On a 3-2 vote Tuesday, Los Angeles County supervisors defeated a proposal to create a civilian oversight body for the Sheriff's Department, which has been beset by scandals and federal investigations into the treatment of jail inmates.
The action may be only a temporary set-back, however, since the swing vote was cast by termed-out Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Both candidates to replace him in the Nov. 4 general election -- Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver -- have said they favor such a commission.
Tuesday's vote came after advocates -- dozens of whom spoke at the Board of Supervisors' meeting -- argued that civilian oversight is the only way to hold members of the nation's largest Sheriff's Department truly accountable.
But a majority of supervisors agreed that they first want to focus on setting up the newly-created inspector general's office for the Sheriff's Department. They also pointed out that under current law, a civilian commission would not have authority over the elected sheriff.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board's main proponent of civilian oversight, said the supervisors are "inundated with other responsibilities" and need another set of eyes on the sheriff.
"We can't pay enough attention to the Sheriff's Department, the inspector general or the sheriff himself," Ridley-Thomas said. "That's why we need help.... It's very practical. It's not ideological."
Yaroslavsky said the department has had multiple oversight bodies in the past, but their "ambiguous roles" contributed to "problems [in the department], which have now become a national embarrassment."
"The problem with the Sheriff's Department isn't that there is too little oversight; the problem is that there has been too little effective oversight," he said.
Supervisor Gloria Molina joined Ridley-Thomas in voting for the civilian commission, with Yaroslavsky joining Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe in opposition.
Also Tuesday, the board approved a plan for the structure, staffing and responsibilities of the inspector general's office.
Interim Sheriff John Scott -- who replace Lee Baca, who retired, had pushed for the board to set up an attorney-client relationship between his department and the inspector general so he could feel comfortable sharing confidential documents.
But the supervisors objected, saying that would harm the inspector's independence. They instead approved a structure that would give the inspector general an attorney-client relationship with the board and not with the sheriff.
Inspector General Max Huntsman told the board he is still trying to negotiate "complete access" to department investigations into deputy-involved shootings and other issues.