Fresh push to have civilian committee oversee L.A. County Sheriff Dept.

Fresh push to have civilian committee oversee L.A. County Sheriff Dept.
New Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, speaking after he was sworn in Monday, has said he supports setting up a civilian oversight panel for the department. (Nick Ut / Associated Press)

In the wake of a change in leadership on the Board of Supervisors, two members have revived a proposal to set up a civilian oversight commission for the embattled Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The previous board defeated a similar proposal, 3-2, in August, with Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina voting in favor. Both said greater scrutiny of the department was needed in light of the federal government's decision to investigate alleged abuses and poor conditions for mentally ill inmates in the county jails.

The other supervisors said at the time that they wanted to focus on setting up the newly created county inspector general's office for the Sheriff's Department. They also argued that under current law a civilian commission would have no real authority over the elected sheriff.

Molina Civiliand Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky -- who cast the swing vote against the oversight proposal in August -- were termed out of office last week and were replaced by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl.

Now, Solis has joined Ridley-Thomas in reviving the oversight question in a proposal slated for a vote at the board's meeting next Tuesday. The two supervisors asked their colleagues to approve the establishment of a civilian oversight body and of a panel -- made up of county attorneys and representatives of the sheriff, inspector general and supervisors -- to hash out how the new commission would be structured and what its powers would be.

Kuehl could not immediately be reached for comment. During the campaign, she said she supported civilian oversight.

Newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell has also said he supports a civilian commission.

Patrisse Cullors, director of the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now, which has pushed for civilian oversight, called the revival of the proposal "an extremely important opportunity."

"I think it should have been passed two years ago, and we didn't have the right board for it, and now we do," she said.

Cullors said her group wants to ensure that the commission has the "most teeth, the most power" possible. Among other things, they want the inspector general to report directly to the civilian commission, and for the commission to have power to subpoena sheriff's officials.

County officials have said that a change in state law would be needed for the civilian commission to have such power, but Cullors' group argues that state law gives county supervisors subpoena power and the ability to delegate it now.

The move to quickly revive the civilian oversight proposal, along with other recent actions, may suggest that the newly configured board will take an aggressive stance in reversing decisions made by their predecessors.

On Tuesday, at the first meeting of the new board, supervisors voted to remove acting Chief Executive Officer Brence Culp, whom the previous board had appointed to the post last month, and replace her with Sachi Hamai, former clerk to the board.

Culp, who had been second-in-command to retired CEO William T Fujioka, is a candidate for the permanent position, and board members said allowing her to remain in the acting position might discourage other potential candidates from applying.

Solis and Ridley-Thomas also joined in another proposal slated for a vote Tuesday, this one relating to the hiring of department heads. Ridley-Thomas had objected to the previous board's decision to appoint internal candidates to head up some key departments, including the office of county counsel, without launching an outside search.

The other supervisors argued that the positions were too important to leave unfilled and they needed to act quickly. But Solis and Ridley-Thomas want to require that all future candidates for posts reporting directly to the board be recruited through a public search and competitive process.


Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.