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Pima County abolishes contentious CLEPC law-enforcement review board

The Pima County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday disbanded a law-enforcement advisory group that had been enmeshed in controversy for more than a year. Sheriff Mark Napier has announced he's setting up his own group.

The board voted, 4-1, to shut down the Community Law Enforcement Partnership Commission.

Sup. Richard Elías, the Democratic chairman of the board, cast the lone vote to retain the commission after Sups. Ally Miller and Steve Christy — Republican allies and long-term critics of CLEPC — moved to dissolve it, backed by votes from Sups. Ramón Valadez and Sharon Bronson, both Democrats.

CLEPC has been plagued with inaction in 2019, holding just four meetings and failing to convene a quorum for several others.

It was set up by the supervisors in February 2018 as one of stipulations linked to the board's acceptance of an Operation Stonegarden border-enforcement grant. However, for months, the commission has been saddled with GOP complaints that CLEPC is "platform to attack law enforcement," and has struggled to meet because five of its 15 seats are vacant, making it difficult to get a quorum. 

While the group is supposed to meet 9 to 12 times a year, the last five meetings have been canceled, including a meeting scheduled for Sept. 9.

Miller and Christy had refused to allow their appointees to participate in the commission, claiming many members appointed by other supervisors were anti-law enforcement activists. Miller pulled her three appointees and declined to fill the vacancies; Christy directed his three appointees not to attend meetings.

Those actions came after the commission recommended not receiving an Operation Stonegarden grant that the county had accepted for more than a decade. The supervisors, after tumultuous meetings and a lot of back and forth, ultimately voted not to accept the grant last year. However, the grant was approved in May after Democratic Supervisor Sharon Bronson sided with Republicans Christy and Miller to approve it during a contentious meeting that saw activists turn on her.

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Two members of the commission appointed by Bronson resigned after the board voted to continue accepting funds under Stonegarden despite CLEPC's recommendation.

The grant, from the Department of Homeland Security, reimburses the Sheriff's Department for expenses related to crime involving border issues.

Christy said Tuesday that dissolving CLEPC was a step in the right direction since the commission could not get any traction or carry out its original mission.

But Elías said it's wrong to squelch public input and the vote to end CLEPC shows there are some voices the Board of Supervisors don't want to hear.

After a short call to the audience in a nearly empty chamber, Elías announced that the board would take up the matter of dissolving the group, which was added to this week's agenda after a discussion at the previous meeting. The agenda for that September 17 meeting was worded in a way that did not allow for them to vote to disband the commission, they were told by their legal advisor.

Elías asked for comments from the other supervisors, and then after a moment's quiet, leapt in. 

"Well, I have some comments to make, this deeply concerns me, this is a situation where, the voice of people has been disregarded because we don’t like what they’re saying,"  Elías said. "And, that’s not the way things should operate." 

"Unfortunately, some members didn’t take the commission seriously, and refused to assign members to be on the commission from its inception," the chairman said. "That’s sad because it’s clear to me that they don’t believe in public participation." 

Elías then apologized to the commission members who represented his District 5. "And, I’m sorry to the public that the issues surrounding law enforcement and so serious right now, and they are difficult to discuss, and that there’s a wide divergence of opinion surrounding those issues,' he said .

"We’re much better when we speak to each other, and we’re much better off when we speak to each other honestly, and we’re much better when we speak to each other honestly about difficult subjects in public," Elías said. "Not  behind closed doors, not hidden away under someone’s secret agenda, not without the public having any input." 

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He praised the Sheriff's Department, and said that deputies deal with "difficult issues," and "nobody understands that better than the officers."

"A little bit of democracy died today in Pima County,"  Elías said. 

"Today's vote is a move to silence undocumented and migrant voices," said Jessica Rodriguez, one of the members of CLEPC appointed by  Elías. "CLEPC is the only body that allowed us to seek information that hasn't been available, ever, and allowed us to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors," she said. "It was created due to the pressure of community groups for months because of the direct collaboration between the sheriffs and Border Patrol." 

"We still have the same issues happening in our community, not long ago during a 'routine' traffic stop a high school student was placed in deportation proceedings due to the collaboration of the Sheriffs Department with Border Patrol," Rodriguez said. "Bronson and Valadez missed a big opportunity to stand up for migrants and for what is right. They are forgetting that they too represent people who are racially profiled," she told TucsonSentinel.com. "They in turn made a decision to make us less safe and with no process for accountability." 

Rodriguez was referring to the arrest and subsequent detention of a high school senior in Tucson in May after traffic stop by a PCSD deputy, which resulted in the young man's detention by immigration authorities just days before he was set to graduate from Desert View High School. After his arrest, more than 100 Desert View High School students walked out of class and marched four miles to the PCSD's office, demanding the release of Thomas Torres-Maytorena. 

Miller replied to Elias' comments during the supervisors' discussion by saying that she had appointed members to the committee, but that it was used as a "platform to bash law enforcement nonstop, it was here in the board room, we have the videos posted up on YouTube of the meetings, and it was not productive," she said. "And, one deputy actually quit, he was so disgusted with the attacks on them," Miller said, referring to Gabriel Ruiz, a former deputy sheriff who resigned from the commission in February. 

In a letter to Valadez that was published by the Green Valley News, Ruiz argued that CLEPC was "comprised of members of law enforcement and those who oppose the rule of law. The name itself is misleading, as there is no 'partnership' involved. The commission presents a platform opportunity for those who believe that only politically expedient laws should be followed and that anything that supports law enforcement is something to be opposed." 

"I never told my members not" to be on the commission, Miller said. "I actually withdrew my members from participation because it was used as a platform to attack law enforcement." 

"And, no one said they didn’t like what they were saying, and I asked many times, ‘If you people have proof that the sheriff’s department is targeting people, or they’re racist, please bring it forward,'" Miller argued. "Not once did, and neither did they go to the sheriff with one bit of evidence. It was simply to bash law enforcement." 

Christy agreed with Miller. "I agree wholeheartedly with the comments Sup. Miller made about the commission," he said. Christy argued that the commission was trying to “direct” the sheriff’s department.  Napier “does not need any direction or consultation from the board of supervisors.” 

Both supervisors were relying on a memo written to the board by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry that the supervisors  "cannot direct the independently elected sheriff regarding how the sheriff carries out his or her constitutional law enforcement duties." While the board does have authority over the sheriff in fiscal matters, "that fiscal authority does, however, mean the board has an interest in how the Sheriff's Department functions, and therefore the board may make recommendations into all aspects of the Sheriff's Department functioning." 

"Given this legal framework, it is appropriate to create a method of citizen communication that can interact with the sheriff and make suggestions to the sheriff regarding department policies and practices for the sheriff's consideration," Huckleberry wrote. "The sheriff can either accept, reject, or modify any suggestions of such a citizen policing body." 

"Based on Arizona law, the sheriff has only one boss, that being the electorate," he wrote. 

Napier, the administrator wrote, "has demonstrated a remarkably patient ability to discuss his policing practices even with vociferous opponents of federal immigration and enforcement policy." 

Among his recommendations, Huckleberry asked that a new commission "not be subject to Arizona Open Meeting laws, and hence cannot discuss or take any action on matters that will come before the supervisors."

The commission just "wasn't getting things done," said Bronson, in a phone call with TucsonSentinel.com on Tuesday afternoon

"We need a rational dialogue, and that just wasn't happening there," she said, adding that it was a challenge to get a "fact-based discussion going." And that was "frankly on both sides."

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She said her arguments against Operation Stonegarden, and for CLEPC, were based on an Inspector General's report from Homeland Security that found serious issue with transparency, budgeting and other problems. However, Napier and his department had addressed many those concerns, she said.

Bronson reiterated an argument made by Huckleberry that the board was limited in its ability to direct policies, and while they held the purse-strings, the supervisors weren't in the business of directing the department. Rather, that was up to the voters to "vote out the sheriff if they don't like what he's doing."

"The commission was well-intentioned, but people were pushing for certain outcomes that were not working," Bronson said. "And, it was just continuing to divide the community, without giving the community the right information. Facts matter."

New panel forming

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier announced last week that he is accepting applications for a new "Sheriff's Advisory Committee" to provide community feedback. Supervisors had previously turned down the idea of appointing people to the new board.

"The SCAC will be a group of community leaders that meet monthly with the Sheriff or his designee," said Napier in a document released by PCSD. "The objective of the committee is to provide input, voice concerns, and to ensure and maintain open communications between the community and the Sheriff's Department." 

The committee will consist of 12 members who apply and are selected by the Sheriff's Department. Each member will serve a 12-month term, and may serve one additional term, Napier said. 

Meetings will begin on January 2020. 

"I support the decision of the board with respect to dissolving CLEPC. It had simply become dysfunctional and an unproductive political platform," Napier said Tuesday, sharing a link to an earlier version of this Sentinel report on Facebook.

"We already have more than 30 applicants expressing interest in being a part of this positive path forward. I want to hear from all segments of our community, but it must be done in a mutually respectful, positive and productive manner," he said.

Chief Deputy Byron Gwaltney said the SCAC will not be involved in reviewing grants for the Sheriff's Department. The new committee's goal will be the same as Napier's goal for an advisory committee, which was rejected 4-1 by the board during their meeting Sept. 17, Gwaltney said.

"Same goals, just so that (Napier) can have a direct relationship with representatives of the community," he said. "To clean the process up so that it can actually be a useful tool to maintain our relationship with the community and that this committee will report directly to the sheriff and there wouldn't be a Board of Supervisors involvement."

While the board would not have any direct involvement, Gwaltney said Napier is prepared to discuss and share findings with other elected officials. The SCAC's goal is to get feedback from the community to improve relationships between the Sheriff's Department and those they serve, he said.

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Gwaltney said there is no timeline set before next year as to when Napier will make final selections. As to whether the meetings will be open to the public, Gwaltney said that is the goal but it might depend on the topic.

Elías said Napier's new committee is probably a step in the right direction but that transparency is lacking.

"There's no public meetings, there's no public input," Elías said. "This group of people who are going to be chosen by him solely and there's no audit for that group of people to investigate things independently. I don't think it's going to be very helpful, but at least it's a start, maybe, in the right direction."

Napier had said he wanted the Board of Supervisors involved to lend credibility and provide countywide representation.

Christy said SCAC will have all the same credibility it needs under Napier as it would have had with the supervisors selecting its members.

"The sheriff is fully capable of picking and choosing his own membership lists," Christy said. "I'm sure he'll have a lot of applicants to choose from. He'll also have a lot of credible models to choose from, from around the country."

With the board out and selection left in Napier's hands, Gwaltney said getting a diverse geographical representation of the county is still the goal despite the selection process being done by the Sheriff's Department only.

"The application that is online he will use to vet motivations for people coming on board," Gwaltney said. "It's part of how they express themselves, do they want to have a viable role and really help to look at how we conduct business. If they wish to actively participate in dialogue, I think that is really the tipping point that moves it forward."

Part of this report was first published by the Green Valley News.

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have your say   

2 comments on this story

Oct 2, 2019, 12:23 pm
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In the article, “contentious” is the operative word;  and in the 1st comment, by “bettsph”,  the operative phrase is “somewhat democratic structures”.  To clarify, this means pseudo democratic structures;  I’ll say “fake democratic”, because the CLEPC was populated by activists.  These are self-nominated loud-mouths who protect an extensive, grant-funded, non-profit, people-trafficing operation in the Sonoran Desert and across the Tohono O’odham Nation.  They managed to snow the Supervisors into briefly refusing the 20-year-old Federal Stonegarden Grant, to refuse Federal funding coming into Pima County.  Cooperation between the Sheriff’s Department and the Border Patrol could result in the arrest & prosecution of another dozen liberal globalists; similar to the re-trial,  scheduled next month,  of a Western Pima County Community Councilman.  This involves some prominent people, and Samaritan meetings for recruitment appear in the Copper News.  Church buildings have been used for years.  This is going-on OPENLY;  just like the phony “impeachment inquiry”,  just like the phony angst over the border wall.  We need the next election ASAP,  so that everyone knows that so-called “Blue” America has been folded-up and trashed, in disgust & embarrassment.

Oct 1, 2019, 8:57 pm
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Obviously Sherrif Napier is willing to meet with those members of the community that he chooses. “Our community” obviously doesn’t include people who are concerned about his collusion with ICE and Border Patrol and who may wonder, with some justification, who “our” community is, anyway?! Elias is right—a little bit of democracy (or the possibility of communication)  was lost today. These somewhat democratic structures get set up (like the Police Review Board in the old days) and then someone—how dare them!-actually tries to get them to reach their democratic potential for resolving issues by bringing UP contentious issues—and all of a sudden they get radically changed or simply go away. The idea that anyone’s control over elected’ behavior ends at the ballot box is the most undemocratic expression yet….but its quite common. The system begs us for our vote, but then asks us to go to sleep until its time to come out and vote again. And we wonder why our civic engagement is so low?

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier speaks to members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors just before a vote on Operation Stonegarden in May.