LOS ANGELES — Sheriff Alex Villanueva of Los Angeles County says being removed as the head of the Office of Emergency Management will put residents in jeopardy in the long run.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for his removal.

In an interview with Spectrum News 1’s Giselle Fernandez where no questions were off limits, Sheriff Villanueva said he believes the county supervisors are vindictive and retaliatory in their actions against him.

What You Need To Know

  • The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted on March 31 to remove Sheriff Villanueva as head of emergency ops.

  • During an in-depth interview with Spectrum News 1, the sheriff called it political warfare.

  • Supervisor Kathyn Barger said the vote stemmed from an independent audit on the county's Woolsey Fire response.

  • "I absolutely have no animosity toward the sheriff," said Supervisor Janice Hahn.

“This COVID-19 pandemic is going to have a way to show who's a true leader and who’s a politician,” he said.

According to Villanueva, there wasn't any coordination between the different departments when health orders had to be enforced in March due to COVID-19.

“We’re not even part of the discussion,” Villanueva said. “It left not just the sheriff’s department, but all of the law enforcement throughout the county scrambling.”

He said the county has problems with emergency operations and communication, adding that silos were created with the L.A. County Department of Public Health and L.A. County Department of Health Services.

In a news conference in March, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said the vote for his removal had been on the agenda since earlier in the month and stemmed from an independent audit of the county’s response to the deadly Woolsey Fire of 2018. The audit recommended changes to emergency operations last fall.

During the in-depth interview with Spectrum News 1, the sheriff called it political warfare. The board of supervisors insists it’s not—they just want the sheriff to do his job, balance his budget, and adhere to lawful hiring practices. 

Supervisor Janice Hahn addressed it on a recent episode of Inside the Issues.

“I absolutely have no animosity toward the sheriff,” she said. “The day the election is over, we all have to work together, and I think the public really is looking at us right now.”

The sheriff says it was a distraction.

“I mean, the challenges are big enough with the pandemic, with all these different things that it poses,” Villanueva said. “To have the added conflict with the board, it's neither needed nor necessary at this point in time.”

In less than two years, the supervisors froze the sheriff’s hiring and spending powers for repeatedly going over budget. They removed him from the helm of the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management. They also filed a lawsuit against him for reinstating a deputy accused of domestic violence. 

"They know, and the information is already out there, that it was a wrongful accusation," Villanueva said. 

These are all actions Villanueva calls retaliation, a power grab, and silent coup. 

“They should spend more time figuring out how to do their job right than try to tell me how to do my job,” the sheriff said.

The sheriff says he thinks this is all about power.

“Under my predecessor, they had kind of what they wanted,” Villanueva said. “They had someone who acted just like another appointed department director. They did not want someone who would operate independently, and I represent all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County—not one district, all 10 million. I serve at their pleasure, and I want to make sure what I campaigned on, I’m delivering on, and that is my bond with the people who put me in office.”

Spectrum News 1 asked each supervisor to respond, and they declined to appear on camera. But Supervisor Sheila Kuehl sent the following statement: 

As a member of the Board of Supervisors, I, like my colleagues, took an oath to do all I could to ensure the health and safety of 10 million LA County residents. That’s the reason why the Supervisors chose to update County emergency operations and transition leadership of the Emergency Operation Center from the Sheriff to the Office of Emergency Management. This is a step that has been taken by many forward-thinking jurisdictions in recent years including the majority of counties in California, and we believe that it will strengthen emergency operations in those moments when County residents need it most. 

The Supervisors have also resisted attempts to reinstate a former Sheriff’s Department deputy who was terminated, and whose termination was upheld by the Civil Service Commission. We believe that the Sheriff’s Department must be staffed by individuals of unimpeachable integrity and that rehiring individuals who have been dismissed does a disservice to the many honorable deputies who serve on the force. 

This week, the Board will take additional steps to bring the Sheriff’s Department budget into balance. Last year, the Sheriff’s Department ran a $63 million deficit and it is projected to run an $89 million deficit this year. These deficits aren’t fair to taxpayers and they are detrimental to the overall County budget since the overrun reduces funding to the budgets of other essential County departments. No other County department runs a deficit, and every law enforcement agency in the country operates within a balanced budget, so I am confident that the LA County Sheriff’s Department can operate within a balanced budget as well. 

In each of these instances, we have been motivated by our responsibility to County residents to ensure that their tax dollars are well-used and that we provide the critical services LA County residents rely on.