Brown says Lee shouldn't have taken Mirkarimi's pay away

Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

As Mayor Ed Lee continues to duck questions about why he suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi without pay or due process, even former Mayor Willie Brown – who helped elevate Lee into Room 200 – is second-guessing the decision and its legality.

In his Willie's World column in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, entitled “Ross Mirkarimi needs cash in struggle to keep his job,” Brown wrote, “And on the salary point, I agree with Mirkarimi: He should not be suspended without pay. He should continue to get paid unless and until he ultimately is found guilty of misconduct by the Board of Supervisors.”

The issue isn't just one of fairness or of Lee trying to coerce Mirkarimi into resigning to avoid city hearings that will determine whether grabbing his wife's arm during a New Year's Eve conflict constitutes official misconduct, as Lee charges. It's also a specific legal issue, particularly to lawyers like Brown.

Mirkarimi's attorney, David Waggoner, said it's not surprising to see Brown publicly undercutting the mayor on this issue. “He's simply stating what the applicable law is on the subject,” Waggoner told us. In this case, it was the Supreme Court, hearing the case Skelly v. State Personnel Board in 1975, that said an executive can't just unilaterally take away someone's livelihood.

“If you're going to fire public employees, you have to give them notice, you have to let them respond, you need to observe due process,” Waggoner said.

That's one of three causes of action that Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn will consider in a hearing set for April 18 at 9:30 am, where Mirkarimi is asking the courts to reinstate him and restore his salary pending hearings before the Ethics Commission and Board of Supervisors that could take months.

Given the pressure being applied by anti-domestic violence groups and many mainstream media voices, Lee may have felt like he had to remove Mirkarimi and that he could just blame supervisors or the process if it didn't work. But if the courts find Lee acted illegally while attempting to put supervisors in such an untenable position, it could be a serious blow to Lee's reputation and governing authority.

UPDATE 5 PM: I also placed a call on the issue to former Mayor Art Agnos, who just back to me and he agreed that Lee acted in a way that was unfair and probably illegal. "I think it's heavy-handed," said Agnos, who has been supporting Mirkarimi through the ordeal.

Agnos noted that former Sheriff Richard Hongisto served several days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to carry out the evictions of International Hotel tenants, and he never had his pay docked or faced official misconduct charges. "And here, we see the sheriff being charged with something that occurred before he even took office, and it's a low-grade misdemeanor that he accepted a plea deal on."

According to Agnos, Mirkarimi told him that during his brief conversation with the mayor, he offered to tell his side of the story and have Lee talk to his wife, Eliana Lopez, as well, but the mayor wasn't interested. "When you're the mayor, you like to hear both sides before making a decision," Agnos said. "But Lee wasn't interested."