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Analysis: Pressure on Progressive Supes in Mirkarimi Removal Process

| March 22, 2012
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Ross Mirkarimi after his Mar 19 sentencing (Mina Kim/KQED)

The city’s Ethics Commission is expected to begin hearings on the suspension and possible removal of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, submitted by Mayor Ed Lee, next month.  The proceedings will not only be open to public comment but they’ll also be televised, you’ll be happy to know.

The commission will use the proceedings to decide whether to pass the case on to the Board of Supervisors, who will then determine whether to oust the sheriff from office. But that will only happen if  nine of  11 supervisors vote for removal.

The charges against Mirkarimi stem from his pleading guilty to charges of false imprisonment connected to a New Year’s Eve fight with his wife, Eliana Lopez.

Both University of San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook and Golden Gate University Law School Professor Peter Keane, frequent observers of the city’s political scene, say an amended city charter has made it much easier for Mayor Ed Lee to bring misconduct charges against Mirkarimi, as its definition of “wrongful behavior”  is now broad. The applicable section reads…

Official misconduct means any wrongful behavior by a public officer in relation to the duties of his or her office, willful in its character, including any failure, refusal or neglect of an officer to perform any duty enjoined on him or her by law, or conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers and including any violation of a specific conflict of interest or governmental ethics law.

When any City law provides that a violation of the law constitutes or is deemed official misconduct, the conduct is covered by this definition and may subject the person to discipline and/or removal from office.

Keane says such a liberal definition of misconduct will not work to Mirkarimi’s advantage in trying to defend himself. “I think Mirkarimi will have a tough time trying to narrow that down, in terms of a defense that his activities did not constitute official misconduct,” he said on KQED Public Radio’s Forum show this week.

Both Cook and Keane say gray areas in the process remain, despite the  charter amendment. “It’s not certain to me in reading the charter that the ethics commission will be required to vote on the matter, or whether a positive vote is necessary for this to go to the board of supervisors,” Cook told KQED’s Cy Musiker.

“The first thing that has to be done by the Ethics Commission is to determine what their procedures will be,” said Keane. “The last time this was done, in 1976, it was under a totally different set of rules. That’s when Airport Commissioner Joe Mazzola was removed by Mayor George Moscone. It was run just like a trial and it turned out to be a circus. I think the commissioners will try to set some sort of procedures so it doesn’t deteriorate into something like that. If the committee wants to really cut to the chase and avoid a lot of proceedings, what they could do is put in evidence the record of conviction for false imprisonment that Mirkarimi pled guilty to and make a finding that the plea in itself amounts to the kind of conduct that falls below the standards of ‘decency and good faith and right action.’ That would be a quick and easy procedure in going forward.”

The five commissioners on the board are:

  • Beverly Hayon, Commissioner, appointed by the mayor
  • Benedict Hur, Chair, appointed by the assessor
  • Dorothy Liu, Commissioner, appointed by the board of supervisors
  • Paul Renne, Commissioner, appointed by the district attorney
  • Jamienne Studley, Vice Chair, appointed by the city attorney

After the commission holds a hearing, it’s required to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. The supes, said Cook,  will be in a difficult position.

“Mirkarimi has a lot of political and personal allies on the board. This will pose a challenge to other progressives like Mirkarimi, who is the only progressive citywide elected leader. They’ll be under a lot of pressure from constituents who are both angered by the charges and others who want to keep him around.

“This is a no-win politically. The allegations are very strong and disturbing to anyone who lives in the city. It’s hard for progressives on the board to try to defend that behavior. Do they try to make the argument that these don’t rise to the standard of official misconduct? And how much political capital are they willing to expend?”

Keane agrees the circumstances surrounding the case will not help the now-suspended sheriff. “San Francisco is a place that has tremendous consciousness and sympathy toward victims of domestic abuse, as opposed to maybe some other areas of the country where it’s seen as a family or private matter. The empathy for domestic violence victims has been part of the furor that has resulted in Mirkarimi’s being brought to where he is now.”

Cook thinks Mirkarimi’s former colleagues will try to avoid a moment of truth. “There will be a lot of pressure on Mirkarimi to resign so it doesn’t come to a vote,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who want to avoid relitigating this in the public eye. I think there are a lot of details that will be embarrassing for the city let alone for Mirkarimi.”

Whatever the case against Mirkarimi, getting to nine votes on the board may be a tall order.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Cook.

“That’s going to be difficult,” said Keane.

Yet, as Melissa Griffin writes in the Examiner today, “progressive supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu, Eric Mar and Christina Olague will each be defending their seats this November.” Anti-domestic violence advocates have made it clear time and again they intend on seeing the Mirkarimi case through to what they feel should be a natural conclusion of his removal from office; they’re sure to put the pressure on those up for reelection as the process moves forward. And in what can’t be a good sign for Mirkarimi, former supervisor, fellow prog, and Democratic County Central Committee Chair Aaron Peskin called on him to resign this week.

A KCBS poll released Wednesday found that 72 percent of respondents think Mirkarimi should resign, and 67 percent think he should be removed if he won’t go voluntarily. When those figures were cited by a reporter to Mirkarimi at a Q&A this week, he said, “I haven’t really had a chance to tell my story…”

He may get his chance — in official proceedings — soon.

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Category: Law and Justice, Politics

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