SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Officials voted Tuesday to keep San Francisco's sheriff in office, nearly seven months after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge stemming from a New Year's Eve dispute with his actress wife.
Four of the 11-member Board of Supervisors voted against upholding official misconduct charges against Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. A minimum of nine votes were needed to oust him.
When the vote was announced, Mirkarimi supporters burst into cheers. The sheriff kissed his wife, who began crying with joy. The couple hugged their lawyers, then were swarmed by well-wishers.
"The system worked in this case," Mirkarimi said outside the board chambers. "It took us a long way to get here. It has not been easy."
Mirkarimi was elected last fall and was mired in controversy before his swearing-in ceremony.
In March, Mayor Ed Lee suspended him without pay after the sheriff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment related to the dispute with his wife, Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez, who suffered a bruised bicep. Lee replaced Mirkarimi with interim sheriff Vicki Hennessy.
Mirkarimi was sentenced to three years of probation and fined. He is undergoing court-ordered counseling and parenting classes.
Lee then took the unprecedented step of trying to permanently remove Mirkarimi as sheriff. The mayor testified before the city's Ethics Commission in June that he would find it "extremely difficult" to work with Mirkarimi again.
In August, the commission voted 4-1 that Mirkarimi committed official misconduct, setting the stage for the supervisors' long-awaited vote.
After almost nine hours of hearings with scores of speakers, the vast majority being Mirkarimi supporters, the supervisors spoke one by one about how they intended to vote and why. When three of the first four supervisors signaled that they would not support the commission's recommendation, the crowd erupted into cheers.
The third and clinching vote for Mirkarimi was Supervisor John Avalos, who said that while the domestic violence case was a serious offense by the sheriff, it did not rise to official misconduct that under the city charter would warrant removal of an elected official.
"It is a dangerous precedent to set and a slippery slope to be opening this process as a political tool," Avalos said.
Like Mirkarimi, the four supervisors against his removal were progressives. One of them, Christine Oague, was appointed by the mayor to fill Mirkarimi's seat on the board.
In a statement, Lee said he disagreed with the vote by the four board members.
"The facts clearly demonstrate that Ross Mirkarimi's actions and his domestic violence-related conviction falls below the ethical conduct we expect of our elected Sheriff and constitutes official misconduct," Lee said. "The Board's decision returns a convicted domestic batterer to lead the Sheriff's Office."
Mirkarimi told reporters that he hoped to return to work Wednesday and that his focus will be on mending fences within the city and with anti-domestic violence advocates.
Repeatedly, during the hearing, supervisors and other speakers lamented that progressives who supported Mirkarimi found themselves in conflict with anti-domestic violence advocates who wanted him removed.
Before the vote, lawyers for the mayor's office and the sheriff stated their cases. Deputy City Attorney Sherri Kaiser said Mirkarimi committed an act of domestic violence that should not be ignored.
"It wasn't a mistake on Dec. 31. It was a crime, a very serious crime," Kaiser said, bringing a chorus of boos from the crowd.
Mirkarimi's attorneys, David Waggoner and Shepard Kopp, said the city continues to give ambiguous interpretations of official misconduct.
"The punishment doesn't fit the crime," Waggoner said.
After the hearing, Waggoner said, "The mayor was not able to convince the board that Ross Mirkarimi should be removed as sheriff. Ultimately, the mayor and the sheriff are going to have to work together."
Mirkarimi was elected sheriff in November after serving seven years as one of the city's more liberal supervisors. Lopez, who starred in TV shows and films in Latin America, seemingly put her budding career on hold and became a mother after marrying Mirkarimi, then a rising political figure in San Francisco. The couple met in 2008 at an environmental conference in Brazil.
Mirkarimi's woes began on Dec. 31 when he got into an argument with Lopez over whether she could travel to her native Venezuela with their toddler son. Mirkarimi later acknowledged — at times tearfully — bruising his wife's arm with an overly firm grip.
The next day, Lopez turned to a neighbor, Ivory Madison, who later contacted police. Authorities eventually confiscated video Madison had taken, along with text messages and emails between the two women.
The video shows Lopez tearfully pointing to a bruise on her right bicep, where she said Mirkarimi had grabbed her.
When Mirkarimi appeared at his Jan. 8 swearing-in ceremony with his wife and son, he called the incident a "private matter, a family matter" — a comment that led many anti-domestic violence groups to urge Mirkarimi to step down.
The couple has since reunited and said attempts to remove Mirkarimi are a political witch hunt.
Relatively few at the hearing called for the sheriff's ouster. Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, told board members that Mirkarimi's crime requires disciplinary action on their behalf. "I know today will take leadership and courage," said Upton, the anti-domestic violence advocate. "The facts matter. The world is watching."
However, Brenda Barros of San Francisco said many people don't entirely agree with the anti-domestic violence advocacy groups regarding Mirkarimi. "Don't make the assumption that all women agree with these women, because we don't," Barros said to loud applause.