Editorial: Desperately seeking light in Villanueva-supervisors feud

Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis are asking their colleagues to freeze Sheriff Alex Villanueva's spending and non-deputy hiring.
(Los Angeles Times)

The foolish feud between Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Board of Supervisors was nasty enough without the jab the supervisors may throw Tuesday: imposing a hiring freeze, impounding much of the sheriff’s budget and putting him on a “repayment plan” to shrink a $63.4-million deficit.

It’s certainly true that the department’s overspending threatens the county’s excellent credit rating, but how irksome the aggressive budget intervention must be to Villanueva. After all, the shortfall is largely due to deputy overtime, much of it made necessary by a severe staffing shortage inherited from the previous sheriff. Villanueva has argued that all those vacancies persisted because of low morale under his predecessor, that he has now turned things around and that he is already hiring at a rapid clip to fill the empty positions and erase the deficit. So he might be tempted to say to the supervisors: Bug off.

But it was Villanueva who first poisoned his relationship with the board by reinstating deputies who had been fired for good cause. That includes Caren Carl Mandoyan, who in August was ordered by a judge to give up his badge pending the outcome of a lawsuit between the board and the sheriff over, essentially, authority.


The reinstatements and laxer discipline standards are what’s raising morale and allowing all that new hiring. But binge hiring and lax standards (lesser consequences for dishonesty or excessive force, for example) are exactly what has gotten the Sheriff’s Department in trouble before, leading to the civil rights lawsuits that contributed to past budget deficits.

The board’s hiring freeze would not apply to deputies. In fact, the motion by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl makes a point of saying the board “will not tolerate any reduction to sworn staff on patrol under any circumstances.” But staffing is generally regarded as within the sheriff’s purview.

The contest over authority continues in other arenas. Several years ago the supervisors created an oversight commission and an inspector general to keep tabs on the independently elected sheriff. Villanueva challenges the scope of their power and in fact is now investigating the inspector general and his staff for alleged crimes.

Does the board even have the power to impose that oversight? It should, but whether it actually does is legally murky. State legislation to explicitly give counties that power would have helped, but Assembly Bill 1185 failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

On March 3, Los Angeles County voters will have an opportunity to vote on a ballot measure that would allow the inspector general to subpoena sheriff documents and witnesses.

That may help clarify the balance of powers between the supervisors and the sheriff, although it doesn’t touch staffing or the budget. That means that the feud between L.A. County’s sheriff and its supervisors is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, undermining what ought to be a unified fight against homelessness, crime and the county’s many other challenges.