Voters in March will be asked to change Fresno County's charter in a battle over law enforcement elections with potential statewide implications. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez / Fresnoland

What's at stake:

Voters in March will be asked to change Fresno County's charter in a battle over law enforcement elections with potential statewide implications.

An effort to change the Fresno County charter prompted criticism and anger Tuesday from at least one Fresno city council member who said he’s considering legal action.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday morning, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution asking local voters to change the county charter and return the sheriff and district attorney to the gubernatorial election cycle.

The move comes in response to a recently adopted California law requiring most – but not all – counties to move the elections of the top local law enforcement offices to the presidential cycle.

Supporters of the new law said the highly influential law enforcement races should be conducted on the presidential cycle because that’s when voter turnout is greatest. Critics, including many in law enforcement, blasted the move as a Democratic Party effort to further tip the scales against California Republicans.

To move in line with the new law, Sheriff John Zanoni and District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp are currently serving six-year terms instead of four. Both terms would revert to four years after 2028, under the new law.

Zanoni and Smittcamp have both signaled support for challenging the term-limit extensions.

Supervisor Steve Brandau introduced the county resolution challenging the new election law.

“For me, this is another in a long line of things that Sacramento has done to remove local control,” Brandau said before the vote Tuesday, “and I think that is happening again, by messing with us in our elections.”

County officials objected to the temporary term-limit extensions, which they said came after those elections had already been certified. They also argued that the new law violates the California Constitution by infringing on the rights of charter counties, like Fresno.

Brandau said that, in addition to local control issues, returning the law enforcement races to the gubernatorial cycle allows local voters to “hyper focus” on those races.

The issue will go before Fresno County voters on the March 5, 2024, primary election.

Arias ‘weighing all options’ to challenge county charter vote

The issue is likely to wind up in court.

Shortly after the supervisor’s vote on Tuesday, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias criticized the move.

“I’m weighing all options, including legal options,” Arias told Fresnoland in a telephone interview.

Brandau could not immediately be reached for comment.

A legal memo prepared Monday by Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz questioned the legality of the supervisors’ challenge.

“With this hastily action the Board of Supervisors is asking voters to violate State law and tax payers to pick up the legal bills it would generate,” Arias said. “Those public resources could be better spent on housing and mental health services to thousands of homeless residents.”

Arias called it a “power grab” by the conservative-leaning Board of Supervisors that would have consequences for all Fresno residents.

He also noted the March election is a primary, which has traditionally seen the lowest turnout in Fresno County.

“If they wanted to have a robust debate about this issue,” Arias continued, “they’d put it on (the general election) ballot when the vast majority of Fresno voters are most engaged.”

Fresnoland’s Gregory Weaver contributed to this report.

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