Should L.A. County supervisors have the power to boot a sheriff? Voters will decide
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 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.
In a two-man contest, the Democratic Party — and anti-Villanueva voters — could rally around a challenger.
“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 a myriad of 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.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is poised to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that would give supervisors the power to remove an elected sheriff from his position.
“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 had 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 four-fifths 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.
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