L.A. needs a better way to pick and keep tabs on its sheriff

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca rides along Colorado Boulevard during the 125th Rose Parade on Wednesday.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca rides along Colorado Boulevard during the 125th Rose Parade on Wednesday.
(Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff Lee Baca followed up his Monday endorsement of a plan to subject his office to an oversight commission with a Tuesday announcement that he would resign. Tougher scrutiny of the sheriff makes sense, he seemed to be saying -- just not for me.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was scheduled, at about the same time as Baca’s announcement, to vote on the motion by Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina to create a five-member oversight commission to -- well, to do what? The commission wouldn’t be parallel to the city of L.A.’s Police Commission, which is actually the head of the LAPD and has substantially more power over the police chief than this county commission would over the independently elected sheriff. The Times’ editorial board recently walked readers through the differences.

The supervisors previously created an Office of Inspector General and hired prosecutor Max Huntsman to lead it. As it stands now, Huntsman will report -- on Baca and his successor -- to the supervisors.

“As Huntsman begins his work,” The Times’ editorial board wrote on Jan. 2, “the supervisors must decide whether he is to report to them along with the dozens of other counsels and department directors who compete for the board’s attention; or instead to a commission that, without disciplinary authority, could nevertheless have the power to scrutinize the sheriff’s performance and direct him toward constructive change.”


There’s the rub. The sheriff currently is subject to some worthwhile but extremely limited oversight in the form of an ombudsman, an Office of Independent Review and a special counsel. None of those layers provides anything approaching the kind of check or balance over county government contemplated by the U.S. Constitution’s framework for a three-part federal government: a president executing laws adopted by Congress and interpreted by courts, with interlocking appointment, oversight and removal powers.

Huntsman won’t have that kind of structural check on the sheriff either, and neither would a commission. Without continuing public attention, and without any structural change in how the sheriff is elected, Huntsman and a commission could be in danger of being absorbed, ignored or co-opted, regardless of who succeeds Baca.

State governments roughly parallel the federal checks and balances, and some California cities do, but county government is weird. The sheriff is the closest thing in Los Angeles County to an elected executive, but of course his ambit is limited to public safety and he has no administrative functions beyond that. The supervisors approve his ample budget, but otherwise he and they have little formal connection. They have few interlocking powers, checks or balances.

One of the shortcomings of having a county run by a five-member board with no real executive in charge (no mayor, no governor, no elected executive officer) is that the supervisors are sort of a collective administrator and at the same time a kind of a lawmaking/oversight body (overseeing itself), but not exclusively either one. In trying to do both jobs, they’re proficient at neither. They’re like one of those frustrating little plastic utensils that’s supposed to do the job of both a fork and a spoon but too often fails miserably at either task.

A county board of supervisors is the spork of California government.

But that’s what we’ve got. Besides the electorate, the Board of Supervisors is the only body that can exercise even the slightest oversight over the sheriff. And even when the supervisors criticize the sheriff, they’re actually pleading to the voters: “Do something about this guy, will you?”

Huntsman’s main task will be to give the supervisors ammunition in their political battle against the sheriff without himself becoming a creature of politics. That’s a sort of ersatz check or balance, but it may have to do. If he reports to a citizens commission that conducts open hearings and has a staff that knows how to attract public attention, and can provide a level of all-sheriff, all-the-time focus that the board itself cannot, it could help.

In the end, though, there is a structural problem in Los Angeles County government that makes an independently elected sheriff untenable. North of, say, San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, California counties are geographically compact enough and have sufficiently small populations that a political challenger can reach voters by using TV or mail, or even going door to door, without raising and spending a mint.

But in this county, sheriffs simply don’t get bounced from office by voters. We have 10 million people, more than any other county in the nation, more than 42 states. Of those, close to half live in cities with their own police departments, so those voters don’t really have much reason to care who gets elected sheriff or whether the incumbent is doing a good job. Getting the attention of those voters is nearly impossible. Actual political and democratic oversight of the Los Angeles County sheriff has crumbled while the form -- the veneer -- of democracy persists.

Baca is the only Los Angeles County sheriff in modern times to get the job by defeating the incumbent, and he managed that in large part because the incumbent was dead (Sherman Block died in the final days of his 1998 campaign for reelection). Other than that instance, voters in this county haven’t removed a sheriff in living memory. The last time an L.A. County sheriff was ousted was in 1921 -- and that wasn’t by the voters but by the spork, the Board of Supervisors. History records that the sheriff resigned.

Baca’s resignation follows at least the first part of the more common practice for sheriffs. For the pattern to be complete, he would have to name his own successor and the Board of Supervisors would have to rubber-stamp it, leaving voters with an incumbent to return to office.

Perhaps the sheriff should be elected but subject to removal by the board; or appointed by the board but subject to periodic approval by the voters, as with Superior Court judges; or appointed by the board but with carefully designed oversight. Like an inspector general. And a commission. Any of those moves would require a statewide vote.

On Monday, a Los Angeles County employee got approval to begin circulating a petition for a statewide ballot initiative that would take another tack: imposing term limits on sheriffs (as well as district attorneys and assessors). As The Times’ editorial noted, Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly adopted an initiative in 2002 to do just that, but Baca went to court and had it thrown out as unconstitutional. The new proposal would change the state Constitution instead of the county charter.

Term limits, just like supermajority requirements, are anti-democratic in that they allow one generation of voters to limit the power and choices of future generations. But with Los Angeles County sheriff elections, we’re already dealing with a system in which traditional checks and balances don’t apply and the substance of democracy is compromised while the form lulls citizens, voters and taxpayers into believing all is working as it should. We can do better than term limits. But maybe we’re already doing worse.


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