There is nothing illegal about this maneuvering, but there is little for the public to like, either. That’s why county supervisors should have a full and thorough discussion, with public participation, about Dumanis’ successor — not a coronation.
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