In the latest skirmish between county executives and the sheriff’s department, the LA County Board of Supervisors is moving to outflank the LA County Sheriff by potentially undermining his status as an elected official.

Supervisors would like to expand their already extensive power, preparing to ask local voters for permission to remove a sheriff they believe is violating laws, neglecting duties, misappropriating public funds, falsifying documents or obstructing official investigations. If approved, Supervisors would need at least a 4-1 vote to remove a sheriff. 

The move comes after years of conflicts between LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the five-member Board of Supervisors and amid growing concerns over deputy gangs at several sheriff’s stations in the County, as well as growing scrutiny nationwide over law enforcement use of force.

On Tuesday, Supervisors voted, 4-1, to ask their legal team to draw up language that could be placed on the Nov. 8, 2022, ballot for voters to decide whether to grant the Board that power. Only Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing District Five, the sprawling northernmost district of LA County, dissented.

Among those in favor of the move was Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, representing the westside of Los Angeles County including Santa Monica and Venice. In her comments, Kuehl invoked Villanueva’s controversial visit to the Venice Beach Boardwalk last summer.

“He took credit for housing people who were unhoused along the Venice Boardwalk,” Kuehl said during the Tuesday, July 12, hearing. “He was not responsible for one person getting housing; it was all St Joseph’s [Center] and [Councilmember] Mike Bonin — all of it — and we know it because some of us were actually there. 

“But the Sheriff wears his hat,” Kuehl continued. “He takes credit and everyone goes, ‘Oh, well, you know, he’s just done these good things.’” (Villanueva famously enjoys wearing a cowboy hat.)

Kuehl was not the only supervisor to pull no punches while discussing the motion during the Tuesday meeting.

Chair Holly Mitchell went so far as to call the LASD a “paramilitary organization,” recalling the misdeeds of former Sheriff Lee Baca, who currently sits in federal prison after being convicted on obstruction of justice charges.

“Unfortunately, the County has had [a] long and troubling history with sheriff oversight and transparency,” Mitchell said. “Former Sheriff Lee Baca, who went to prison for obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators, may have best demonstrated the inadequacy of existing checks on sheriff power by famously reminding all of us that not electing him was the only way to hold him accountable.”

In statements prior to her “no” vote, Barger expressed “concern about the timing of this motion” in relation to the fast-approaching November election.

“The motion appears to be more about an individual than the office of the sheriff or promoting accountability and community safety through checks and balances,” Barger said.

Mitchell, who authored the motion alongside Supervisor Hilda Solis, bristled at the suggestion that the move was politically motivated.

“I would just like to say that at no point since being elected to this position have I ever speculated about what motivates a member to bring a motion before us,” Mitchell said. “For me, as the author of the motion, it is not political in the least.” She added the five-page motion that went before the Board of Tuesday was the result of months of collaboration with Solis, stakeholders and oversight groups.

For his part, Villanueva strongly opposed the move. 

In a statement on official letterhead and shared by the LA County Sheriff’s Department Twitter account the evening before the motion went up for a vote, Villanueva said the new rules, if passed, “would allow corrupt Board members to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crime.”

He also predicted the measure would be found unconstitutional.

“The Board is attempting to cheat the system and create a ‘fast-track’ pathway to remove a duly elected sheriff,” Villanueva wrote. He later added, “It appears you are making yourselves the judge, jury, and executioner for the office of the sheriff, nullifying the will of the voters.”

Public opinion was also split, with the Board fielding scores of spoken comments before the hearing began, in addition to much more written commentary — 1,567 pages worth, once county staff compiled it into a staff report. Many expressed concern the Supervisors were overstepping their bounds, while others cited recent instances of deputy violence, saying more oversight was needed.

“It’s not just about Alex [Villanueva], but he certainly did give us reason, and give us pause, about all of the power,” Kuehl said. “This is the appropriate way to go. We’ve received a lot of support from our constituents about this. And it’s not just people who’ve lost their kids [at the hands of the LASD], though there are many of them.”

Following the July 12 approval, county legal counsel will now draw up a ballot proposal for an LA County Charter Amendment, the text of which will go back before LA County Supervisors at the July 26, 2022 meeting. 

Villanueva is in the midst of a re-election campaign, and recently took a plurality (about 30 percent) of votes in the primary election against a crowded field of challengers. The incumbent Sheriff ran with broad Democratic Party support in his 2018 bid, but has since alienated many of his early supporters while gathering support from the right. All five supervisors have endorsed his rival for the position, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

emily@smdp.com