Villanueva Could Do What Decades Of Police Reformers Couldn’t: Set Boundaries To The LA County Sheriff

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In Los Angeles County, when it comes to policing, the lines of authority have always been clear: The Board of Supervisors checks the wallet and the Sheriff does the rest.

But after four turbulent years in which Sheriff Alex Villanueva took on the board and indignantly fought his efforts to contain him, that balance of power seems likely to be dramatically upset by voters.

Many votes are yet to be counted, but voters have so far overwhelmingly voted in favor of Measure A, an amendment to the county charter, proposed by regulators, that would give the board the power to appoint an elected sheriff. to fire.

In an updated vote count released Thursday, 69% of people had supported the proposal. It only takes a simple majority to pass. It is not known how many ballots remain to be counted and when the count will be completed.

“I’ve always felt very strongly that you shouldn’t take that power away from the voters, but I was ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s see what the voters think about this – do they really want to give the Board of Trustees more power? ?’” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who supported the measure on the November vote.

The early result, Hahn continued, “says they spoke loud and clear that they want the board of trustees to have the power to remove a sheriff who is dangerous or corrupt.”

Observers and proponents of the measure say the result marks a clear rebuke from Villanueva, who for four years rejected the watchdogs appointed by the board to keep him under control.

But Villanueva won’t be sheriff forever — he’s currently badly behind in his bid for a second term from former Long Beach police chief Robert Luna. And if Measure A succeeds, whoever comes after him will step in under a new reality in which the regulators have an undeniable new level of influence.

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“Sheriffs before this law understood they were on their own,” said Julie Diaz-Martinez, whose grandson, Paul Rea, was murdered by a sheriff’s aide in East LA. “And that there was no accountability because as elected leaders they believed that there was no government agency, no government agency that would really control them.”

Adopting the measure, she said, would mean “every new sheriff understands that their job performance is being reviewed.” She spent Election Day telebanking to encourage voters to support the measure.

Under the terms of the measure, at least four out of five supervisors would have to agree that a sheriff should be removed from office. Reasons for removing the sheriff include breaking the law or other serious misconduct, such as “blatant or repeated dereliction of duty, misappropriation of funds, deliberate falsification of documents, or obstruction of an investigation.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the only board member who disagreed with putting the measure on the ballot, suggested it would be difficult to ensure the new power is not abused later, as the seats of flip the council and switch the sheriffs.

“It’s a slippery slope. I think that’s why it’s going to be important to really understand exactly what causation means,” she said. “As governance changes…I think the lens they’re going to look at at removal may also change.”

For Supervisor Hilda Solis, who was re-elected in the June primaries to what she said would be her last four-year term on the board, the ability to remove a sheriff equates to a good insurance policy going forward.

“It’s kind of like in our pocket — if you don’t have to use it, it’s fine, but when you need it, it’s there,” Solis said. “And I may not be there if I need to.”

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Before the election, Villanueva called the proposed measure a “cheap political stunt” designed to hurt his chances for a second term in office and suggested he face a legal challenge.

He echoed the idea in a statement from a department spokesperson on Thursday. “Measure A appears unconstitutional and is likely to be quashed in the courts if challenged,” Villanueva said.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who drafted the motion to put the measure on the ballot because of “overwhelming reach” by voters, claimed the language was constitutionally correct.

Sheriffs for Villanueva have long maintained that they are accountable to voters. In 2012, during hearings convened by the Los Angeles County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, then-Sheriff Lee Baca was asked how he could be held responsible for deputy abuse and other problems in county jails run by the sheriff.

“Don’t choose me!” replied Baca. He eventually went to jail for obstructing a federal investigation into the abuse of inmates in the district prison system and for lying to prosecutors about his role.

Whether the current Board of Trustees thinks Villanueva has done something blatant enough to justify his removal will be a moot point if he loses to Luna.

If Villanueva manages to win a comeback and the benchmark passes, the board that decides whether to use his newfound power will look different from the one that fought Villanueva. Sheila Kuehl, one of the sheriff’s most ardent critics, bids farewell.

“When he’s gone, the only point of this is you get someone like him again,” said Mario Mainero, associate dean at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, referring to Measure A. If he’s re-elected, “it’s real a political decision about whether the board thinks the kinds of things he’s done warrant expulsion.

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He pointed to Villanueva’s opposition to subpoenas calling on him to testify under oath about controversies in the department, as well as the widespread belief that Villanueva has organized criminal investigations targeting opponents.

“Are those justifications? In my opinion they are because they are an abuse of power,” Mainero said. ‘Do I think they justify his removal? Personally, yes.”

A Supreme Court judge this week ordered the sheriff to demonstrate why he should not be regarded with contempt for refusing to comply with three subpoenas, while the LA County District Attorney’s office said it has opened an investigation to whether he violated state law when he solicited campaign donations from deputies.

Zev Yaroslavsky, a former supervisor and director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he doesn’t expect supervisors to casually use their newfound power if the measure is passed. The four votes needed to remove a sheriff and the requirement that a sheriff has committed serious violations have allayed many of his concerns about the proposal.

The measure, he said, may also prompt the sheriff not to pinch himself if he is inattentive.

“A political body should not remove another political person because they have a disagreement,” he said. “It really has to be some kind of slam dunk violation.”

For a voter at a polling station in Marina del Rey on Election Day, it was a no-brainer.

“Every employee is fired for a reason,” 46-year-old Sabine Pleissner said when explaining her support for Measure A. “Why shouldn’t a sheriff be fired for an urgent reason? At least that should be a higher standard.”