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Did sheriff have right to remove chief unilaterally?
sheriff pat
In this screenshot of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, Sheriff Pat Withrow delivers his monthly address for July, telling viewers he recently tested positive for COVID-19.

This morning, San Joaquin County Sheriff Pat Withrow is expected to ask the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to terminate the police contract between the sheriff’s office and the City of Lathrop.

And, as expected, the City of Lathrop has some thoughts about that.

In a letter written to Board Chairman Tom Patti, Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal – representing the Lathrop City Council – is requesting that the board deny Withrow’s request and ask him to stop pulling services that are detailed in the contract.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet this morning at 9 a.m. inside of their chambers at the San Joaquin County Administrative Building – located at 44 N. San Joaquin Street in Downtown Stockton.

While the spat between Lathrop and Withrow has been building for some time, the decision earlier this month to pull Police Chief Ryan Biedermann from his assignment in Lathrop and bring him back to the Sheriff’s Office in French Camp – which was announced through an email sent only to the members of the city council – was seen by many in Lathrop as an escalation of tensions.

Withrow has claimed that Lathrop hasn’t been paying its portion of the contract, but Dhaliwal spells out in his letter how Lathrop has been paying between $500,000 and $600,000 every month for contracted policing services – withholding only the amount that Lathrop feels legally they should not be liable for.

As Lathrop’s City Attorney continues to work with the County Counsel’s Office to resolve that dispute, the ongoing rhetoric from Withrow coupled with his decision to pull Biedermann from Lathrop has caused concern among the council.

“The City did not agree to the removal of our chief, nor would it have agreed if consulted,” Dhaliwal said in the letter – noting that the contract spells out how a reduction in staffing needs to be agreed to by both the Sheriff and the Council. “During the recent budget hearings, the Sheriff did not ask to remove the chief or any other services. However, Sheriff Withrow has recently advised the city he is considering reducing other services without the city’s consent.

“I respectfully request that the county make no reduction to sevices. We have an adopted budget to fund all services and want to continue to provide excellent police services to our residents in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office.”

The financial dispute has been ongoing since 2018 when Lathrop asked the Sheriff’s Office to review the legality of the overhead charges that they are being forced to pay. When those overhead charges failed to fall off of the city’s monthly bill, they began withholding that amount of money – which Dhaliwal says is less than five percent of the monthly payment that the city makes to the county – until the matter is resolved. The money that would be paid has been being deposited into an account while the parties work towards resolution.

There is no provision in the contract, Dhaliwal wrote, where Lathrop could pay the disputed amount and then seek reimbursement for that amount later.

When Lathrop was considering contracting with a neighboring agency at the conclusion of the last contract with the county, Withrow – who had been elected but not yet sworn-in as sheriff – lobbied for the council to continue the ongoing relationship and pledged to work with Lathrop to figure out a way resolve the city’s issues.

That apparently went out the window earlier this year when Lathrop announced that it was planning to move forward with starting its own police department, and in May of this year the city received a bill for $122,588.50 from the sheriff’s office for something called “Control 5” – supposedly the fees for a variety of services that had been provided by a different division of the sheriff’s department prior.

Withrow told the city, Dhaliwal wrote, that those services had been shifted from the Communications Department to the new “Control 5” Department, but the amount budgeted for Communications did not drop by the same amount of the bill for the new designation. 

As a result, Lathrop opted not to pay that amount of money – a separate dispute that has only compounded the issues between the two parties.

Even though disagreements between Lathrop and the sheriff’s office are nothing new – Lathrop nearly walked away from the contract in 2018 after years of back-and-forth with then-Sheriff Steve Moore – Withrow’s decision to show up in person at a board meeting and inform the council that he would not work with the city if the current City Manager remains in his job put the matter out into the public eye.

Lathrop is currently recruiting a Chief of Police for its standalone police department – a first for the city – and is planning on having a full police department in place and ready to provide service to the community on July 1, 2022.

It is currently the last incorporated city in San Joaquin County to make that move.

If the board were to approve Withrow’s request, the contract between the county and Lathrop would end on January 31, 2022 – leaving the city without the same standard of protection they have enjoyed for decades for more than five months. Withrow has said that he is open to renegotiation, but stipulations like paying the full amount of money currently in dispute and carrying full liability on its own policy for officers currently assigned to Lathrop – which are not Lathrop employees – as precursors to negotiations makes it seem unlikely that an agreement would be reached.

Because of the way that the boundaries for the board of supervisors are drawn, Lathrop has two representatives on the five-member panel – newly-elected Robert Rickman of Tracy, who represents River Islands, and Board Chairman Tom Patti, who represents the portion of the city north of the San Joaquin River.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.