After almost 25 years serving as Santa Clara County sheriff and many unsuccessful attempts to defeat her at the ballot box, Laurie Smith is finally on her way out.
By fluke of timing, a jury is currently hearing the civil case of misconduct and perjury against her, while voters will be deciding which of two candidates with almost identical last names can best restore public confidence and employee morale in this important law enforcement agency.
Former Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen, 59, promotes himself as the outsider who can bring needed reforms to the sheriff's department. He served as police chief in Menlo Park for five years until being hired by Palo Alto four years ago, resigning this summer to run for sheriff. Prior to moving to Menlo Park, Jonsen was a captain with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department overseeing Lancaster, a low-income community where there has been much controversy over police misconduct before, during and after Jonsen's tenure.
Jonsen is facing former Santa Clara County sheriff's captain Kevin Jensen, 58, who left the department in 2013 fed up with Smith's leadership and ran against her unsuccessfully in 2014. For the last 12 years he has publicly worked to expose her dysfunctional management. Since leaving the department, Jensen has been consulting and teaching for police departments, including conducting ethics training to new recruits and managers at other agencies. Although much of the command staff has turned over since he worked there, he says he has maintained his contacts with those who remain and will be able to quickly assemble a team that is eager to reform the department and jail operations and put an end to the oppressive and autocratic leadership style of Sheriff Smith.
Jensen has the overwhelming support of law enforcement and other labor organizations and PACs and has received more than $700,000 in direct and indirect support, according to campaign finance reports released at the end of September. Jonsen, on the other hand, has had to rely mostly on individual donations. His campaign has directly raised roughly half of the $240,000 of Jensen's campaign.
It is concerning, but not surprising, that the unions would prefer the candidate who came up through the ranks and is thoroughly familiar with the controversies that Smith created and the angst it created for most rank and file deputies.
As we did in the primary in June, we recommend Kevin Jensen as the better choice. While not as good a talker or self-promoter as Jonsen, we think the task of fixing the problems Smith is leaving behind is urgent. Changes in personnel and management practices can't wait for the time it will take Jonsen to learn the complexities of both the county jail operation and the sheriff's office and earn the trust and confidence of the unions.
We also are troubled by some of Jonsen's campaign rhetoric. For example, he declared that he was "the only Democrat in the race" (Jensen says he is an independent) but declined to explain its relevance in a nonpartisan election or why he made the statement. He touted that he had been endorsed by elected officials in 87% of the cities in the county, leading a voter to think he meant that 87% of the elected officials were supporting him over Jensen. In reality, he simply has at least one elected official in 13 of the 15 cities in the county endorsing him, hardly a persuasive statistic. (Voters should take note that Jonsen's predecessor as Palo Alto police chief, Dennis Burns, has endorsed Jensen, pointing to his honesty, integrity and ethical leadership.)
And Jonsen has repeatedly described Jensen as "retired," even though he is not retired and operates his own consulting business.
Jonsen has presented himself in this race as an innovative police reformer who embraces public accountability, oversight and transparency. But that is not the record he built as chief in Palo Alto. He chose to eliminate the department's public information position, blocked the media from accessing his command staff to obtain information on criminal incidents and required reporters to submit questions through an online form, unilaterally encrypted all radio communications, delayed responding to public records requests and made no effort to publicize what he now says were public meetings of his citizens advisory committee.
Jonsen and Jensen are both experienced law enforcement veterans and either could competently run the jail and sheriff's department. But these operations urgently need effective new leadership, and Jensen's history with both, along with the support he's received from the unions, best equips him to regain the trust of the 1,700 employees and the public. By contrast, it could take months, if not years, for Jonsen to learn the complexities of the operation and build needed new relationships.
The next sheriff will face a monumental challenge to improve transparency, accountability and communication after Smith's years of mismanagement. Jensen is the best qualified candidate to make that happen.