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Criminal Justice

LA County Supervisors Seek The Power To Eject Elected Sheriffs From Office

Sheriff Alex Villanueva stands in uniform with his right hand raised at a news conference.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Screenshot from Sheriff's Department Facebook video)
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Driven by anger over Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s refusal to submit to civilian oversight and allegedly illegal behavior, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took the first step Tuesday towards giving itself the power to remove an elected sheriff from office.

On a 4-1 vote, the board asked county lawyers to draft language for a November ballot initiative that would allow four of the five supervisors to vote to oust the head of the nation’s third largest law enforcement agency for various types of misconduct.

Right now, voters must wait until the end of a sheriff’s four-year term to get rid of them. They can also launch a recall campaign, but in populous L.A. County upwards of 570,000 signatures from registered voters are needed to qualify a recall for the ballot.

“Establishing meaningful checks and balances on the County Sheriff is long overdue,” states the motion co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell. The motion says "abuse of power has been able to thrive unchecked with few, if any, meaningful consequences.”

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According to the motion, the board would be able to remove a sheriff for “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; or 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.”

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl also voted in favor of placing the measure on the ballot.

'The Sheriff Has Seemed To Raise Some Alarms'

“As much as we say it is not about this sheriff — that it’s about the sheriff’s office — I do know that this sheriff has seemed to raise some alarms,” Hahn told LAist. “I think [voters] are in the mood to give the supervisors that power.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger was the lone dissenting vote. She told us she opposed the motion on the grounds that it would set a “dangerous precedent” because the board is “targeting an individual.”

Barger argued giving such power to the board is “diluting the voice of the voters” and wondered why the motion doesn’t include allowing the board to remove all county officers.

“Shame on the board,” she said.

Barger notes the state attorney general may also file criminal charges against a sheriff and if found guilty they would be removed from office.

Within days of taking office, Villanueva rehired Carl Mandoyan, a deputy who had been fired over allegations of domestic violence and lying to investigators. The board took him to court for violating civil service rules and a judge ultimately ordered Villanueva to reverse his decision.

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When Inspector General Max Huntsman issued a report critical of how the sheriff handled the matter, Villanueva launched a criminal investigation into Huntsman.

And Villanueva has defied numerous subpoenas to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission to discuss issues ranging from his handling of jail inmates during the pandemic to deputy gangs. The sheriff has said gangs do not exist in his department, despite some deputies saying they are a serious problem.

The motion also accuses the sheriff of “failing to comply with federal court orders to provide information on deputy misconduct.”

The board has been “limited in its ability to serve as a sufficient check against the Sheriff’s flagrant disregard of lawful oversight and accountability,” the motion states. Supervisors decide how much money to allot to the sheriff’s department each year but beyond that have little control over what a sheriff does.

The motion directs county counsel to provide the board with the proposed ballot language in time for the supervisors to vote on it at their July 26 meeting.

Villanueva: The Board Is Trying 'To Cheat The System"

Late Monday Villanueva released a letter to the supervisors blasting the motion, saying, “[t]he board is attempting to cheat the system and create a ‘fast track’ pathway to remove a duly elected sheriff, one which circumvents the law and the foundational principles of due process enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The sheriff went on: "You are not putting it in the hands of the voters. You are putting it in the hands of political activists … who wrote the basis for this motion and … whose mission is to abolish law enforcement.”

Villanueva is up for reelection in November. He faces former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. In the June primary, Villanueva finished with about 31% of the vote to Luna’s roughly 26%, a poor showing for an incumbent sheriff.

On Monday, Luna announced that all five supervisors — Solis, Mitchell, Hahn, Sheila Kuehl and Kathryn Barger — have endorsed his candidacy.

In 2002, San Bernardino County voters gave their Board of Supervisors the power to remove the sheriff, DA and other county officers by a four-fifths vote for misconduct.

For more than a year, the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and other groups have lobbied supervisors to place such a measure on the ballot.

“I have seen some frustration that I haven’t seen before,” Hahn said, adding she has gotten hundreds of phone calls and emails about Villanueva and the need to be able to remove a sheriff more easily.

This story was updated at 2:18 pm on July 12 to reflect the outcome of the Board's vote.

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