Los Angeles Times

Voters could take sheriff down a notch

A ballot measure would let L.A. County supervisor­s give their top lawman the boot.

- By Alene Tchekmedyi­an

Los Angeles County voters will decide in November whether to give the Board of Supervisor­s the power to remove an elected sheriff from office.

The proposal, which stems from supervisor­s’ long-running feud with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, would severely undercut the autonomy sheriffs in L.A. County have always been granted and hand an extraordin­ary level of authority to the already powerful supervisor­s.

The five-person board, which is also elected, voted 4 to 1 on Tuesday to place a measure on the ballot that, if approved by a majority of voters, would amend the county charter to allow a sitting sheriff to be jettisoned. To kick out a sheriff, at least four supervisor­s would need to agree that he or she is not fit for office.

In the Nov. 8 election, voters also will decide whether to reelect Villanueva, a controvers­ial, pugnacious leader who has repeatedly clashed with the board throughout his first term in office. Villanueva is facing a tough runoff against retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

“The voters deserve an opportunit­y to decide whether this is the right way to enhance accountabi­lity of the sheriff, of the elected sheriff, and protect the lives and liberties of county residents,” Supervisor Holly Mitchell said last month when she first proposed the plan along with Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger cast the lone vote against the measure Tuesday. She has questioned why the proposal applies only to the sheriff and not the other seven elected county officials, including board members.

“I just want to caution us all that this action has broader implicatio­ns than one individual, as I strongly disagree with the action,” Barger said last month when the board was debating the idea. “I think it ought to apply not only to one elected [official] but to all — and if we’re going to do it for the sheriff, we should do it for the assessor, we should do it

for the D.A. and quite frankly, maybe for this board as well.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl countered that the added oversight was needed because the sheriff holds an exceptiona­l amount of power. “I don’t see the assessor getting people killed,” she said. “It’s really about the ability to hold someone accountabl­e when they have a very powerful position.”

The board did not discuss the ballot measure further on Tuesday before voting to approve it.

In a letter last month to the board, Villanueva called the move a “cheap political stunt” designed to hurt his bid for reelection. He suggested that he may mount a legal challenge, saying he believed the measure would be deemed unconstitu­tional by the courts.

“The Board is attempting to cheat the system and create a ‘fast-track’ pathway to remove a duly elected sheriff, one which circumvent­s the law and the foundation­al principles of due process enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment,” the letter said.

Under the proposal, the board would have the authority to remove a sheriff for serious misconduct, including “flagrant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropr­iation of funds, willful falsificat­ion of documents or obstructin­g an investigat­ion.”

The language about obstructio­n is particular­ly relevant to the supervisor­s’ bad blood with Villanueva, who has repeatedly refused to appear before a civilian oversight panel when it has subpoenaed him to answer questions under oath about groups of deputies that are said to resemble street gangs, and other problems in the department.

While the Board of Supervisor­s controls the size of the sheriff ’s annual budget, which currently is about $3.5 billion, it traditiona­lly has had relatively few avenues to check the power of whoever voters elect as sheriff every four years. The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a panel whose members are appointed by supervisor­s, cannot compel the sheriff to take action, although the board empowered the commission in 2020 to issue subpoenas as it battled with Villanueva.

Tensions between Villanueva and board members have roots in his upstart campaign to become sheriff, when several supervisor­s endorsed the man he was vying to unseat, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Villanueva’s term has been marked by a steady stream of controvers­ies and clashes with the board over myriad issues, including the budget as well as what several supervisor­s see as his distaste for accountabi­lity and oversight, and his rehiring of deputies who had histories of misconduct.

Villanueva has pursued long-running criminal investigat­ions into the board-appointed inspector general, Max Huntsman, and into county contracts involving a nonprofit that is run by an oversight panel member and is associated with Kuehl. Both Kuehl and the commission­er, Patti Giggans, have called for Villanueva’s resignatio­n.

While critics of the idea argue it is bad governance to create policies around an individual, proponents deny it was driven solely by Villanueva.

“This amendment to the county charter is not a political attack on any one sheriff,” Stephanie Luna, the aunt of Anthony Vargas, who was killed by two deputies in 2018, said before the board last month. “It is a push for the board to have the ability to step in when any sheriff in charge obstructs justice and enables a culture of violence within the department that ultimately endangers our communitie­s.”

“We’re not asking for anything crazy,” she continued. “We’re asking that a sheriff — any sheriff that commits any type of misconduct and obstructio­n — be held to the same standards that we would.”

Former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsk­y, who said he is not a Villanueva supporter and wants to see him defeated at the polls, cautioned that the charter amendment could give Villanueva an advantage on the campaign trail and help him get reelected.

“The unintended consequenc­e could be that the sheriff could be reelected,” Yaroslavsk­y said. “He will posture himself as the victim of a power struggle.”

The L.A. County supervisor­s aren’t the first to have this idea. In 2001, then-California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer concluded that a county charter may grant the board of supervisor­s the authority to remove the sheriff, district attorney or other county officer for cause with a fourfifths vote.

The opinion was cited by a California appeals court in 2005 when it declared constituti­onal an ordinance approved by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisor­s that allowed them to remove a sheriff for certain reasons — including flagrant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropr­iation of public property, violation of any law related to the performanc­e of the official’s job duties or willfully falsifying an official document — with a four-fifths vote.

 ?? Al Seib Los Angeles Times SHERIFF ALEX ?? Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the board.
Al Seib Los Angeles Times SHERIFF ALEX Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the board.
 ?? Jason Armond Los Angeles Times ?? SHERIFF ALEX Villanueva, shown last week, has called the ballot measure a “cheap political stunt.”
Jason Armond Los Angeles Times SHERIFF ALEX Villanueva, shown last week, has called the ballot measure a “cheap political stunt.”

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