The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is taking steps to remove Sheriff Alex Villanueva as the head of the county's emergency operations center during the coronavirus outbreak, a move he called a "pure power grab at the worst time possible."
Three supervisors reached late Wednesday said the proposed change is months in the making and stems from the need to centralize disaster operations after a fragmented response during the deadly Woolsey fire, which killed three people and burned nearly 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties in 2018.
But Villanueva said the timing suggests retaliation for his decision to close gun shops during the pandemic, viewing them as nonessential businesses.
"This is pretty much a silent coup, what they're trying to orchestrate," Villanueva said. "We should be worried about masks, about test kits, and I have [Supervisor] Kathryn Barger worried about guns and ammunition."
In a statement late Wednesday, Barger said she has not commented on Villanueva's decision to close gun stores. She also said the Woolsey fire illustrated a need to "modernize our emergency operations efforts and align with best practices in other jurisdictions."
A spokeswoman for Barger noted that a motion to place the county's chief executive in charge of coordinating disaster preparedness as well as the activation and operation of the emergency center was brought to the board in November.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas echoed that in interviews Wednesday night.
"I think the sheriff erroneously believes that centering the response to this crisis to the Office of Emergency Management is somehow a dis to him," Kuehl said. "And yet I can't imagine that anyone would say that the sheriff should be coordinating all the health departments and the homelessness outreach and placement in housing — these are all different areas of the county that have grown up since we first had that old ordinance."
Ridley-Thomas said the board is focused on managing the most serious threat to public health in county history instead of engaging in "petty conflicts" with the sheriff.
The conflict highlights the ongoing power struggle between the sheriff and the board that began soon after he took office in December 2018. They have clashed over a variety of issues, including hiring decisions and spending.
Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said the public and deputies are "sick and tired" of the political tussles between the sheriff and the board.
"I believe the community is focused on keeping their families safe during this pandemic, and our deputies share that sentiment. These petty squabbles over power during a crisis are exactly what we don’t need," he said. "To the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors, we say: Try acting like adults and focus on the emergency."
After Villanueva announced this week that gun shops needed to close their doors, he said he learned that the county's legal counsel had issued an opinion that such stores were essential businesses.
Early Wednesday, Villanueva tweeted that the Sheriff's Department's “efforts to close nonessential businesses have been suspended” and that Gov. Gavin Newsom would “determine what qualifies” as one.
When asked about the back-and-forth during a news conference later Wednesday, Newsom said he would defer to the sheriff on the issue.
Villanueva said he had sought to minimize the threat posed by first-time gun buyers panic-purchasing weapons at a time when homes are crowded, raising the possibility of suicides and domestic violence. "We'll have to mop up the mess left behind," he said.
Earlier in the week, Villanueva had criticized the county's virtual news briefings on the health crisis and noted that the Sheriff's Department was kept out of the county's decision to issue a stay-at-home order.
"This is about taking care of people, not taking care of elected officials or politicians," he told KTTV-TV Channel 11 in a segment he posted to his social media accounts. "When I see the same faces, and they're saying a lot but there's no substance, you eventually become background noise."
Villanueva has been hosting his own news conferences, separate from the ones hosted by Barger at the Hall of Administration, and said he has invited other county officials to the briefings.
"I've been working hard to bring everyone together," he said.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the proposal next week.