Supervisors remove Villanueva as chief of emergency operations

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adjust the management for the county’s emergency response efforts, ultimately removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva as the chief of emergency operations, during their virtual meeting Tuesday.

After the November 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned for two weeks, killing three people and destroying 96,949 acres, a report was requested by the end of 2019 to understand what could have been done better.

“One of the main recommendations was to designate the Office of Emergency Management to run the emergency operations center,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl of the 1st District. “This was because there were many departments involved, not just law enforcement, that had to work better together.”

Villanueva disagreed, contending that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Emergency Operations Bureau has 116 personnel trained to a minimum level of advanced incident command systems management, deployable 24/7 and available to sustain any operations countywide.

Villanueva said the move threatened the “checks and balances” and the “separation of power” necessary for effective emergency management, and also said it wasn’t an appropriate time to make the change.

“So there’s a time and a place we can take this on,” he said. “This is after the pandemic.”

Kuehl said a motion had never been brought forth to the Board of Supervisors authorizing the sheriff as the head of emergency operations — which County Counsel Mary Wickham later confirmed — and added that appointing the county’s CEO as the head of emergency operations is a common practice.

More than two-thirds of the counties in California have designated either their CEO or a separate department of emergency management as the head of emergency operations, not the sheriff, according to Kuehl.

“We are not really ‘changing’ the leadership structure because the sheriff was never unanimously chosen by the board to do this, rather people have stepped in, and certainly in this emergency, it would be totally inappropriate for any law enforcement agency to be totally in charge of anything but law enforcement — (because) most of what is happening in this emergency relates to the health emergency,” Kuehl said.

“All these relationships, I believe, create this approach that really brings the best talents together, and it forces us to think about how we can embark on opportunities that are going to help the public,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn of the 4th District. “That’s first and foremost, the public safety.”

The ordinance, which was approved unanimously, is set to take effect immediately.

Under the changes approved Tuesday, the county code now:

  • Specifies that the chief executive officer is responsible for coordinating the county’s activities related to emergency preparedness, response and recovery.
  • Expands the membership of the county emergency management council.
  • Specifies that the sheriff continues to be responsible for operational command and control over law enforcement activities.

During the county’s daily COVID-19 news conference later in the day, Villanueva addressed the decision.

“Our personnel that are at the emergency operations center are going to remain there,” he said. “When the Board of Supervisors develops a transition plan, we’re more than willing to start replacing our personnel with their personnel as appropriate … But I want to reassure the public that we’re not going to drop the ball. Our job is to provide public safety, (and) that remains our No. 1 priority.”

Supervisor Kathyrn Barger, who represents the 5th District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, agreed, adding that there will be no immediate change in how the county is operating in regards to the coronavirus.

“I think we all agree, both the sheriff and the board, that we are putting the lives of our constituents first,” she said. “So, I’m confident that the public is going to see no difference in how we are responding to this crisis.”

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