by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Law enforcement issues dominated the June 22 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, a progressive Democrat whom the club endorsed for that position in the general election, was the featured speaker and addressed a wide range of issues, from her struggle to get the City Council to join Gavin Grimm’s Transgender rights case to the increased burden her office is facing from changes in state law that reduced many felony crimes to misdemeanors.
But there was also an intense presentation from Dave Myers, a 30-year veteran of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department who’s risen to the rank of commander — and who is currently running for sheriff against incumbent Bill Gore. Myers presented himself as a solid law-enforcement professional, and he said that if he’s elected one of his major priorities will be to make the sheriff’s office more transparent — as Elliott is working to do with the city attorney’s office. But Myers is also openly Gay, and he said that if he wins the race he’ll be the first openly Gay male sheriff ever elected in the U.S.
After briefly explaining what the San Diego County sheriff’s office does — it runs the county jail system and serves as the police force for the unincorporated areas of the county — Myers blasted his boss, Gore, and said if he’s elected the public will learn a lot more about how the sheriff’s office actually functions. “We now have a sheriff who does not want you to know what’s going on,” Myers explained. “For 10 years the sheriff did nothing about suicides in the county jails until the county grand jury called him on it. He has boasted that the county jails are the largest mental health treatment facilities in San Diego County. I think that’s wrong. Law enforcement can be part of the solution, but we have to offer people more than just incarceration.”
Myers acknowledged that former San Diego Assemblymember Lori Saldaña was in the audience, and he seized on a question she’d asked city attorney Elliott earlier about what can be done to make sure rape kids are tested sooner. “Bill Gore is on record opposing the bill in the state legislature to require testing of rape kits,” Myers said. He said part of the problem with Gore is that he came to the sheriff’s department after a 30-year stint at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which in Myers’ view means he not only doesn’t understand how local law enforcement works, he’s “reactive,” seeing law enforcement’s role as punishing crime rather than preventing it.
“Bill hasn’t spent one day in a patrol car,” Myers said. “He hasn’t implemented body cameras. Law enforcement began as a means of preventing crime. I’m still working every single day down the hall from him.” Asked what his top three priorities would be if he were elected, Myers said number one would be “inclusion: creating a department that looks like the community. We have no Asians or Latinos in the leadership.”
Asked what could be done to stop law enforcement officers from killing or shooting people of color, Myers said that he would want to build “cultural competency” among his officers and “get people out in the community.” He said the San Diego Police Department already does some of this, including bringing police academy graduates to the LGBT Community Center to help them get familiar with the issues facing San Diego’s Queer community. “The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t do this,” Myers said. “It was only after several complaints that Gore addressed LGBT concerns, and then only in the leadership settings” — not among rank-and-file officers.
Myers won the club’s endorsement unanimously, as did San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser. He gave a short talk focused mostly on the layoff notices the district had sent out because of a shortfall in the district’s budget. This is a ritual the district goes through whenever it looks like they won’t have enough tax revenue to balance the budget: teachers and staff get layoff notices but those don’t necessarily mean they’ll be laid off. Beiser’s solution was to push the district’s older employees to leave voluntarily through an “early retirement incentive,” which will not only keep enough teachers on duty to hold down class sizes, it will also save the district money because retirees who were at the top of the salary schedule will be replaced with younger hires making less money.
Beiser also told the club that San Diego Unified has been a leader on environmental issues. “We banned styrofoam lunch trays, converted our school buses to run on biodiesel fuel, and we want to make San Diego the most solar-dependent city in the U.S.,” he said. Beiser noted that when San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer wanted to give a press conference in front of a solar panel array to dramatize the city’s commitment to renewable energy, the location was a school district property.
Another issue Beiser talked about which most people usually don’t think of as a school concern is lead in the water supply. “We worked with the city to get all the schools tested for water quality in six weeks,” he said. “Out of 230 sites, we only had two with elevated lead levels, and those have been mitigated.” Beiser said that the district is also working to lower lead levels in sites that are within the state standards because, as he put it, “There are no safe levels of lead.”
Beiser also pointed to his leadership on the anti-bullying policy he pushed through in 2011 and got approved by the board unanimously. “When I was board president we extended it to Transgender students,” he said. “Then we created the first student affairs office for LGBT students to train staff and support GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] clubs. We now have GSA’s in all our district’s high schools and virtually all of our middle schools. We have forms where you can report being bullied online. We also have done great work protecting Muslim students. I couldn’t have done all this without your help.”
Mara Elliott: Taking Up Transgender Rights
City Attorney Mara Elliott began her presentation to the Democrats for Equality by describing her successful drive to get the San Diego City Council to file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Gavin Grimm. Grimm is a female-to-male Transgender person in Gloucester County, Virginia who in his senior year of high school asked to use the men’s restroom on campus. He got permission from the principal, but the school board later overruled this and passed a policy stating that students would have to use the restrooms “limited to the corresponding biological genders.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up Grimm’s case and sued in federal court. They won a decision at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals based on a policy from the Obama administration that public schools receiving federal funds couldn’t discriminate against Transgender students that way. The city of San Francisco filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court, which had agreed to hear the Gloucester County school board’s appeal, and organized other cities in California to join the case.
At first Elliott didn’t think she’d have a problem getting the San Diego City Council on board. After all, she said, “we have a couple of laws on the books that protect Transgender expression.” But when she took it to the City Council, “all hell broke loose,” she recalled. City Councilmember Chris Cate accused Elliott of “bringing divisive ‘D.C. politics’ to San Diego” and saying that instead of getting involved in outside litigation, Elliott should focus on “shutting down illegal marijuana dispensaries and combating sex trafficking.” Eventually the Council did join Grimm’s case on a party-line vote. All five Democrats on the Council — Barbara Bry, Chris Ward, Myrtle Cole, Georgette Gomez and David Alvarez — voted to join the case. Republican Councilmember Scott Sherman voted no, Cate and Mark Kersey abstained and Lorie Zapf wasn’t at the meeting at all.
Elliott may have won the battle at the City Council, but Gavin Grimm lost the war at the Supreme Court. The real villain was — who else? — President Donald Trump, who in the meantime had got rid of the Obama-era policy Grimm and his ACLU attorneys had relied on in his lawsuit. The Trump administration left it up to individual states to decide whether to force Transgender students into the restroom of the gender they don’t identify with or present as, and the Court accordingly withdrew consideration of the case and canceled the already scheduled hearing last March.
Grimm’s case isn’t the only issue on which Elliott has crossed swords with the Trump administration. “The other amicus request we got was when a government entity asked us to join a challenge against Trump’s travel ban,” she said. “That is not constitutional, and San Diego is a very welcoming city. So we were identified as a city that would have interest in that lawsuit. I thought this is something I need our Council to hear about and support. At the time we brought that case, we had a student who was unable to return to the United States from his holiday over the December break, so we were directly impacted. We also had 14 companies that said, ‘We can’t hire some of the individuals we need to hire. This is not going to work. My concern, too, is that we’re a border city, and we have a lot of travel with Mexico. So if you permit a ban like that on seven countries, what’s to prevent a ban like this from standing and perhaps closing out some of our neighbors?”
Once again, Elliott got called out on joining the case by two Republican Councilmembers who said she should resign because “these are not local issues. Neither [the Grimm case nor the travel ban] are local issues.” But she felt confident that these are local issues, because San Diego has a reputation as “a welcoming city” and had already passed policies defending the rights of immigrants and Transgender people. Elliott has also held press conferences about hate crimes, as well as an issue you might not think would be on the city attorney’s radar screen: poaching. She’s moved aggressively against abalone and lobster poachers to protect these endangered species. The big problem in enforcing the laws against poaching is, not surprisingly, finding the poachers; “We have cameras on our waterways, but not as many as we need,” she said.
California law splits the job of prosecuting crimes between county district attorneys, who try felons, and city attorneys, who handle misdemeanors. But the line between the two got blurred big-time when California voters passed Proposition 47, which reclassified a lot of crimes formerly considered felonies — especially nonviolent drug offenses — as misdemeanors. What’s more, it applied retroactively — so a lot of people who had been given felony sentences were released earlier than expected because their crimes were no longer felonies and therefore they were let out once they’d served the length of a misdemeanor sentence.
During her presentation, Elliott said that instances of domestic violence in San Diego had risen 23 percent over the last year and a half — and, responding to a follow-up question from this reporter, she blamed it largely on Proposition 47. She said the early releases of convicts under the proposition may have “put a lot of people on the street” who, among other things, abuse their spouses and families. One of the programs she’s instituted against domestic violence is to train the police “on recognizing victims of strangulation, because they often become victims of murder.”
Elliott admitted she’s had resistance from police and others who tend to under-report rape and domestic violence, and in particular who classify date rapes as “domestic violence” so the perpetrators won’t face the serious charges they deserve. Lori Saldaña questioned Elliott, as she would Myers later in the meeting, about what she can do to make sure victims’ rape kits get tested faster. The problem, Elliott said, is money, and she thanked Saldaña for lobbying the city to budget for it.
Asked about the city’s war on homeless people, and in particular the sweeps through downtown in which homeless people’s tents and belongings are confiscated and destroyed, Elliott said that’s not supposed to be happening. In 2011 a federal judge approved the settlement of a lawsuit brought against San Diego by the ACLU and a group called the Isaiah Project, which requires that if police clear out an encampment of homeless people for any reason, they’re supposed to give 72 hours’ notice and preserve the homeless people’s belongings and take them to the Isaiah Project’s storage facility, which can also be used by homeless people who need a place to keep their possessions while they look for work or attend treatment programs. (See https://www.aclusandiego.org/judge-approves-homeless-property-class-action-settlement/.) “If they’re just throwing things away, they’re in violation of the settlement and we need to know about that,” Elliott said.
Elliott, not surprisingly, saw this issue as a subset of the general problem involving homeless people and what the city is — or isn’t — doing about them. “We’ve all been very slow,” she admitted. “My office is serious about getting homeless people off the streets. We have six attorneys, a litigator and staff working on abatement issues. We’re just the attorneys, but I want us to make sure our policies are legal and we have the resources to implement them. We’re getting support from the County of San Diego. There are certainly ways things could be better.”
One of the things Elliott is proudest of is that she’s doing the community outreach she promised during her campaign, having her deputies meet with citizen groups throughout the city. She’s also proud of setting up outreach programs to keep people who’ve just been released from custody for misdemeanor crimes from re-offending by helping them find work, treatment if they have alcohol or drug or mental issues, housing and whatever other assistance that will keep them from returning to jail. Like Myers, she sees the job of law enforcement as being as much about preventing crime as punishing it.
Elliott got a rather hostile question criticizing her for endorsing Republican Summer Stephan to replace Bonnie Dumanis as San Diego County District Attorney. The questioner also criticized State Senator Toni Atkins for endorsing Bill Gore for re-election as county sheriff over Dave Myers, though Myers hadn’t yet announced when Atkins endorsed Gore. Both Gore and Stephan were appointed to their jobs by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors after their predecessors resigned.
It’s a frequent pattern in San Diego politics: an officeholder who wants to leave office and wants a particular person to succeed them steps down before their term is up so their anointed successor can get appointed to the position and run as an “incumbent.” In the 1990’s voters in the city of San Diego passed a city charter amendment to stop this — it prevented anyone who accepted a midterm appointment to the City Council from running for the same seat in the next election — but the practice is still perfectly legal in county government.
Elliott defended her endorsement of Stephan, partly because no Democrats have announced for the race, and partly because the two have known each other for decades. “I went to the same law school,” she said. “Her sister works for me. We work together on domestic violence and I need her help. I don’t agree with the process (by which Stephan was appointed), but I endorsed the person for what she’s achieved.”
The club also heard from two Democrats running against Lorie Zapf for District 2 on the San Diego City Council. Jordan Beane, a former lobbyist for the San Diego Chargers, said the hearing on the Gavin Grimm amicus filing wasn’t the only city meeting Zapf didn’t bother to attend. “She missed the vote on Soccer City, she missed the hearing on the Mission Bay rollercoasters — which are in her district — and she missed the first meeting of the San Diego County task force on homelessness,” he said. “In view of her voting record, though, maybe we’re better off when she doesn’t show up for work.”
Attorney Bryan Pease, who’s also going after Zapf’s City Council seat in next year’s election, talked about his own experience standing up to Donald Trump at the campaign rally in 2016 where protesters were blocked by police from coming anywhere near the event. “I stood in front of 200 riot cops and said they were violating the Constitution, and they arrested me,” he said. “I also sued to save the La Jolla seals. My specialty is knowing how to get things done. We need evidence-based solutions to the homeless problem and we need to confront SDG&E so we can set up our own community-based power authority.”