Sonoma County to explore divestment

TYLER SILVY

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

July 24, 2019

Sonoma County supervisors have agreed to look into divesting from major banks that have done business with the companies responsible for migrant detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border, answering a weeks-long call from advocates and leaders who represent immigrant communities.

On Tuesday, they placed outside the county’s main administrative building cages complete with stuffed animals wrapped in thermal, aluminum-foil-like blankets to represent detained migrant children. It was the second-straight supervisors’ meeting during which protesters for the cause showed up on county property.

Several people, representing roughly 50 total, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, including immigrant advocates, health professionals, a lawyer, and an expert on children’s mental health.

Residents urged supervisors to divest from Bank of America and Wells Fargo, both of which own shares in a couple of private companies currently contracting to manage detention facilities at the border. Wells Fargo officials later clarified that its connection to the facilities is via investments in a mutual fund the bank manages but does not own.

Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase have all announced this year that they will no longer loan to GEO Group, Caliburn and CoreCivic, but residents said the banks still owned stock in the companies, and urged county leaders to pull money out of the banks until they totally cut ties.

Jennifer Silverstein, an infant-family mental health specialist and social worker, urged supervisors to think back to the first time they remember being frightened as a child.

“I hope for everybody in this room that that moment was followed by an adult you love coming to take care of you,” Silverstein said. “As a trauma expert, I know the difference between a stressor we tolerate and a stressor that ruins us is the presence of a loving adult…You have the power to do something about it.”

The treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers on the country’s southern border has come into sharp focus during the past several months, as images of overcrowded holding cells, filthy conditions and small, unaccompanied children have spread like wildfire. The increasing numbers of dead children, too, has brought more fervor to the push among many in the country to do something.

Rep. Mike Thompson on July 13 visited a detention center in McAllen, Texas, reporting back what he called inhumane conditions while promising that things were getting better thanks to increased attention and awareness.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins addressed the concerns in an extended Facebook post Monday night, saying she fully supports the protest and community action but also that the Board of Supervisors could not legally divest from the funds in question.

Hopkins said that decision was up to Treasurer Erick Roeser.

The treasurer’s post in Sonoma County is an elected office. Roeser, who was originally appointed to the post to fill a vacancy, was elected unopposed last year. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But attorney Richard Coshnear, who is the volunteer coordinator for Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy, a county-funded legal defense organization, said the board does have authority to make the move.

Supervisors did delegate investment authority to the elected treasurer via a 1997 ordinance, but state code requires the county to review and renew the delegation of that authority every year, Coshnear said.

“Don’t try to push the issue off of your plate with a jurisdictional question. You can take control,” he said Tuesday.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein agreed with Coshnear’s analysis, and Hopkins during a break said she’s “absolutely” interested in asserting that authority and looking into divestment.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt said the conversations are already happening, and the board is committed to looking at divestment.

Chandler Jordana, immigration senior program manager for the Secure Families Program at Santa Rosa Catholic Charities, also spoke before the supervisors, saying their constituency is speaking.

For Hopkins, who said she was inspired by the turnout, the message rings clear.

“How we utilize taxpayer dollars should reflect our values,” Hopkins said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-326-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.