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L.A. supervisors poised to ask voters for power to remove sheriff from office

LA Times logo LA Times 7/7/2022 Alene Tchekmedyian
Lisa Vargas, mother of Anthony Vargas who was fatally shot by sheriff's deputies in 2017, speaks at a rally in 2019 calling for more accountability for the sheriff. (Ana Venegas / For The Times) © Provided by LA Times Lisa Vargas, mother of Anthony Vargas who was fatally shot by sheriff's deputies in 2017, speaks at a rally in 2019 calling for more accountability for the sheriff. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is poised to ask voters for the power to remove an elected sheriff from office.

Under a proposed change to the county's charter, which would need approval of voters in November's general election, the board would assume the authority to force out a sitting sheriff if four of the five supervisors agree the sheriff is unfit for office.

The extraordinary move would fundamentally reshuffle the balance of power in the county and highlights how bitter and dysfunctional the relationship between Sheriff Alex Villanueva and county leaders has become.

Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis, both vocal critics of Villanueva, have proposed the plan, saying it is needed because the board has been "limited in its ability to serve as a sufficient check against the Sheriff’s flagrant disregard of lawful oversight and accountability."

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who publicly has a more amicable relationship with the sheriff, said she plans to support the proposal, giving Solis and Mitchell the support they need to get the charter amendment on the ballot in November.

In a statement to The Times, Hahn said: “I am going to support this motion. I think the voters have a right to dictate how they want their county government to operate.”

A spokesperson for Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she questions the timing of the proposal as Villanueva is seeking reelection in a runoff against former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, "as well as why it applies only to the Sheriff and not all eight County elected officials."

A Sheriff's Department spokesperson called the idea a "politically motivated stunt" designed to hurt the sheriff's chances of winning reelection.

"If passed, this illegal motion would allow corrupt supervisors to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crime," the spokesperson said. "Creating a pathway for politicians to remove a duly elected sheriff is a recipe for corruption, particularly when 'cause' is whatever suits their political agenda."

The board will vote Tuesday on whether to direct L.A. County lawyers to draft an ordinance to call for a special election in November, when L.A. County voters would decide on amending the charter.

"A proposed charter amendment empowering the Board to remove the sheriff only for cause, would allow the Board to act expeditiously to remove a corrupt sheriff rather than wait for a grand jury to convene or a recall election to be held," the motion said.

A representative for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl would not say how she planned to vote.

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 public funds, willful falsification of an official statement or document, or obstruction of an investigation into the sheriff's conduct by the Inspector General or Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

The obstruction clause is particularly significant as Villanueva has been accused repeatedly of flouting oversight and stonewalling county watchdogs by refusing to cooperate with their investigations.

Just last week, he and his second in command defied subpoenas to testify before the oversight commission during one of its ongoing public hearings into “deputy gangs" that have plagued the department for decades.

Deputies with alleged ties to the groups have been accused of using violent and aggressive tactics, and have cost taxpayers at least $55 million in settlements and payouts in incidents that date to the 1990s.

Andrés Kwon, an attorney and organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Villanueva's defiance of subpoenas and other resistance to oversight underscores the need for the Board of Supervisors to have the proposed new powers.

“Whatever checks and balances we thought we had for the sheriff are not working,” Kwon said.

He added that Villanueva is not the first sheriff to raise such alarms. Lee Baca went to prison for obstructing a federal investigation into jail abuses.

“Villanueva wasn’t the first,” Kwon said. “He certainly won’t be the last — unless we act now.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading scholar in constitutional law and dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, called the proposal a "desirable reform."

"There must be some method of accountability for the sheriff," Chemerinsky said by email. "This would create an essential mechanism for accountability and a remedy in egregious situations."

Villanueva, like the sheriffs in each of the state's counties, was elected by voters in a race separate from supervisor elections and largely has the autonomy to run the county's sprawling Sheriff's Department as he sees fit. The supervisors control the sheriff's budget and since Villanueva took office at the end of 2018, he has clashed with his critics on the board over funding, as well as other issues, including his efforts to rehire deputies fired for misconduct.

Frank Zerunyan, a USC professor on the practice of governance, was critical of the proposal, saying it is shortsighted to form policies based on “people we like or don’t like.”

“Where do you draw the line? Next would be a mayor, or a council member ... . Or it would be the city clerk,” he said. “Name an elected position.”

Supervisors are “elected to their office, they’re not elected to supervise any other electeds,” he said.

If voters don’t like the sheriff, he said, they can recall him.

The board has broached this idea before.

In 2020, amid mounting calls by oversight officials and community activists for Villanueva to resign, the board directed county lawyers to look into how to impeach Villanueva or take away some of his responsibilities, and explore legislative changes that could make the position of sheriff an appointed one.

County lawyers in January 2021 provided the board with a confidential report of options, which was shelved for more than a year.

It came up again in February at the urging of more than 70 community organizations and labor unions, as well as activists and family members of people killed by deputies. In May, the oversight commission formally recommended the board place the proposal to amend the charter on the November ballot.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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