Six Santa Clara County IT employees faced an impossible choice today. Report to a new temporary assignment on orders of County Executive Jeff Smith and forgo work on critical police data systems? Or report to their usual duty on orders of Sheriff Laurie Smith and risk losing their jobs?
They had until 9 this morning to decide.
Union reps, management and the anxiety-wracked employees who became pawns in this power-play spent the time leading up to the hour in closed-door meetings. Apparently, the deadline came and went with the IT staffers still at the sheriff’s HQ.
The dispute—the latest sign of ongoing tension between the county CEO and the sheriff over jail management—transpired this past week in a series of dueling memos.
Jeff Smith sent the first one on Feb. 20 to say he’s invoking executive power to temporarily transfer nine non-sworn positions—five employees, one extra-help and three vacancies—from the sheriff’s Department of Correction to the county’s Technology Services and Solutions Department. He called the move necessary to help implement a new but long-planned digital management system for the two jails.
Sheriff Smith followed up two days later with a directive contradicting the county exec’s. In it, she argued that losing those staffers would prevent her from fulfilling her constitutional obligation to protect the public. She called their work vital to supporting the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which provides information on missing people and fugitives, among other things.
“As the appointing authority for all sheriff’s office personnel, I am instructing you not to leave your assigned posts or duties here at the sheriff’s office,” she wrote. “You are to continue with your continued daily operations and reporting structure here at the sheriff’s office so that law enforcement functions and public safety operations will not be disrupted, which would put our deputies, local peace officers and the public at risk.”
It appears that the impacted employees also urged their unions—SEIU Local 521 and CEMA—to intervene. In a letter dated today, they ask county officials to press pause on their reassignment until they clarifies the rationale for this change of course.
“As our job and careers are directly impacted with imminent insubordination either way, we would like to request an immediate meeting with the CEO, the sheriff, county counsel, CEMA, and SEIU, to understand and clarify the situation and what is expected from us,” they wrote in their plea, which was also forwarded to the Board of Supervisors.
In her memo sent Friday afternoon, Sheriff Smith echoed those concerns. “The county executive’s memo also does not provide evidence to support an exigency that such a move is necessary without prior notice or a chance to plan or meet and confer,” she stated.
Some hours later that evening, the county exec fired back.
He ordered the employees caught in the crosshairs to report at 9am today to county IT Director Dan Baldree at 990 N. First St. in San Jose, which happens to lie on the corner just opposite the sheriff’s hub at 55 West Younger Ave. (By the way, it’s unclear why the Feb. 22 email pictured above includes a Jan. 3 dateline over his email signature.)
Ignoring his command, he warned, could amount to insubordination.
CEO Smith said his memo to reassign staff came after a year of trying to get the sheriff to prioritize a vital jail software update. The county’s top bureaucrat said he resorted to issuing last week’s orders only because the sheriff refused to cooperate.
“It’s disappointing that the sheriff decided to intervene because she had no legal authority to do so,” Jeff Smith told San Jose Inside in a phone call this afternoon. “It’s pretty clear from the county charter that the executive has the authority to assign individuals to accomplish certain projects … and the sheriff has obstructed and delayed this project for more than a year now.”
Jeff Smith called it “pretty typical” of the six-term sheriff.
“She’s been obstructing the [jail management] system, she’s been publicly criticizing the DA for his charging decisions, she threatened to sue an external auditor and now she’s obstructing these reassignment conditions,” Jeff Smith said. “So she’s taking a really unreasonable, irresponsible approach to doing her job.”
He added: “I think she believes she runs the Independent Republic of Younger Avenue.”
Sheriff Smith has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the IT folks already picked a side and it may cost them. A union member told SJI that it’s up to the Board of Supes or the court to decide which Smith is right.
As for Jeff Smith, he said he’ll talk with the people involved to clarify what comes next.
“With reassignments, there’s usually no need to do meetings with union reps,” he said. “But since the sheriff has decided to take this stance, that’s what we have to do.”
This article has been updated with comments from the county executive.