LA County Supervisors Approve Proposal Enabling Removal of Sheriff

LA County Supervisors Approve Proposal Enabling Removal of Sheriff
City News Service

LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which has repeatedly clashed with Sheriff Alex Villanueva on a variety of topics, directed its attorneys on July 12 to draft a proposed ballot measure that would give the panel power to remove an elected sheriff from office for cause.

The issue will still need to return to the board for final passage before it goes before voters in November. The proposal was passed Tuesday on a 4–1 vote, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger casting the lone dissenting vote.

The motion by Board Chair Holly Mitchell and Supervisor Hilda Solis directed county attorneys to draft the required documents and ordinance to put before voters on Nov. 8 that would allow the board to remove an elected sheriff "for cause" with a four-fifths vote.

"The issue of sheriff accountability before us is both urgent and systemic, having impacted past generations of Angelenos, but also with important consequences for the future," Mitchell said. "Unfortunately, the county has had long and troubling history with sheriff oversight and transparency."

Under the motion approved Tuesday, county attorneys were asked to draft a ballot measure that would give the panel power to remove a sheriff "for cause." Such cause is defined as "a violation of any law related to the performance of their duties as sheriff; flagrant or repeated neglect of duties; a misappropriation of public funds or property; willful falsification of a relevant official statement or document; or obstruction of any investigation into the conduct of the sheriff by the Inspector General, Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, or any government agency with jurisdiction to conduct such an investigation."

Villanueva blasted the proposal as unconstitutional. He sent a letter to the board Monday saying the motion "would allow corrupt board members to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crime."

"This motion is a recipe for public corruption, particularly when 'cause' remains so broad and undefined," the sheriff wrote. "Allowing political appointees with an agenda to determine 'cause' is fundamentally flawed.

"It appears you are making yourselves the judge, jury and executioner for the office of the sheriff, nullifying the will of the voters. This illegal motion seeks to undermine the role of the sheriff and render the office subordinate to the Board of Supervisors. On its face, your proposed ordinance language is not a proper reading of the law and will be challenged on these multiple grounds."

Villanueva's re-election campaign issued a statement last week saying the supervisors have "no business" seeking such authority to remove a sheriff.

"The people of Los Angeles would be better served if the supervisors spent their time doing their jobs by reducing homelessness and improving healthcare, instead of trying to seize even more power," according to a statement from Villanueva's campaign.

"The sheriff is an elected position, just like the supervisors. Just as the sheriff has no business asking for power to fire the supervisors, the reverse is also true."

At the board meeting, Barger questioned the impetus behind the proposal, calling it politically motivated, and asked why it only targets the sheriff and not other county leadership positions. She said in a statement after the vote the proposal creates a "slippery slope for the Board of Supervisors to override the will of the voters."

"I remain concerned that this action, as approved by the board today, dilutes the voice of Los Angeles County voters and deepens voter apathy," Barger said.

Mitchell denied that the proposal was politically motivated.

"At no point since being elected to this position have I ever speculated about what motivates a member to bring a matter before us," Mitchell said.

Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the board, accusing members of defunding his agency at the expense of public safety, while also rebuffing subpoenas to appear before the county's Civilian Oversight Commission.

The motion does not mention Villanueva by name, but states, "The current sheriff has been openly hostile to oversight and transparency and has tested the functionality of existing oversight structures by consistently resisting and obstructing these systems of checks and balances."

Supervisors were also critical of Villanueva during the meeting. Mitchell accused him of having "flagrant disregard of lawful oversight and accountability." Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that the board probably would not have brought up the proposal had Villanueva "not been so egregious in his behavior."

"It is an important thing because this particular elected office is more powerful," Kuehl said. "I don't see the assessor getting people killed. It is not for me just about this sheriff. It's really about the ability to hold someone accountable when they have a very powerful position."

The motion also refers to previous sheriffs Lee Baca, who was sent to federal prison on corruption charges, and Peter Pitchess, who "resisted any involvement in the first internal investigation of deputy gangs from outside the department."

According to the motion, despite efforts to provide oversight of the department, "the board has nevertheless been limited in its ability to serve as a sufficient check against the sheriff's flagrant disregard of lawful oversight and accountability."

The Republican National Committee issued a statement Friday blasting the proposal as "another prime example of how Democrats like to change the rules when they don't get their way."

"Not only is Sheriff Villanueva an elected official, he's one of the few who has been willing to stand up to the board for reducing law enforcement funding and effectively endangering the lives of Angelenos," according to the committee. "... This decision from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors would attempt to bully the elected sheriff into doing what they want and would be yet another blow to a free and fair democracy, thanks to California Democrats."

Villanueva is a registered Democrat.

County attorneys will now draft the necessary paperwork to put the issue on the November ballot, then return to the board for a July 26 vote on whether to move forward. Supervisor Janice Hahn instructed the attorneys to make sure the language in the motion is "specific in identifying what type of behavior would qualify for removal."

"I am wary of any vague language that would in any way leave it up to matters that aren't exactly spelled out and that rise to the level of [a potential vote to remove the sheriff]," Hahn said.

Villanueva's bid for a second term is headed for a November runoff against former Long Beach police Chief Robert Luna. On Monday, Luna's campaign announced that all five members of the Board of Supervisors had endorsed him.