Wave Staff Report
LOS ANGELES — One of the more interesting news stories of 2020 was the power struggle between the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Villanueva was elected sheriff in 2018, defeating incumbent Jim McConnell by 140,000 votes. It was the first time in 104 years that county voters had unseated an incumbent sheriff.
As an elected official, Villanueva does not directly report to the Board of Supervisors like other county department heads, but the board does control the Sheriff’s Department’s budget and the board has used that power in an effort to make Villanueva toe the line.
Instead, Villanueva has thumbed his nose at the board.
The first sign of contention between Villanueva surfaced in 2019 when Villanueva reinstated Caren Carl Mandoyan, a former member of the department who was fired in 2016 over domestic violence allegations. Mandoyan had worked on Villanueva’s campaign for sheriff and Villanueva reinstated shortly after taking office.
In August 2019, the Board of Supervisors went to court over Mandoyan’s reinstatement and a judge ruled that the sheriff could not rehire or reinstate Mandoyan without approval of the Board of Supervisors or the county counsel’s office.
In 2020, the relationship between the board and Villanueva took a turn for the worse after the outbreak of the coronavirus.
On March 31, the board voted to put then-County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai in charge of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, a role Villanueva insisted was his.
The board had voted to update its plan for emergency preparedness in November 2019 after reviewing an “after action report” on the 2018 Woolsey Fire.
That report highlighted a lack of coordination between all the agencies managing the fire and its aftermath that led to missteps.
Firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, public health workers and public works employees — among others called to deal with the blaze — operated within departmental silos and relied on ad hoc responses, according to the report.
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said at the time “in this [public health] emergency it would be totally inappropriate for any law enforcement agency to be in charge of anything other than law enforcement. This is the appropriate and 21st century response to emergencies.”
Villanueva responded by telling the supervisors “I am the voice of Los Angeles County.”
In April, the board approved a $35.5 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, with $3.5 billion earmarked for the Sheriff’s Department. Villanueva said his budget fell $400 million short of “the actual cost of providing public safety” in the county.
He responded by announcing he would close the Altadena and Marina del Rey sheriff’s stations. The board ordered him not to close the two stations.
“These station closures were announced without any vetting or advance notice, validation of cost savings, or assessment of impact on public safety,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “As a result, our communities are rightly concerned — as is this board.”
Villanueva answered: “We really don’t have a lot of fat to trim” from the budget.
In May, Villanueva defied a subpoena to appear at a meeting of the county Civilian Oversight Commission, a panel created by the board to oversee the Sheriff’s Department.
The commission wanted Villanueva to report on how he and his command staff handled photographs taken by deputies at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other people in January.
“The sheriff is reported to have directed the destruction of evidence,” Inspector General Max Huntsman said at the time. “If we were to ask the sheriff to investigate himself, there would be an obvious conflict of interest.”
Villanueva told reporters he had no intention of attending the meeting and questioned the constitutionality of the voter-approved measure that created the Civilian Oversight Commission.
In June, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pursue an independent review of the investigation into the fatal shooting by sheriff’s deputies of Andres Guardado, an 18-year-old who was working as a security guard at a auto repair shop in an unincorporated area between Compton and Gardena.
In a motion written by Ridley-Thomas, the board directed county lawyers, the inspector general, coroner and Civilian Oversight Commission to come up with a plan to make sure that the “truth is uncovered and justice is served.”
The Sheriff’s Department said Guardado was carrying an unregistered handgun with an illegal ammunition magazine and was not wearing clothing identifying himself as a security guard when he ran away after being confronted by police.
The county’s medical examiner later released the coroner’s report on Guardado’s autopsy after the Sheriff’s Department had placed a hold on its release. The coroner later called for an inquest into Guardado’s death, the first time in 30 years the coroner’s office had called for an inquest.
In September, the board voted to transfer $25.5 million to the Sheriff’s Department to fund the roll-out of body-worn cameras to patrol deputies over the next year.
“Body worn cameras will provide increased opportunity to review our performance following critical incidents, reduce force and complaints, reduce allegations of misconduct, showcase exemplary work and provide additional evidence in criminal matters,” the sheriff said.
“These body-worn cameras, they don’t solve everything, but they put a lot of things in perspective,” Ridley-Thomas responded.
Later in the month, the Civilian Oversight Commission and two members of the Board of Supervisors called for Villanueva’s resignation.
“The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deserve better,” said commission member Robert Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration,
“He is really a rogue sheriff,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “… His violation of any of the common rules that govern a law enforcement agency is the greatest threat to public safety.”
Villanueva called the commission a “political body appointed by the Board of Supervisors. They’re just part of the echo chamber of the board.”
The Board of Supervisors later voted to have the county counsel study ways of removing Villanueva from office.
It was only after that that Villanueva tried to repair the broken relationship. He asked to meet privately with each supervisor.
“We are a county family and when there is collaboration we can do great things,” he said. “Let’s set aside the past and work out our differences.”
As the year ended, a judge had set a January hearing to determine if Villanueva should be held in contempt of court for defying a subpoena to appear before the oversight commission to discuss the coronavirus problem in county jails and the inspector general released a report accusing the Sheriff’s Department of obstructing investigations.
The contention between the sheriff, the Board of Supervisors and the Civilian Oversight Commission appears certain to continue into 2021.