Supes to consider calling for a special election to remove L.A. County sheriff

Los Angeles County Seal.

The ongoing battle between L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Alex Villanueva is set to come to a head on Tuesday as the board is scheduled to vote on a motion that could give them the power to remove the L.A. County sheriff from office.   

If the motion is passed during the regular meeting, a special election would be held on Nov. 8 for the purpose of voting on an amendment to the county charter that would “grant the Board of Supervisors the authority to remove the sheriff” for cause. 

Cause is defined by the agenda item as:  

  • A violation of any law related to the performance of their duties as sheriff. 
  • Flagrant or repeated neglect of duties. 
  • A misappropriation of public funds or property. 
  • Willful falsification of a relevant official statement or document. 
  • Obstruction of any investigation into the conduct of the sheriff by the inspector general, Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, or any government agency with jurisdiction to conduct such an investigation. 

The motion, in order to be implemented, requires that the county charter be amended to grant the Board of Supervisors the authority to remove the sheriff. In order to amend the charter, a special election would need to be held on Nov. 8 — the same day as the 2022 Midterm Election — and voters will decide on whether to adopt the change.   

Although its authors say that the new framework would result in improved oversight and accountability on the part of the county’s top cop, the motion has drawn the ire of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who have both labeled the move as an example of government overreach.   

“This is saying, ‘We don’t want the checks and balances to be what’s already on the books; we want the ability to say we don’t like it, therefore we’re going to do this,’” Barger, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley on the board, said in a phone call with The Signal on Monday. “I think it is a dangerous precedent and I think it’s a slippery slope that all should be concerned about.” 

Laid out in the language of the motion, fellow supervisors and co-authors of the pending policy, Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis, go through the history of past sheriffs and their interactions with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in order to contend that a “lack of accountability” has been an “enduring feature of county sheriffs.” 

“Because of the sheriff’s power and the lack of accountability and oversight by the current and previous sheriffs, this board has implemented a series of accountability measures to reform the Sheriff’s Department, dating back more than a decade,” the motion reads. It later adds: “This board has repeatedly been compelled to intervene in response to attempts by the sheriff to obstruct oversight of investigations into fatal shootings of Angelenos by deputies.” 

The motion specifically references Villaneuva, and cites a number of instances where 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.  

“Additionally, for at least the last 10 fiscal years, the county has spent the most in litigation expenditures on settlements, judgments and associated fees for LASD, at the expense of county residents,” the motion reads. “Notably, in fiscal year 2019-2020, the total litigation cost was $60 million.” 

The Board of Supervisors has said it has the authority to remove elected officials in such a way through the California State Constitution and based on precedent. In 2002, San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors similarly removed their own sheriff through county powers, and the move was upheld by the California Attorney General’s opinion, as well as the Court of Appeal. 

In a prepared statement of his own, Villaneuva said his position, as well as those of the Board of Supervisors, are elected by voters and therefore it should be left to the voters on whether to remove someone from office. 

“The people of L.A. would be better served if the supervisors spent their time doing their jobs by reducing homelessness and improving health care, instead of trying to seize even more power,” Villanueva said in the statement. “Just as the sheriff has no business asking for power to fire the supervisors, the reverse is also true.” 

In speaking with The Signal on Monday, Barger said she understands where her colleagues are coming from in terms of wanting to reign in a sheriff who has “thumbed his nose” at the board and anyone tasked with holding him accountable. However, Barger added, she agrees with Villanueva that the decision should be left to the voters.  

“This board has felt frustrated, there’s not a lot that can be done, but you know what, that’s for the voters to decide. It’s not up to us, because we don’t like somebody, to bring in a charter amendment so that in the future, if we get someone else like this, we can just say with four-fifths of a vote on ‘just cause,’ whatever that means, and we’re going to take you out and we’re going to undermine the will of the voters who put someone in office countywide.” 

Barger also noted that the motion is specific to the L.A. County sheriff but fails to treat all eight elected countywide positions, such as district attorney or assessor, in the same way. 

“We’ve had an assessor that was indicted, and the board could do nothing. They were powerless to take the assessor out,” said Barger. “We’ve had a sheriff that actually ended up resigning. Right now, we have a colleague that’s been accused (of misconduct), and yet we’re just targeting the sheriff.” 

“But make no mistake, I do not condone the actions of this sheriff…who’s undermining the credibility of all based on his actions for a few,” Barger added. “And that breaks my heart because this department deserves better. And I’m hoping we’ll get better.” 

Villanueva is running for his second term in November against challenger Robert Luna. 

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