Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is a temporary problem. He’s one person who can be removed from office by recall, election, or in his case, possibly by indictment and a conviction. Death is not entirely off the table either as the late Sheriff Sherman Block found out when he died in office days prior to the election. So why the rush to amend Los Angeles’ charter in a power grab to give the Board of Supervisors the authority to remove him?
You will get no argument from me about the need for Villanueva to exit stage left with haste. I agree with the rest of LA voters who find him to be a shorter local version of former President Donald Trump but with a badge. In fact, many of the same words that are used to describe Trump could easily be said of Villanueva–Republican, bigot, dishonest, racist, narcissist, bully, arrogant, ignorant, liar, criminal and incompetent.
That said, I am leery about giving the Board of Supervisors the power to remove any elected person from office. It’s not a part of their job description and it never has been. And just as important, are LA voters setting themselves up for a repeat of 2004 when a judge struck down a voter-approved ballot measure where voters overwhelmingly supported three four-year terms for the sheriff, assessor, and district attorney? The 2002 measure was approved by 61% of voters but was ultimately invalidated by a judge who ruled county voters have no legal authority to impose term limits on the sheriff, whose office is governed by the state Constitution.
It’s no secret that in politics we play on voters’ emotions. Nothing spurns people into action faster than emotion. Whether it’s anger over the lack of abortion access or righteous indignation over trans girls in women’s athletics, that passion drives people to get into the street to march and to the polls to vote.
In Los Angeles emotions are running high among the left when it comes to Sheriff Villanueva. Thanks to the endless headlines featuring Villanueva’s Trump-like stunts and his seeming support for and denial of deputy gangs, his MAGA-like defiance of subpoenas from any agency he doesn’t like, and his resistance to any type of oversight has long angered the progressive left and finally penetrated the ruling moderate left.
Villanueva is clearly not the man he sold voters in 2018 and has thus earned the nickname DINO–Democrat in name only. But he’s a temporary problem–with or without term limits. Given the timing of the charter amendment and the upcoming election, are voters admitting defeat already and putting in place a contingency plan to deal with Villanueva?
Apart from that, there are a lot more questions than answers about the proposed charter amendment.
What would happen if the charter amendment passed and was put into action?
If the supes remove a duly elected sheriff will they have the power to appoint an interim sheriff? If so what’s that process and for how long would they serve? Do voters have any real input in the process? Would there be a special election or would voters be stuck with whomever the supes appoint until the next regularly scheduled election?
In a police abolitionist environment that has seen politicians move in record speed from one side to another in an effort to stay on the good side of activists, could there ever really be a sheriff capable of making the progressive left happy? I mean, the position after all, while largely administrative, is to make sure that the law is obeyed.
But what about the supes? We may like the five elected members now but what if we don’t in the future? Unlike the sheriff, the supes actually have term limits. What happens when years from now all of the gentrification that’s drastically changing our neighborhood also impacts the political landscape and who gets elected in the future? What if those people don’t agree with the majority on the board now and go in the opposite direction? Then what?
Being the sheriff of LA County is not the same as being appointed to the Supreme Court. Term limits or not, it isn’t a guaranteed position for life. Just ask one-term sheriff Jim McDonnell and former district attorney Jackie Lacey.
If the supes want to really look out for the voters and the future of the office of the sheriff they could use their considerable power to bring in the federal government to investigate Villanueva. They could pick up where they left off in 2004 when the then Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against challenging the ruling by Judge Andria K. Richey that county voters have no legal authority to impose term limits on the sheriff. The board could use their own campaign war chests and influence to make sure that Villanueva’s opponent trounces him in November. The supes could even support a recall of Villanueva if he managed to win in November.
Maybe we could try some or all of these options before resorting to playing off of the emotions of voters and using a charter amendment to do a power grab to possibly rid ourselves of Villanueva. I say possibly because there is no guarantee that even if passed by voters the amendment will hold up in court.
As the African proverb goes, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt. The voters are the grass.
Jasmyne Cannick is a political strategist in Los Angeles.