The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 this week to look at options for removing elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva as the county’s top lawman, rather than waiting to see if voters will do so in 2022.
Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn dissented, saying the matter should be left in the hands of Los Angeles County voters.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored the motion recommending that the county direct its lawyers, inspector general, civilian oversight commissioners and acting CEO to look at possible avenues for removing the sheriff or cutting back his responsibilities.
Everyone on the board has raised concerns about Villanueva’s lack of accountability, including his willingness to flout subpoenas issued by oversight agencies. Yet the board split on this particular issue, with both sides claiming the moral high ground of supporting democratic principles.
Ridley-Thomas—who tabled consideration of the motion two weeks ago when Barger and Hahn first indicated their opposition—said the idea of an elected sheriff was outdated.
“Despite the exponential growth of the county and tremendous advances of modern-day policing, we are still beholden to this anachronistic model of law enforcement,” Ridley-Thomas said, reading from an opinion piece he wrote in 2014 for the Huffington Post. “We hold a popularity contest for arguably our most important law enforcement position. The result is that we have something worse than democracy—we have the illusion of democracy.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn said democracy dictated that voters settle the matter.
“It’s no secret that this board does not see eye-to-eye with this particular sheriff, and I have to point out that it’s not for lack of trying … this sheriff has acted like he’s not accountable to anyone but himself,” Hahn said. However, “(voters) can recall him or they can vote him out when his term’s up. That’s how democracy works … I don’t think it’s our job to remove an eleced official.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis asked that consideration of a report back on the options be held until January so that Sen. Holly Mitchell, just elected to replace Ridley-Thomas, could lend her voice to the discussion.
The changes under consideration include amending the state constitution toward an appointed, rather than elected sheriff. Many activists said the current sheriff is just the latest flawed leader of the department and expressed support for a permanent shift to an appointed post.