The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to move forward with a special election that could potentially give them the power to remove the L.A. County sheriff for cause.
The motion — which was passed 4-1, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger providing the sole dissenting vote — instructs county staff to draft an ordinance calling for the special election to occur on the same day as the 2022 General Election in November.
The future ballot measure will ask voters whether they support changing the L.A. County Charter to grant the Board of Supervisors the authority to remove the sheriff by a four-fifths vote “for cause.” The justifications for cause are listed in the motion as any unlawful or negligent action on the part of the sheriff, as well as any evidence that the sheriff’s administration is engaging in the “willful falsification” of documents or purposeful “obstruction of any investigation” into his conduct.
During the Supervisor’s Tuesday meeting, the proponents of the motion argued that the notion of holding current Sheriff Alex Villanueva accountable has been a struggle for the Board of Supervisors since the onset of the pandemic, with the board having approved a motion on Nov. 10, 2020, directing County Counsel to begin researching options on how to remove the county’s top cop.
Although the motion initially begins by alleging a decades-long pattern by the Sheriff’s Department to avoid accountability, the motion specifically references Sheriff Alex Villaneuva and cites a number of instances in which Villanueva is said to have defied subpoenas and resisted investigations by the Office of Inspector General, “intimidated or harassed” individuals charged with overseeing him, and lacked transparency with regard to deputy misconduct.
Then, two months ago on May 19, the L.A. County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, or COC, issued a resolution urging the Board of Supervisors to place a charter amendment on the November ballot to establish additional checks and balances on the sheriff. According to the members of the COC, Villanueva had continued to neglect “families impacted by Sheriff deputy gangs and violence,” abuse his power and not attend the commission’s oversight meetings.
“There should be a clear signal to the current and future sheriffs and their administration that oversight and accountability is the other side of the same coin for public safety,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion alongside Supervisor Holly Mitchell. “Amendment to the charter can create, in my opinion, a robust accountability infrastructure to ensure there are responsive mechanisms in place to shut down corruption, misconduct, and errant behavior and culture.”
The unprecedented move for L.A. County elected officials toward removing a fellow countywide elected official was challenged by Barger due to her belief that the matter should be left to voters. Villanueva, who was first elected to office in 2018, is slated to defend his seat against challenger Robert Luna, a retired Long Beach chief of police, during the 2022 General Election — the same day the special election will be held.
“Moving forward this amendment by limiting it to the sheriff with less than four months away from elections is ripe for speculation, and I truly do believe (it’s) highly political,” said Barger. “And perhaps most troubling, I think it dilutes the office and the voice of Los Angeles County voters.”
Also, while emphasizing that she does not condone many of Villanueva’s actions, expressing her belief that he believes himself to be “above the law,” Barger also opposed the motion on the grounds that the definitions of “cause” to remove the current sheriff and any future sheriff had not yet been clearly defined.
In a statement of his own, Villanueva threw barbs at the Board of Supervisors themselves, appearing to highlight that the motion appears hypocritical in nature given that the November 2020 motion was originally introduced by former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Ridley-Thomas currently awaits trial after having been indicted on 20 counts of public corruption while serving on the board.
“If passed, this unprecedented motion would allow corrupt board members to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crimes,” said Villanueva, later adding: “This motion is a recipe for public corruption, particularly when ‘cause’ remains so broad and undefined.”
The sheriff also challenged the board for using a 2005 San Bernardino County case as precedent to establish their authority to remove him, saying that the other county’s motion implemented the same removal process for all countywide elected officials — while the L.A. County version is specific only to the sheriff.
“As you know, each member of your board represents approximately 2 million residents, where I represent all 10 million residents,” said Villanueva. “In supporting this motion, you are removing checks and balances on each of your own power, thus shielding you from all accountabilities.”
“This is unethical, self-serving and a conflict of interest,” he added.
In a statement distributed following the vote, Barger reaffirmed her belief that if the goal of the amendment is to promote accountability and improve checks and balances, then the action should include all countywide elected officials – the assessor, the district attorney and the supervisors themselves.
“A charter amendment focused on only one office undermines the credibility of the board and its underlying intentions,” Barger said. “I remain concerned that this action, as approved by the board today, dilutes the voice of Los Angeles County voters and deepens voter apathy.”
Villanueva expressed his belief that the courts will inevitably rule the motion unconstitutional. He then concluded his open response letter by accusing the Board of Supervisors of attempting to use the special election as a way to assist Villanueva’s political opponent, who the five-member board endorsed on Monday, in the upcoming election.