Justice groups support Measure A, allowing LA County supervisors to fire elected sheriffs

With statewide ballot measure ads bombarding voters, a controversial but lesser known measure that gives the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors the power to remove voter-elected sheriffs awaits a decision by voters on Nov. 8.

If approved by a majority of L.A. County voters, the unprecedented Measure A grants power to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to remove a publicly elected sheriff from office —  if they prove that the sheriff broke the law, neglected his or her duties, misappropriated funds, falsified documents or obstructed an investigation of the sheriff or the Sheriff’s Department.

Under Measure A, the Board of Supervisors could initiate what some are calling “an impeachment” of the sheriff by alleging violations that the sheriff would then respond to. The Board of Supervisors could fire the sheriff if four of the five supervisors voted to remove him or her.

The Board of Supervisors, in its motion to place Measure A on the ballot, argued that L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has blocked investigations of deputy gangs, resisted oversight by the county into fatal shootings by deputies, defied subpoenas and resisted the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission’s efforts to investigate the controversies, with Villanueva arguing that the commission is biased.

In a letter Villanueva sent on Sunday to Brian K. Williams, executive director of the oversight commission, Villanueva said he is willing to testify at the commission if he can review evidence in advance, cross-examine witnesses and use a neutral hearing officer.

The supervisors’ motion claims that Villanueva has obstructed investigations by the oversight committee and the Office of Inspector General. They argued that Lee Baca, a popular sheriff, went to prison for hiding abuse in the Men’s Central Jail in 2011. And they said that Sheriff Peter Pitchess, who served from 1958 to 1981, “resisted any involvement in the first internal investigation of deputy gangs from outside the department.”

Supervisor Holly Mitchell, a co-author of the motion, said when it was introduced, “The county has had a long and troubling history with sheriff oversight and transparency.”

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Aug. 2 to place the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger voted against it.

On Monday, Oct. 17, in an interview, Villanueva called the four supervisors’ allegations “nonsense.” He said the four supervisors and more than 100 justice groups are falsely promoting Measure A as a check on the office of the sheriff, not an effort directed at him.

Villanueva, who has tangled with the board throughout his four-year term, said, “This is definitely directed at me because they (Board of Supervisors) don’t want an independent sheriff. This is nothing but a power grab.”

Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie of Church Without Walls in L.A.’s Skid Row, said 120 justice and sheriff-reform groups back the measure, including local chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP. The groups helped write the measure and urged the Board of Supervisor to put it before voters. “We had to convince the Board of Supervisors it was the right thing to do. It did not originate with the board,” he said in an interview Oct. 17.

Villanueva says the Board of Supervisors is targeting him, saying the measure would rewrite Los Angeles County’s charter, granting new powers and oversight to supervisors regarding the elected sheriff, but not give them the power to fire the elected county district attorney or the elected county assessor.

On the same ballot on Nov. 8, voters will vote for sheriff, either Villanueva or Robert Luna. In the June primary Villanueva earned the most votes but fell well below the 50% needed to win outright. Now he faces a tough battle against Luna, a former Long Beach police chief.

Villanueva said the Board of Supervisors will use Measure A “as a tool to attract voters to support their case to vote against me” for sheriff.

In a written statement, First District Supervisor Hilda Solis disagreed, saying Measure A gives the county a tool needed for oversight.

“Ensuring our residents are free from law enforcement intimidation, harassment, and misconduct and holding them accountable for any ensuing harm and trauma is the Board of Supervisors’ responsibility, specifically over the Sheriff of Los Angeles County,” Solis wrote.

Barger, who opposed the measure, said in a written statement: “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.”

That argument is also made in the sample ballot in the “Argument Against Measure A” and the “Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure A” written in part by Honor “Mimi” Robson, chair of the Libertarian Party of California.

Robson, in an interview on Monday, said there are other ways to remove a sheriff, such as convicting him or her of breaking the law, or launching a recall election.

“Anyone who wants to get a sheriff out of office can simply vote for his opposition,” Robson said. “Let’s say the current sheriff wins. The day after a majority of voters votes for the sheriff, he can be removed by four of the five supervisors the very next day. If that is not disenfranchisement, I don’t know what is.”

Pastor Cue said elections are not enough to hold the sheriff accountable. He argued that recall election cost money, something low-income residents do not have. “We don’t think elections are sufficient to be able to hold someone accountable,” he said.

The ballot argument in favor, written in part by Dolores Huerta, Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said: “Measure A establishes long-overdue checks and balances and essential civilian oversight” over the sheriff’s post. They concluded: “Future sheriffs will know that they cannot violate the law and people’s rights without consequence.”

Villanueva believes the measure is unconstitutional and could be overturned in court.

However, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in constitutional law, says there’s legal precedent for such a measure.

In 2005, a California appellate court approved a similar law allowing the supervisors of San Bernardino County to remove the sheriff for various reasons. “It looks like the 2005 appellate case is controlling. I believe Measure A is constitutional,” Levinson said.

Title, Text of Measure

Title: Charter Amendment — Providing Authority To Remove An Elected Sheriff For Cause

Text: Shall the measure amending the County of Los Angeles Charter to grant the Board of Supervisors authority to remove an elected Sheriff from office for cause, including a violation of law related to a Sheriff’s duties, flagrant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropriation of funds, willful falsification of documents, or obstructing an investigation, by a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors, after written notice and an opportunity to be heard, be adopted?

Votes Needed: A majority of the votes cast

Election: Nov. 8, 2022

Related links

Measure allowing LA County Supervisors to remove sheriff is inching closer to November ballot
Measure empowering LA County Supervisors to remove elected sheriff will be on November ballot
Commission blasts Villanueva for refusing to testify about alleged deputy gangs
Election 2022: LA County sheriff Alex Villanueva in tight fight on Nov. 8 against challenger Robert Luna
Villanueva, Luna spar in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s debate

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