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Opinion: When the Board of Supervisors last threw out the sheriff

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks during a ceremony in Monterey Park in 2018.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, shown in 2018, has drawn the ire of the county Board of Supervisors. But the supervisors have little power to remove him.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Now is probably a good time to remember John Casper Cline, who 99 years ago became the only L.A. County sheriff to be thrown out of office by the Board of Supervisors. So far.

The precedent comes up because the supervisors of 2020 seem to be itching to fire Sheriff Alex Villanueva. They don’t currently have that power, although last year at least a few of them quietly reviewed a draft ballot measure, modeled on a San Bernardino County ordinance, that would give them the authority. It’s been shelved for now.

But last month, two supervisors and several members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission called on Villanueva to resign, echoing calls by a number of organizations unhappy with his efforts to weaken the deputy disciplinary system, his defiance of commission subpoenas and a host of other counterreform practices. The commission was set to take up a resolution on the subject Thursday, but it appears to have lost its nerve, and now members will instead consider a motion that merely expresses “grave concerns” regarding Villanueva’s leadership while wishing him success in reforming the department.

So how did the board of 1921 get rid of Cline? And why?

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Born in Australia to American parents (according to his contemporary, L.A. Times columnist, historian and poet John Steven McGroarty), Cline fit in well with Southern California’s vanishing Wild West culture but eventually became a victim of changing times and his refusal to change with them. He also, apparently, had a knack for rubbing other elected officials the wrong way.

He was elected in 1884 to be constable of Los Angeles township, a subdivision of what was then a much larger Los Angeles County. He literally rode the range, from the San Fernando Valley to what is now East Los Angeles. He was only 24.

When he was elected sheriff in 1892, his duties included tracking down rustlers and other outlaws and transporting them to and from jail, keeping the transport payments for himself — which was accepted practice in those days. He also freely distributed badges to hundreds of supporters, swearing them in as special deputies. They had to buy the tin badges from Cline-Cline Co., a sporting goods store owned by Cline’s extended family.

After he served his two-year term, local Republican Party leaders switched their support to John Burr, who won the election and immediately went into hiding to avoid the throngs of people who wanted him to appoint them as deputies. Because he was still in hiding when it was time for him to take the oath, Burr technically forfeited the office, and Cline insisted on keeping the job. Ultimately, though, the Board of Supervisors declared the position vacant and appointed Burr.

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For the supervisors, it was an early taste of power over the independently elected sheriff. For Cline, it was just a prelude of clashes to come.

In the meantime, President William McKinley appointed Cline to be collector of customs for the district of Los Angeles, and he served in that capacity for eight years, then turned his attention to other things — until 1914, when he again ran for sheriff.

By that time, Los Angeles County was no longer the Wild West. A wave of progressive reform had swept California, and as part of that movement L.A. became the nation’s first home-rule county, adopting its own charter in 1913. The document prohibited some of Cline’s old practices, like hanging on to fines and fees. The office was now nonpartisan. And the incumbent sheriff, William Hammel, got along quite well with the Board of Supervisors and was running for reelection.

Cline beat him and began his second, longer and rockier tenure as sheriff.

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The supervisors, although angry at losing their ally Hammel, raised Cline’s salary so he wouldn’t need to line his pockets with the inmate transport fees to which he was no longer entitled. But he kept doing it anyway. When the supervisors put the fees into the county treasury, Cline sued to get them back. And amazingly, he won.

Cline was also accused of embezzling from the inmate meal fund, and he was said to be adept at fixing traffic tickets and finding reasons to take department vehicles on personal trips. The supervisors finally had enough.

Although the board couldn’t fire the sheriff outright, it instructed Chairman Jonathan S. Dodge to file an “accusation” against him for misfeasance in office over misuse of public funds. The judge upheld the charges and removed Cline. The supervisors appointed a sheriff to succeed him — and ended up appointing almost every other sheriff during the rest of the 20th century, although they all went on to win election to additional terms.

The Los Angeles Times approved of Cline’s ouster. An editorial called him “too high-handed and defiant.”

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So if the Civilian Oversight Commission or the supervisors want to fire Villanueva, why can’t they simply file an accusation against him, like their distant predecessors did against Cline?

In theory, they could. Under California Government Code Sec. 3060, anyone can present an accusation of “willful or corrupt misconduct in office” to the grand jury, which would then deliver it to the district attorney, who in turn would take it to court for a trial within 10 days.

And what constitutes “willful or corrupt misconduct in office”? There’s the rub. The body of law on the topic is not large, but there probably has to be some self-dealing involved, or a refusal to perform the job. The resolution before the Civilian Oversight Commission recites a long bill of righteous complaints against Villanueva, including refusing to cooperate with the inspector general, but nothing that amounts to self-dealing or failure to perform the job.

Checks and balances in county government are weak. Sheriff Lee Baca (currently in prison for obstruction of justice) made that clear in 2012 when asked how he is to be held accountable for his conduct in office. “Don’t elect me,” he replied.

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The last decade has seen numerous attempts to do better than simply “Don’t elect me.” Los Angeles County followed San Diego County’s lead in creating an oversight commission, but it has no removal power. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to specifically permit every county to create such a commission. San Bernardino County has its removal ordinance and an accompanying charter provision, but they are untested in court.

For the present, then, the only methods to remove a sheriff from office appear to be Baca’s solution (although it should be noted that he resigned before his term was concluded); voter recall; or a grand jury accusation of the kind that led to Sheriff John C. Cline’s eviction from office nearly a century ago.

After losing his job, by the way, Cline got on with his life, which was long. He died in 1954 at the age of 94.


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