If there is to be a citizens' oversight commission to keep an eye on the Los Angeles County sheriff, the most natural thing in the world would be to make it a five-person panel, with each member of the county Board of Supervisors getting one appointment.
Natural. Obvious, even. And a big, big mistake.
The size and composition of a citizens' oversight body is inextricably linked both to its mission and to the nature of the authority to which it reports. If it's a five-member panel, with each member appointed by and answerable to the supervisors, why not just have the supervisors exercise oversight directly? Isn't that what we already have, and what already failed to hold the sheriff to account for the beatings of jail inmates, the inept hiring of deputies, the enormous liability payouts?
In fact, such a commission might be even worse than the status quo, because it would provide a misleading veneer of independence and lend political cover to the supervisors, who could attempt to pull the sheriff's strings via their commission appointees without being quite as obvious about it.
Consider, for example, the 10-member redistricting commission that the supervisors appointed in 2010 to redraw the county election map. In this case, each supervisor got two appointees, all of whom are fairly well-regarded people, but all of whom were selected to in at least some sense do the bidding of the supervisor who appointed them. They voted accordingly, becoming proxies for the supervisors. It was obvious whose bidding they were doing. Why bother with such a commission?
No doubt members of the Board of Supervisors would protest: We never told our Boundary Review Committee appointees how to vote! But they didn't have to. The appointees knew who they were working for, and they knew that they could be replaced.
There was far less of a concern with the seven-member Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, the panel that the Board of Supervisors created and appointed in 2011 to examine improper use of force in county jails and recommend corrective action.
Yes, each of five members was appointed by a county supervisor. But then those five appointed two more, establishing a measure of separation from the board.
Besides, unlike with the redistricting commission, the purpose of the jail violence panel was not inherently political, so the supervisors had far less incentive to direct outcomes or insert themselves into the process.
Nor was the purpose ongoing oversight. The mission was limited, as was the panel's duration. And because the same news stories and lawsuits that moved the board to create the commission also focused public attention on its proceedings, there was little chance of supervisors trying to sway their appointees without being noticed.
But a permanent commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department would continue to operate during times of both great and paltry public attention, and would have to resist influence by the Board of Supervisors or, again, what's the point?
There is an inherent tension between independence and accountability. The goal should not be to make the sheriff subservient to the Board of Supervisors. Even if such a move were legal — and it's not, under the state Constitution as currently written — it would be undesirable. The sheriff should retain sufficient independence to manage his responsibilities without political meddling but be subject to a measure of oversight sufficient to prevent or bring to light the kinds of abuses that have been reported over the last five years (and either underreported, or forgotten, in the years before that).
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has a motion that would create a five-member citizens' oversight commission, with each member appointed by a county supervisor, and he deserves credit on two counts: First, he has recognized in the problems of the Sheriff's Department the need for continuing civilian oversight that goes beyond the work of the new inspector general; and second, he has recognized that the Board of Supervisors lacks the bandwidth to continuously monitor the independently elected sheriff while at the same time overseeing the departments that report directly to it — the troubled Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department — and all the dozens of other county departments that ostensibly report to a chief executive officer but are closely monitored by the board.
Ridley-Thomas' motion would extend that bandwidth by adding a board-appointed commission. That's not nothing. The panel would be the eyes and ears of the board: additional board staff, in essence, focused laser-like on the Sheriff's Department and not subject to other distractions.
But we can do better. The supervisors can establish a citizens' oversight commission, but it must serve not the board but the public.
Besides, there are already board-appointed commissions in other areas that are filled with experts who make inquiries and write reports but fail to effectively deal with the problems in the departments they are intended to advise or oversee.
The Los Angeles Commission for Children and Families, for example, is made up of fierce advocates for children, but it could not map a way out of trouble for the county department that is meant to protect abused and neglected children. We do not want to layer on commissions or monitors with merely the guise of independence.
There are models that could work: a different-sized commission, appointees made by people other than (or in addition to) the supervisors, removal only for cause, strict term limits. There are lessons to be learned from the make-up of the L.A. city Police Commission, the city Ethics Commission, the board of Metro.
That's a subject for Thursday.
This is the second in a series on the makeup of an oversight body for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Here is the first.