Sheriff Laurie Smith

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks at a past Rotary Club of Los Altos event.

Despite a furious rebuttal from Laurie Smith, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors went ahead Tuesday with a unanimous “no confidence” vote against the embattled Santa Clara County sheriff.

The move is symbolic – the board has no authority to remove a six-term sheriff who is elected by the voters. But supervisors, led by District 5 Supervisor Joe Simitian, drove the point home they didn’t trust Smith to properly run the office given years of problems at the main jail and questionable political behavior.

Adding to a resolution documenting a long list of allegations was a “friendly amendment” by Supervisor Otto Lee that called for supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office to work on a “succession plan” for Smith and suggested her “retirement.” Smith’s current term ends in December 2022. The addition took board president Mike Wasserman by surprise, but he joined the other four supervisors in allowing it attached to the main resolution. Smith objected to the added language, which she had just heard about for the first time and to which she felt unprepared to respond.

Leading the list of offenses are four high-profile incidents of jail staff negligence and abuse over the past six years, resulting in the death of one inmate and serious injuries to three others.

The 2015 beating death of Michael Tyree came at the hands of three correctional officers who were since tried and convicted. The county was sued and settled for $3.6 million. Two other life-altering injuries involved mental health patients at the jail – one prompting another lawsuit and a $10 million settlement. Another inmate, an informant, was severely beaten by incarcerated gang members at the jail last November, with delayed response by correctional officers. The incident went unreported for six months until picked up by local media.

Other allegations involve political favoritism, slow progress of jail reforms and lack of transparency from Smith and her office. Two highly publicized issues concerned the granting of concealed weapons permits to campaign donors and promotion of a former correctional lieutenant who led a correctional officers association supporting Smith’s re-election. The Tyree case led to 623 recommendations for reform from a blue ribbon commission and millions of dollars spent with little or no impact, according to Simitian.

Lee’s eleventh-hour resolution said it was “time for change at the office of the sheriff,” and noted that Smith was eligible to retire at the end of 2020 after 48 years with the department. It called for a “a well-planned transition (that will) minimize interruptions, animosity, and enhance the continual building of relationships and instill trust between county residents and our public safety officers.”

Smith counters allegations

Smith railed against supervisors’ actions, labeling many of the allegations as inaccurate and referring to Simitian in particular as a bully. She suggested her critics did not understand her job, nor did they “look in the mirror” at their own issues.

On inmates and mental health, she faulted supervisors for ignoring the problem despite her raising it “many times,” and recommended taking the $390 million earmarked for a new jail and spending it instead on a “meaningful” psychiatric hospital.

“Let’s find a solution, not point fingers and blame,” she said. “And if you want to point fingers and blame, look inward also.”

Simitian said he was offended that Smith used the issue of mental health as part of her attempt to “divert, deflect and deny responsibility.” Smith, first elected in 1998, has been in charge of the jails since 2010.

“It is not a mental health issue that three people have already pled guilty to participating in a contributions-for-gun-permits scheme,” Simitian began, rattling off a list of infractions covered in the resolution.

In a separate interview Monday with the Town Crier, Simitian, whose District 5 includes Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View, outlined the purpose behind the supervisors’ latest action.

“We have relatively few tools we can use to address the misconduct of a publicly elected official,” he said. “This is one of them. … It’s important that we not allow this kind of conduct to become normalized or deemed acceptable.”

The supervisors’ no-confidence vote comes on the heels of an Aug. 17 referral that the board approved, calling for various local, state and federal agencies to look into the host of allegations against the sheriff. It also comes amid San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s recent call for Smith to resign.