The Oct. 9 Board of Supervisors hearing and likely vote in suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s official misconduct case is one of the most important decisions that lawmakers will face this year. Not only is Mirkarimi fighting for his job, but the case could establish precedent regarding what defines official misconduct in San Francisco and what power a mayor has to remove a public official.
The case started with a domestic violence scuffle between Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez, in which he, by his own admission, bruised her arm. Mayor Ed Lee suspended the newly sworn-in sheriff without pay after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. Lee alleged that Mirkarimi also tried to dissuade a witness and use his political influence to intimidate his wife in a brewing custody battle.
The Ethics Commission took up the case, hearing testimony in an effort to provide the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation about whether Mirkarimi should get his job back or be permanently removed from office. Votes from at least nine of the 11 supervisors will be needed to permanently oust the sheriff.
Lee testified under oath during those Ethics Commission hearings that he had not spoken to any of the 11 supervisors before suspending Mirkarimi. Those statements have now become an issue in the board’s final vote.
Lee says his testimony was truthful. But former Board of Supervisors candidate and Building Inspection Commissioner Debra Walker claims otherwise. In a written declaration filed with the Board of Supervisors, Walker says Supervisor Christina Olague spoke with her several times about Lee seeking advice before the suspension.
And Walker alleges that once the perjury allegations were made, Olague left a phone message in which the supervisor said, “The conversation never happened.”
For her part, Olague has wavered between saying she never spoke with Walker and saying she could not remember. We find it troubling that Olague won’t definitively say whether she talked to the mayor before the suspension, given that she must now vote on whether Mirkarimi will reclaim his job.
Such a conversation, though normally common, would be inappropriate in this case because San Francisco’s supervisors will serve as the jurors who rule on Lee’s prosecution of Mirkarimi. And any such conversation would be most troubling in the case of Olague, given her close relationship with the mayor, who appointed her to fill Mirkarimi’s former District 5 seat, and is actively helping her raise funds for her re-election.
To make sure the supervisors are fair judges of whether Mirkarimi’s actions constitute official misconduct, his attorneys have proposed that every supervisor should sign a declaration stating that they did not talk to the mayor before the suspension. We agree, and call on any supervisors who refuse to sign such a declaration to recuse themselves from the vote.
Official misconduct is a tricky issue. The Ethics Commission ended up voting 4-1 that Mirkarimi committed such misconduct. Still, the suspended sheriff deserves a fair hearing from supervisors — one not clouded by even a perception of impropriety. It is not unreasonable to ask the supervisors to state that they did not discuss the case with the mayor before becoming jurors of their former peer.