L.A. County supervisors and sheriff in standoff over coronavirus emergency response

Alene Tchekmedyian
The Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal to change Sheriff Alex Villanueva's role in the county's emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.  (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In recent weeks, Los Angeles County supervisors and other local leaders have gathered most days at the Hall of Administration to give virtual updates about how the coronavirus outbreak is unfolding.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has held his own virtual briefings at the county emergency operations center in East Los Angeles, taking questions about law enforcement operations and efforts to reduce the jail population.

The parallel actions have created confusion about who is in charge of the crisis response, and as a result, some disjointed public messaging.

For example, Villanueva said the Sheriff's Department was left out of the rollout of the county's stay-at-home order. Supervisor Kathryn Barger disputed that and said she found out from a news segment that Villanueva planned to close gun shops because he viewed them as nonessential businesses.

The long-running power struggle ramped up this week when the Board of Supervisors took steps to change the structure of the emergency center, which in effect would remove Villanueva from the helm in the middle of a pandemic. The proposal, which they are scheduled to take up next week, would place the county’s chief executive in charge of coordinating disaster preparedness as well as the activation and operation of the emergency center.

Three supervisors told The Times in interviews that 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. Barger pointed to a November board motion that sought the change.

"The irony is, in November, the sheriff was engaged and made some edits," she said, adding that the item was originally scheduled for last Tuesday's meeting but it was canceled. "The allegations he's making are disappointing because I don't know where it's coming from."

But Villanueva called the proposed change a “pure power grab at the worst time possible" and said the timing suggests retaliation for announcing the gun store closures.

“This is pretty much a silent coup, what they’re trying to orchestrate,” Villanueva said in an interview. “We should be worried about masks, about test kits, and I have Kathryn Barger worried about guns and ammunition.”

Barger and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the proposal would change little about how things are running now. Kuehl said the Office of Emergency Management has existed for quite some time, and in this crisis has been the hub in terms of allocating resources and making decisions such as whether to close parking lots at beaches. Others are keeping track of the county's intensive care beds in case hospitals see a surge of cases.

“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.”

Barger said that "based on his conduct the last two days, I'm more convinced now than I ever have been that he should not be leading."

The controversy highlights the ongoing tensions 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.

"The idea that the county's top cop should not be the person in charge of this emergency situation is basically as strong of a rebuke and vote of no confidence as I can imagine," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. "It's hard to read it as anything other than 'we don't trust you, we don't trust your judgment, we don't think you can run things.'"

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 nonessential.

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 then announced that he was moving forward with the closures, which he 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.

Villanueva said he has invited other county officials to his virtual briefings and helped organize a training session Thursday night focused on emergency management for the supervisors and police chiefs across the county.

“I’ve been working hard to bring everyone together,” Villanueva said.