Measure A is a county charter amendment measure on the ballot for the 2022 General Election. It seeks to change the Charter of the County of Los Angeles to empower the Board of Supervisors to remove an elected sheriff from office for specified types of misconduct.
The sheriff is an independent, elected office, the holder of which is not directly accountable to the Board of Supervisors or any other authority save for the county’s voters and the court system. Existing mechanisms by which a sheriff can be removed from office are limited to the recall process, a court ordered removal upon a conviction for “willful or corrupt misconduct in office,” or a successful challenge by a candidate during a regular election. There are no term limits for the office.
The full text of Measure A can be found in the county ordinance that placed it on the 2022 ballot, below.
Path to the Ballot
In Los Angeles County, a proposed amendment to the charter, which serves as the county’s constitutional document, can be added to the ballot in one of two ways: it can be introduced as a popular initiative, having demonstrated through signature collection that it has significant support among the voters of Los Angeles; or, it can be approved by the Board of Supervisors through an ordinance requiring that the amendment shall be voted upon at a given election. The Measure A initiative began with the Board of Supervisors, who voted to put it on the November ballot in July 2022.
The proximate series of events that resulted in Measure A going to the ballot starts in March 2020 when more than 70% of county voters cast their support for Measure R. Upon passage, Measure R gave the Civilian Oversight Commission broader subpoena powers to require cooperation from the Sheriff’s Department in the commission’s investigations.
When the commission first attempted to use its new authority under the provisions of R, however, it was stonewalled by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who told press his department was “not going to be participating in that.” Villanueva’s refusal, as characterized by the department, was evidently due to the sheriff bristling at his authority being curtailed by the Board of Supervisors and by voters, whom he claimed did not understand what they were voting for. Through a spokesman, the department called the subpoenas, which had been issued after the sheriff declined to voluntarily participate, “heavy-handed” and indicated that the sheriff’s preference would be for the commission to “negotiate” another way for the department to participate.
With the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors locked in a cycle of open conflict – including the supervisors taking the extraordinary step of refusing to pay a putative Sheriff’s Department employee after the sheriff had taken the likewise extraordinary step of rehiring the same employee after he had been fired for misconduct – the refusal of the sheriff to accept even a voter-mandated limitation of his authority led the supervisors to seek more extreme forms of recourse.
In October 2020, then-Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl introduced a motion to explore any potential means of removing an elected sheriff from office as well as the changes to relevant charters or constitutions that would be required to grant that power of removal to the Board. The Board of Supervisors approved that motion at its November 10, 2020 meeting in a 3-2 vote (Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn voting in opposition).
In January 2021, County Counsel returned a report on possible actions that could empower the Board to remove a sheriff. Among those options was submitting a charter amendment to the voters explicitly granting them that authority. In May 2022, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission adopted a resolution in support of placing such a charter amendment on the ballot for the general election. In July 2022, a motion to place the measure, Measure A, on the ballot was introduced by Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis. Four supervisors voted in support, with Supervisor Barger the lone dissenting vote.
What the Vote Means
- A vote of “Yes” SUPPORTS amending the Charter of the County of Los Angeles to provide for the removal of an elected Sheriff by a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors upon determination that the Sheriff has committed specific disallowed forms of conduct.
- A vote of “No” OPPOSES amending the Charter of the County of Los Angeles to provide for the removal of an elected Sheriff by a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors upon determination that the Sheriff has committed specific disallowed forms of conduct.
How I Am Voting
I am voting “Yes” in support of the ability for an elected sheriff to be removed by way of an administrative procedure rather than through an expensive recall process. While I do not consider the language of the measure to be without flaw, the downside of approving this measure is small when compared with the present status quo. Law enforcement should not, must not, be suffered to exist in a state of unaccountability.
The Board of Supervisors has been making halting progress in a campaign to impose some limits on the authority of the sheriff for a decade or more. Los Angeles is the most populous county in the country, and the sheriff, with his jurisdiction over the local jail system and a police force the size of an army division under his command, is among the most powerful local elected officials anywhere. For a long time, that power has been associated with cultures of corruption and violence within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
It is important to note that neither the reform process nor the appalling conduct of the Sheriff’s Department have their roots in the current administration of Sheriff Villanueva (though he does typify the threat posed to the public when so much power is concentrated in the hands of one reckless individual).
In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on the condition of the Los Angeles County jail system and the shocking, ferocious violence inflicted on inmates, frequently by or at the behest of deputy sheriffs. Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent out of the Los Angeles office who participated in the research for the report, said at that time there was, “at least a two decade history of corruption within the ranks” of the department (emphasis added).
The violence of the department led the Supervisors to create a reform-oriented commission, which issued a series of recommendations the next year. Among the potential options was a proposal seeking to divide control of the jails away from the sheriff and into the hands of an appointed official. Another possible path was to change the state’s constitution to allow for non-elected sheriffs.
This would be necessary in order for the County of Los Angeles to replace the existing elected office of sheriff with an appointed sheriff. Section 4(c) of Article XI of the California State Constitution mandates that all counties in the state have elected sheriffs.
That same provision incidentally allows for the provision of mechanisms for the removal of that officer. When the Board of Supervisors received their report back in 2021, a transcript from the meeting shows counsel relied on a memo from the California Attorney General and the previous experience of the County of San Bernardino, which had instituted its own procedure for removing elected officers in the early 2000s.
Section 305 of the Charter of the County of San Bernardino provides for the removal of any elected officer for cause by a four-fifths vote of the supervisors. In 2003, the then-sheriff of San Bernardino County, Gary Penrod, sued the county over the provision, even though there was no attempt by the supervisors to remove him from office. Penrod contested the constitutionality of the ordinance and sought to permanently enjoin it from taking effect. The Superior Court dismissed the complaint, finding the provision constitutional and enforceable. In 2005, the California Court of Appeal concurred, finding the county had “the legal right and duty to decide removal procedures for the sheriff,” so long as such a provision expressly maintained the independence of the sheriff’s autonomous investigative powers.
The influence of the San Bernardino case is evident in the development of Measure A. Because the charter provision there has already successfully withstood a legal challenge, the Board of Supervisors has sought to emulate it in most of its aspects. Like the San Bernardino precision, Measure A provides an explicit list of causes for which a sheriff can be removed from office; these are the only causes for which the sheriff can be removed. The causes are all identical in Measure A, with the addition of one extra: that the sheriff can be removed for obstructing investigations into his conduct or that of his department. Notably, where the charter in San Bernardino provides for the removal of any elected official, Measure A would amend the Los Angeles County charter only to provide for the removal of the sheriff.
It seems that the decision to set the bar at four-fifths of supervisors concurring in the removal action was also made at least in part because that threshold already had the blessing of the courts. However, Measure A would be better off if it used a standard of two-thirds instead of four-fifths. At present, with a five-member Board of Supervisors, the requirement would not change the number of necessary votes: in either case, four out of five supervisors would need to approve. However, the Board of Supervisors must eventually be expanded, and, when that happens, an 80% approval rate for an administrative removal will likely be an inappropriately high bar. Additionally, while the appeals court ruling does mention the four-fifths standard directly as being constitutional, this appears to be because they were directly ruling on the provision before them. There is little reason to expect a different supermajority standard would make the measure unconstitutional.