Board of Supervisors provided feedback on plan, which will come back at a future board meeting
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors considered establishing a compliance program for individuals and businesses who aren’t following the current state health order during its special board meeting on July 23. The presentation to the county supervisors was largely a framework, with ideas being presented to the board for feedback. A more concrete view of an enforcement plan will be presented to the supervisors during their Aug. 6 meeting.
The “enhanced compliance program” presented to the supervisors includes three points: enhanced education and outreach; administrative citation and civil penalty ordinance; and compliance hotline and team staffing.
Going into the meeting, county staff presented a plan that would have individuals fined $100 for not complying with the state health order, and businesses fined $1,000. When asked to explain the reasoning behind the set fines, county staff said that the amounts were set when looking through a lens of “equity and uniformity,” taking into account both the current economic situation and wanting to limit the amount of discretion those issuing the citations would have, which would be a factor if the county’s fines were established on a sliding scale.
Nearby, other counties that have issued citations relating to the state health order have done so on a sliding scale that depends on the degree of the noncompliance, as well as if someone is cited more than once.
The direction between the board was split with Supervisors Lynda Hopkins, James Gore and Susan Gorin initially supporting the enforcement model presented by county staff, and Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane wanting the county to explore a citation model that exists on a sliding scale on the commercial side. Gorin, though she initially voiced support for having a flat citation amount for both individuals and businesses, said that she’s also interested in county staff presenting guidelines for a commercial sliding scale.
Rabbitt favored a sliding scale for commercial businesses that ranges from $500 to $10,000 depending on severity of noncompliance.
“It depends how in the weeds we want to get in terms of being out there. If it’s something that was not enforced within a business that was missed by someone, to me it would be like a $500 fine and if it’s an integral part in the way they want to go about doing business in turning their back on science, that’s a $10,000 fine. I think it’s really dependent upon the action that you’re trying to stop with the citation you’re handing out,” Rabbitt said.
Gorin said that she would be concerned about what allowing discretion would lead to, including how individual enforcers would interpret guidelines set forth about how much to fine a commercial business. She noted, however, that she wants staff to “chew on” what Rabbitt and Zane suggested.
“We may need, especially in this environment, a little more discretion with businesses. I’m quite puzzled to figure out what that criteria might be that would lead to a discretionary permit of $500 verus $1,000 versus $2,500,” Gorin said. “I’m comfortable with a sliding scale, but I want to know what kind of criteria would be used to establish a sliding scale, because I think it’s going to put our enforcement team in a really difficult position unless they understand that criteria.”
Rabbitt noted that while some businesses will consider a $1,000 fine before continuing to go against health order, he thinks presenting the citations on a sliding scale will be more impactful.
“At the end of the day for me, it’s about putting the fear of God in someone, saying ‘Hey, you could be fined up to $10,000 if you purposely violate this health order as a business.’ I’m fine with that and I think that actually has more teeth and will get us where we want to go quicker,” he said.
Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said that county staff will bring back a set of guidelines that could be used for sliding-scale enforcement of the health order.
Zane said that the missing piece for her in the plan seems to be how Permit Sonoma is working and communicating with law enforcement on how the enforcement model will work.
Wick assured her that Permit Sonoma is working with both the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs’ Association to establish protocol for officer enforcement.
During deliberation between the supervisors, Hopkins requested that city staff also come forward with a plan to proactively address compliance with the health order that goes beyond fining people. Hopkins floated the idea of the county engaging in something similar to what Sebastopol’s city council has done, where officers carry masks with Sebastopol’s logo with them and give them to folks in public places that aren’t masked.
Hopkins said that by having a strike team of people randomly go out to gathering areas in the county and monitor for people wearing masks, and reminding maskless people to wear them, people may be more likely to comply.
“It becomes less neighbor ratting out neighbor,” she said.
Marketing the enforcement methods
The board directed the county’s communications manager, Paul Gullixson, to focus on “proactive messaging” and community education on the new fine structure, once it’s adopted. Gullixson proposed a $76,800 marketing campaign, titled “Safe Sonoma Summer” geared toward addressing public awareness of the compliance program and related COVID-19 information.
One point of emphasis for Gore was how to market COVID-19 virus and enforcement information to members of the county’s Latinx community. Gore noted that a lot of county communication seems to be simply translated into Spanish from English, rather than there being separate written or audio copy that may resonate better with people.
A larger question posed by the supervisors was how to capture people who may be missed in the county’s current messaging.
“I think that is the key question,” Gullixson said. “The problem is that we have often just taken what we’ve done before and just translated it in Spanish and sent it out on the same avenues, the same platforms. I think the impact of that is fairly limited and I think we are strategizing now with the help of our community partners about how we can better connect with particularly our Spanish-speaking constituents. I think that we’re finding that we really need to be on the ground and be in-person as much as possible. We need to be doing door hangers, we need to be setting tables up in front of grocery stores and handing out flyers in front of church services.”
Establishing a hotline
Along with the county potentially establishing a fine-based enforcement program is the need for a hotline where people could report individuals or businesses going against the health order.
Wick proposed establishing a county compliance hotline, which would be a dedicated number that would serve as the start of the code enforcement process.
“The inspection staff would receive the complaint … and then, just as we do with other complaints where we work with the Sheriff and the district attorney’s office, as we help build the case … all of the information shifts over to the Sheriff’s office,” Wick said.
To staff the hotline, Wick requested a total of five new staff — three code enforcement officers and two administrative staff — which would cost $350,000-$450,000.
Zane questioned if the staff could be found elsewhere in departments that could lend a hand, such as the county district attorney’s office and welfare fraud investigators.
County Administrator Cheryl Bratton said that additional funds would still need to be used for welfare fraud investigators, since they’re currently paid with state funds, and that using investigators from the district attorney’s office would involve having union discussions thart could prolong the process.