Sheriff Ousted as Head of County Emergency Operations

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Amid local efforts to ramp up official response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to remove Sheriff Alex Villanueva as head of the county’s emergency operations center.

The vote, a unanimous 5-0, to pass the ordinance was made at a March 31 virtual meeting. 

The ordinance amends Los Angeles County government code, which originally stated: “The sheriff of the County of Los Angeles is hereby designated director of emergency operations with responsibility for coordinating emergency operations following whole or partial activation of the Los Angeles County operational area.” 

Those involved with the emergency operations center (EOC) are charged with coordinating the county’s emergency and disaster preparedness, response and recovery, per the text of the ordinance.

The board has said the new ordinance was primarily created to avoid a repeat of the response to the 2018 Woolsey Fire. The After Action Report, a review compiled by the office of Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and a task force of local officials, stated a need for a “central coordination” for county agencies. It was first introduced after the report was released in November 2019—on the Nov. 19 agenda, there was an item addressing “Building State-of-the-Art Emergency Operations for Los Angeles County” to assign the county’s chief executive officer with coordinating disaster response, among other actions. 

In his address to the supervisors, Villanueva questioned the need for a change based on the report’s recommendation.

“It makes no recommendation to gut the emergency services or the roles of the leadership positions, merely how they work together,” he said, adding: “This radical gutting of the emergency services code in light of the worldwide pandemic is irresponsible, a brazen attempt to consolidate power with the Board of Supervisors while at the same time insulating you from any negative fallout that arises out of the poor level of preparation of county government as a whole.”

Villanueva disputed that he had known about the ordinance since November, calling the notion “factually false.”

Kuehl, who represents an area of the county including Malibu, was the first supervisor to address his comments. She began with the history of the code, later echoed by county counsel Mary Wickham.

“Based on our research, our board has not acted historically or triggered government code section 26620 authorizing the sheriff to head up the emergency control operation,” Wickham explained, meaning that the board never unanimously voted for the code.

Kuehl also addressed the timing of the ordinance and attributed it to a delay requested by the Woolsey Fire task force. 

“So, I would respectfully indicate to the Sheriff that this is not about him. It’s not about his candidacy having been opposed. It’s not about his attitude. It’s just not about him,” she said. 

Kuehl referred to just one of many clashes the sheriff has had with the board a year into his term. These clashes focused on the sheriff’s department spending and hiring.

She concluded her reasoning by suggesting Villanueva “take a look even at his own operation” for ways to better protect law enforcement and prison inmates.

At a press conference addressing COVID-19 updates held later that day, March 31, Villanueva said, “Since the sheriff’s department is no longer responsible for the emergency management operation of this crisis, our personnel who are currently at the county emergency operations center are going to remain there. The ball is in play and we’re not going to let the ball drop at any time. 

“When the Board of Supervisors develops a transition plan, we’re more than willing to start replacing our personnel with their personnel as appropriate and so we’ll be waiting for them.”

The first question during the public Q&A portion of the conference referred to the timing of the EOC reorganization and its impact on public safety. Board Chair and Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger allowed that “from an optics standpoint, the timing is not the best,” but said both the sheriff and the board had the lives of their constituents at the forefront.

When asked whether the EOC reorganization would be beneficial for Malibu, Mayor Karen Farrer said, “I wouldn’t guess on that. I do put my faith in the county supervisors and I support their action.”

LA County CEO Sachi Hamai will take over from Villanueva to lead emergency operations, as designated by the newly-adopted ordinance.