The ACLU of Northern California and First Amendment Coalition are suing the City of Fresno for allegedly violating state transparency laws in connection with the city’s budget - a question first raised in a Fresnoland investigation earlier this year. File photo by Omar Rashad | Fresnoland

What's at stake?

The political fight centers around the election cycles for the sheriff and district attorney in Fresno County.

The clash over the election of Fresno County’s top cops ratcheted up this week after the Fresno city attorney asked the state attorney general to step into the fray.

On Monday, Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz asked Attorney General Rob Bonta to pressure leaders to drop plans asking voters to change the Fresno County charter during the upcoming March primary election.

“If your office concludes that Fresno County’s ordinance violates state law,” Janz wrote, “the City of Fresno urges your legal team to enjoin Fresno County from holding a referendum on this matter.”

The budding fight between city and county politicians in Fresno centers around the election cycles for the sheriff and district attorney.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 759, which required most – but not all – of California’s 58 counties to move their law enforcement election to the presidential cycle.

To move in line with the new law, Sheriff John Zanoni and District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp are currently serving six-year terms instead of the typical four. Both Zanoni and Smittcamp have criticized the new law, which they said added two years to their current terms without approval from voters.

Supporters – and now the City of Fresno – argue that voter turnout is highest during presidential elections, so moving the highly influential races gives more voters a chance to weigh in.

“The legislative record reveals the authors of AB 759 were concerned that because District Attorneys and Sheriffs wield such immense power, those elections should occur during election cycles where turnout is highest,” wrote Janz, a former prosecutor and politician.

Critics of the law call it a Democratic Party effort to tip the scales against California Republicans. The California Sheriff’s Association opposed the law.

Changing Fresno County charter on March ballot – at least for now

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

Fresno city leaders want Bonta to step in and prevent the issue from reaching the upcoming ballot in March.

“Fresno County District Attorney and Sheriff elections have a profound impact on public safety; a pivotal issue for the City of Fresno and its residents,” Janz wrote. “These elections must occur, in accordance with the law, when voter participation is at its peak.”

Fresno County’s attorney fired back in a response letter published late Monday, arguing the new law infringes on the constitutionally protected rights of California charter counties.

“It is unfortunate that the City Attorney, and apparently, the City Council, have elected to attempt to obstruct this choice by the voters based on a faulty understanding of the Charter powers granted to a charter county,” Fresno County counsel Daniel Cederborg wrote.

County officials argue that California law gives charter counties the authority to control when the elections of the district attorney and sheriff occur, regardless of the new law.

Cederborg also noted the state Legislature failed to resolve that specific issue when implementing AB 759.

The analysis conducted by the state Assembly’s Committee on Elections also noted the question, concluding that it was “unclear whether the provisions of this bill can be made applicable to charter counties — especially those whose charters conflict with this bill.”

“It could be argued that this bill, by prescribing the election at which county officers must be elected, conflicts with a charter county’s authority to provide for the terms of elected county officers,” the elections committee analysis noted.

Cederborg’s letter appeared to question the motives behind the Democratic Party’s push to change California law enforcement elections.

“It is clear that certain state-wide political interests, including those aligned with the Attorney General, favor having those two local officials elected in the Presidential election cycle,” Cederborg wrote “Very good arguments, however, support keeping the election of local officials in the same cycle as the Governor.”

Cederborg said mid-term voters are “better able to focus on the local issues,” and candidates don’t have to compete as much for attention.

“By the reasoning in the City Attorney’s letter, all State offices should be placed in the same year as the Presidential election,” Cederborg wrote. “But of course, the political interests in Sacramento do not want to do that.

‘The City’s attempt to gain the assistance of the Attorney General to obstruct the rightful exercise of those Charter rights by the people of the County of Fresno,” Cederborg wrote, “can only be viewed as a misguided political ploy.”

The California Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voters will be asked to change the Fresno County charter during the March 5, 2024, primary election.

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