This election cycle, LA County voters will be asked to decide whether the Board of Supervisors should be empowered to remove sheriffs “for cause.” Whatever voters choose, the City of Santa Monica has elected to not take a formal position on the matter.
Simmering tensions between the LA County Supervisors and LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva reached a boiling point this year as Supervisors began making plans to potentially remove Villanueva from office through a ballot initiative granting power to the Board of Supervisors. Weeks later, Villanueva’s deputies launched an investigation into Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, surprising her with an early-morning search warrant at her Santa Monica home and seizing various documents as well as a computer and hard drives related to corruption allegations.
It was with this action in mind that Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Councilmember Gleam Davis requested fellow city council members consider issuing a formal statement in support of LA County Measure A, in the final days of voting ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
“Measure A would allow the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to vote to remove the elected sheriff from office for cause. The vote requirement to remove the sheriff would be four-fifths. As of 2022, the County Board of Supervisors included five members, meaning an affirmative vote of four members would be needed,” according to the official overview of Measure A. “Measure A would define cause to include: violation of laws related to the sheriff’s duties; repeated neglect of the sheriff’s duties; misuse of public funds or properties; willful falsification of documents; or obstruction of an investigation into the department’s conduct.”
In initial discussions surrounding the motion that would become Measure A, various Supervisors complained about Villanueva in particular.
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 at the June 2022 hearing. “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 his official argument against the Measure, Villanueva said, “This motion is a recipe for public corruption, particularly when ‘cause’ remains so broad and undefined. Allowing political appointees with an agenda to determine ‘cause’ is fundamentally flawed.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger also submitted a formal argument against Measure A: “Giving the Board of Supervisors authority to remove an elected sheriff unequivocally takes away power from the public. It’s a move that has the potential to disenfranchise voters. It also overlooks the fact that a recall process already exists to remove elected officials who fail to perform their duties.”
These arguments were echoed in the Santa Monica City Council discussion at the Tuesday, Nov. 1, special council meeting.
“We have had one of our constituents, who also happens to be our Supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, subjected to an unwarranted and retaliatory search of her home as a result of the current sheriff’s desire, I guess, for lack of a better term, to punish, humiliate, embarrass her, whatever word it is you want to use,” Davis said. “It shows that we have a Sheriff who, within Santa Monica, is willing to exercise his powers in an inappropriate manner.” Davis went on to note allegations of LASD gangs and deputies shooting and abusing county residents.
“The idea is that it’s very hard to recall the Sheriff on a countywide level because you have to get signatures,” Davis continued. “And so, this is simply something that, again, in extraordinary circumstances would give some measure of accountability from the Sheriff.”
In response, Councilmember Oscar de la Torre said he believed that there was too high a danger that Supervisors could use the power to circumvent the democratic process.
“The voters then, if this passes, are pretty much giving up their power; they’re giving it to the Board of Supervisors to make the decision. So, in terms of the democratic process … I just can’t see how this is positive. Not that I’m supporting the behavior of the Sheriff, in any case, you know, but I do feel that you want protection against the abuse of power of anyone in government … people have a right to vote these people out of office,” de la Torre said, later adding, “Don’t you think that if the Board of Supervisors get that power, that maybe the Sheriff’s Office becomes more politicized? I know that in this case, maybe we might disagree with the Sheriff; what if, for example, there’s a very good Sheriff, he’s trying to hold the department accountable and the political elite of the governing board — in this case, the County Board Supervisors — they see it differently and they politicized that office?”
In the end, the motion to support Measure A fell in a 4-2 vote, with Himmelrich, who suggested the motion, not present at the hearing. Davis and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan voted in favor; de la Torre and Councilmembers Phil Brock, Lana Negrete and Christine Parra voted against.