San Mateo County's elected officials should be held publicly accountable for their actions.
That's the unanimous opinion of several area politicians interviewed in the wake of a San Mateo County Times investigation that found county officials did not hold San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks to account after he was detained by police last year at an illegal Las Vegas brothel.
"Everybody who's elected is held to a higher standard," San Mateo Mayor Carole Groom said. "I don't even want to get a parking ticket, quite frankly."
That's why she was "stunned" by the sheriff's trip to an illegal brothel, she said.
"It was troubling a year ago, and now that the media has brought it up, it's troubling all over again," Groom said. "I always had the highest regard for (Sheriff Munks), but I wish that he had addressed the (scandal) at the time, and I wish that he admitted it, and I wish that he had resigned."
But the sheriff didn't step down. Instead, he told voters that the illegal brothel appeared to be a legitimate massage parlor, he apologized for any embarrassment he may have caused the department or the county, and then he moved on.
The county's Board of Supervisors accepted the apology and did not investigate or censure the sheriff. Now, a year later, members of the board are attempting to address the accountability issue.
One supervisor has called for a change to the county charter that would allow the board to sanction or remove other elected officials from office for inappropriate behavior. Another has suggested the county form an ethics commission to advise the board when another elected official is suspected of wrongdoing.
More reforms to hold elected officials accountable would be good for the county, said Groom and the mayors of Millbrae, Redwood City and South San Francisco.
But is a charter amendment or an ethics commission the best solution to this problem? Not everyone is so sure.
"If the answer was easy, the issue would probably already be over," said Redwood City Mayor Roseanne Foust. "To be honest, the whole situation is incredibly awkward."
No doubt, that awkwardness has more to do with the salacious nature of the scandal than the need for governmental reform.
In the weeks since the San Mateo County Times revisited the sheriff's brothel scandal, the issue has once again begun to foment debate in the county. It has even affected the state Assembly campaign of Supervisor Jerry Hill, who had received some $4,800 from Munks and his wife before pledging to return the money after the articles ran in the Times.
Local media have published letters and editorials both praising the renewed focus on the Las Vegas scandal and blasting the return to a "sensational" topic that died in the press a year ago.
County residents have posted dozens of messages on various Web site forums, clamoring angrily for the sheriff's resignation and charging that the county's elected officials acted corruptly in neglecting the issue. Dozens more messages have popped up on these forums to defend the sheriff, suggesting that critics should get over the Las Vegas affair.
The department's five captains recently submitted a public statement of support for the sheriff in one of the online forums, calling for an end to the media scrutiny and defending Munks' leadership.
Meanwhile, the long-threatened effort to recall the sheriff appears unlikely.
Michael Stogner, the county resident who has vowed to bring down the sheriff for more than a year, recently told the Times he intends to "wait and see" how county government handles the reignited scandal.
As the county counsel's office researches permanent changes to county government, local officials are supportive but cautious.
"I don't want us to rush out now and create a bunch of laws that we're sorry we created," said Groom. "Whatever we create, we're going to have to do carefully and deliberately."
Change the laws or investigate?
The county is considering an amendment modeled after San Bernadino County's charter that allows its Board of Supervisors to remove any county officer, including other elected officials, with a four-fifths vote.
A similar charter provision exists in the San Francisco County charter. In Napa County, county officials have their own protocol for handling alleged misconduct by the sheriff.
Before San Mateo County supervisors consider changing the law, some county officials are calling for an investigation of Munks.
"This incident with the sheriff should be investigated before we change the charter," South San Francisco Mayor Pedro Gonzalez said. "It's good to have (a change to the charter), but first let's see if we're going to blame (Munks) or not."
Foust said the renewed focus on the Las Vegas incident presents as good a time as any to revisit the county's charter. But "to be honest," she said, "the whole situation is incredibly awkward. It's public, it's personal."
"I don't understand what happened a year ago," she said. "And I don't understand what's happening now."
That's why Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, have called on the Board of Supervisors to conduct a complete investigation of the Las Vegas brothel visit.
But the supervisors have yet to publicly acknowledge the scandal while in session with even a mention of the sheriff's name.
According to County Manager John Maltbie, "the board has made it real clear they're not intending to proceed with an investigation."
For Norm Heise, a Belmont resident and former member of the county's civil grand jury, the supervisors' initial inaction proves the body would be incapable of conducting a fair investigation.
Instead, the county's civil grand jury should probe the sheriff's trip and expand its investigation into "how the county's good-old-boy system was at work" in the board's lack of action, Heise said.
But another former civil grand juror, Dave Mandelkern of Hillsborough, said supervisors have an imperative to explore not only the sheriff's brothel visit but the efficacy of the entire department.
"The shocking part about all this last year was the closing of the ranks down at the county center and their treating it as a bad PR event, instead of looking at how the sheriff is running his operation," Mandelkern said.
Even public critics of the renewed attention to the brothel scandal acknowledge that the county must reform how its elected officials are currently held to answer.
Sue Lempert, a former mayor of San Mateo who dismissed the Times' coverage as "sensational" in an editorial published in the San Mateo Daily Journal, said county law restricts the public's ability to hold the sheriff and other elected officials responsible.
"Right now, who evaluates the sheriff? Who evaluates the DA? Who evaluates the coroner? Nobody. Just the electorate," Lempert said. "Do I think it's a bad idea? Yes, I do, because I don't think the electorate is in a good position to evaluate whether they're doing a good job."
The county's elected officials must answer to somebody, she said, especially when there are allegations of misconduct. And one opportunity every four-year election cycle doesn't cut it, Lempert said.
Does the scandal really matter?
The brass at the sheriff's office is less concerned with governmental reform than deputies' faith in their top cop. And despite evidence that members of the department's rank and file (interviewed by the Times on condition of anonymity) think the Las Vegas scandal has destroyed the sheriff's credibility, all of the department's captains publicly defend Munks.
According to a statement published in an online forum and signed by the department's five captains, the recent coverage of the Las Vegas scandal is "politically motivated" and the "public debate that surrounds a one-year-old event serves as a dangerous distraction for those of us who are sworn to protect the safety of our community."
Sgt. Jim Tanner, president of the sheriff's sergeants union, recently joined leaders of the deputies union in publicly supporting Munks. Citing the sheriff's successful lobbying of the supervisors for a new jail, the sergeant praised the sheriff for resilience under pressure in the face of scandal.
"He didn't crumble, he knew he was going to receive criticism and pressure, but he didn't let that sway him," Tanner said. "I'm not going to deny that our members were sitting here wondering what was going on last year, when everyone was in a daze. But we've been able to move forward and put this behind us."
Despite the online hue and cry from a handful of vocal county residents and pronouncements from politicians jockeying during an election season, some county residents just want to move on.
The return of the Las Vegas scandal may have generated a lot of chatter at the county center, but not one member of the public has spoken about the issue at a county board meeting. Aides for Supervisors Jerry Hill and Adrienne Tissier — the two officials who have called publicly on the county counsel to explore reforming county government — report that their offices have each received fewer than 10 e-mails on the scandal from concerned residents.
The indifference is reflected on the streets of San Mateo and Redwood City, where many county residents professed ignorance of the scandal and a handful of those familiar with the sheriff's troubles dismissed the issue altogether.
"If they're elected officials, they should be held to some higher code, I suppose, but we're all human," said Michael Gordon, 57, over lunch at Chipotle in downtown Redwood City.
On San Mateo's Bean Street, Arnie Montemagni, 65, said, "To hold the sheriff accountable to the nth degree is wrong, even though he is an elected official. Some people want to hang, fry and tie-dye everybody, but that's not right. People make mistakes."
Of course, some residents who are familiar with the scandal agreed that county officials should change how elected officials are held accountable.
"Especially if, like the sheriff, they are enforcing laws and in charge of what goes on with the rest of us," said Kelly York, a 41-year-old interpreter eating lunch at Le Boulanger in downtown Redwood City.
Dan Gilbrech, of San Mateo, who likes to have political discussions with his retired friends at San Mateo's Central Market, was very firm about his convictions.
"The sheriff and the undersheriff should have been canned or demoted," he told his friend, Mike Caggiano, over lunch. "These guys are at the top of their profession. They're law enforcement, and the laws of prostitution are real straightforward."
Caggiano was not so sure. These kinds of "sins of the flesh," he said, aren't so important in the long run. "Besides," he added, "I just think we should be reading other (news) stories that are more important."
But Gilbrech lifted his finger and raised his voice.
"Had it died down, (the scandal) would have never entered my mind again," he told his friend. "But since it was stirred up, a full investigation should be done to keep the integrity of the system."
Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at 650-348-4331 or email@example.com.