The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Council agreed at a meeting Wednesday morning to settle a lawsuit filed by four of its former presidents that could result in fiscal transparency of the non-profit organization and force it to undergo an external audit.
At the meeting, which was presided over by a newly inaugurated Sheriff Bill Brown, the council settled the lawsuit, which was filed by former Presidents Alan Cavaletto, Dale Grimm, Charles Pira and James Petrovich against current President Helen Jepsen. The suit, which has been pending since 2005, was dismissed yesterday after a string of board member resignations, most recently that of Treasurer Joe Sheaff.
The Sheriff’s Council, a non-profit organization independent of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, serves to raise money for gear such as bullet-proof vests and search-and-rescue helicopters for the department. Since the council’s inception in 1993, they have raised over $5 million to supply the department with equipment.
The council once included more than 100 members, but in the past year, the member numbers have dwindled down to less than 20 people.
Corruption within the council was pointed out after a forensic audit of the Sheriff’s Council in April 2006, which concluded that in 2004 a paid employee of the council became a check signer without the authorization of the Board or council by-laws. The audit also showed a lack of documentation for the appointment of a chairperson in 2005.
Additionally, there has been debate within the council regarding the mounting legal fees Jepsen has accrued over the past few months, which have grown to more than $300,000.
Sheriff Brown said he went into Wednesday’s meeting without any preconceived notions regarding the council or the lawsuit, and said that he spoke to the members candidly to try to resolve the issues that have been so detrimental to the council. After the meeting, Brown said he was pleased that the Council has decided to settle.
“I feel this is a positive step for the Sheriff’s Council organization,” Brown said. “The overwhelming sentiment at the meeting was the desire for their organization to move forward and get back to the business of fund raising and providing for increased public safety.”
Despite Brown’s optimism regarding the settlement, a number of members expressed their concerns about the council’s future. Council Administrator Darice Yee said 14 board members resigned since the council’s last meeting in December.
Yee said Sheaff resigned because he grew frustrated with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She said Sheaff and other council members had hoped the plaintiffs would resign from the council so that the organization could move past the issue. Yee also said the high sum of Jepsen’s legal bills, which the council is obligated to assume responsibility for, are negatively affecting the council.
“After paying this month’s bills, we will be left with a minimal amount of money and very few members,” Yee said.
Sgt. Erik Raney, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said despite the controversy surrounding the Sheriff’s Council, it is important that the organization move forward.
“We have an interest in seeing that organization stay healthy because the good work they do directly benefits the Sheriff’s Department and in turn the public,” Raney said.