FRESNO COUNTY – The Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board) and Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz are at odds over when Fresno County District Attorney Lori Smittcamp and Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni should be up for re-election, with each camp claiming the law is on its side.
At issue is Assembly Bill (AB) 759 versus the authority of charter counties, like Fresno County, to determine when local elections occur.
AB 759 went into effect Jan. 1. According to the bill, elections for district attorneys (DA’s) and sheriffs must be held during presidential election years, when voter turnout is highest. The bill made allowances for DA’s and sheriffs, like Smittcamp and Zanoni, who were elected in 2022; these were granted two-year extensions to their four-year terms.
The Board challenged AB 759 on the basis that the California Constitution grants charter counties the authority to regulate the affairs of county business, including voting cycles.
The Board drafted a resolution that will go before county voters on the March 5, 2024 presidential primary election. The resolution which, if passed, will amend the Fresno County Charter, and claims AB 759 is unconstitutional because it extended the terms of the district attorney and the sheriff to six years, rather than four, without legal basis or voter approval.
According to the resolution, the amendment to the charter would establish election dates for the district attorney and sheriff in gubernatorial and non-presidential election years.
However, Janz argued that Fresno County lacks the authority to change election cycles because the county failed to specify in its charter the election dates for the district attorney and sheriff, as mandated by AB 759.
According to the bill, DA’s and sheriffs, in both general law and charter counties, will be elected in presidential election years unless a charter county specifies an election date on or before Jan. 1, 2021.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Attorney General Rob Bonta, in which he argued that the Board’s resolution violated AB 759, Janz said, “Fresno County is a charter county that did not expressly specify prior to Jan. 1, 2021, when its District Attorney and Sheriff races would occur.”
In his letter, Janz said, “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. These elections must occur, in accordance with the law, when voter participation is at its peak.”
Daniel C. Cederborg, county counsel, disagreed with Janz’s argument, countering that charter counties maintain authority regardless of AB 759’s deadline.
In an Oct. 9 press release rebutting Janz’s claims, Cederborg argued that the California Constitution grants charter counties the authority to follow their own law with respect to municipal affairs. He said, “But the Constitutional power granted to charter counties is not a mere question of ‘first come, first serve.’”
Cederberg referred to Article XI of the California Constitution, which includes a subsection that reads, “Whenever any county has framed and adopted a charter…the general laws adopted by the Legislature in pursuance of Section 1(b) of this article, shall, as to such county, be superseded by said charter…”
LOCAL CONTROL AND POLITICS
Dr. Lisa Bryant is the chair of the political science department at Fresno State. Bryant confirmed that AB 759 is unambiguous. District attorney and sheriff elections will be held in presidential election cycles – except for those candidates elected in 2022. AB 759 specified that these individuals would enjoy six-year terms instead of having to run again in the November 2024 general election.
Bryant believes the issue comes down to local control, timing and voter turnout.
“The biggest issue is that Fresno County is challenging the state for the right to exercise local control because they are a charter county,” Bryant said. “Charter counties generally have local control over setting their rules around many local elections and local issues.”
Bryan said politics plays a role when determining election cycles.
“There are some partisan and electoral context factors that would play a role in having an election in a gubernatorial versus presidential election year,” she said.
Gubernatorial election years benefit Republicans because Republican turnout is more reliable. Bryant said midterm election cycles could be a benefit to non-incumbents because it is easier for challengers to build name recognition.
Of course, presidential election cycles are dominated by presidential candidates, which can hurt unknown candidates.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
This resolution is the second such action taken by the BOS to wrest control from the state over local issues. Last month, Supervisor Nathan Magsig submitted – and the BOS approved – a resolution to amend the county charter to give the BOS the authority over renaming unincorporated geographical locations in the county.
The decision by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of “Squaw Valley” to “Yokuts Valley” on U.S. Geological survey maps. Voters will decide the issue in the March 5, 2024 election.