Sheriff Villanueva ousted as as head of emergency operations in midst of coronavirus pandemic

In the middle of the global coronavirus outbreak, The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted on an ordinance that puts the county CEO in charge of coordinating emergency operations, and replaces Sheriff Alex Villanueva in that role.

The board's original vote to make the change -- as part of updating its plan for emergency preparedness and following lessons learned from the 2018 Woolsey Fire -- came back in November.

RELATED: Speed, size of Woolsey Fire overwhelmed agencies in initial hours, report says

That report highlighted a lack of coordination between all the agencies managing the fire and its aftermath that led to missteps. Firefighters, sheriff's deputies, public health workers and public works employees -- among others called to deal with the blaze -- operated within departmental silos and relied on ad hoc responses, according to the report.   

"The sheriff did not coordinate any of that," Supervisor SheilaKuehl said. "If he thought that he was in charge of that ... honestly I didn't see it."

   Kuehl said who takes the lead in any given emergency depends on the type of emergency, and more than two-thirds of California counties have designated either their CEO or department of emergency management to take on that role.  

"In this (public health) emergency it would be totally inappropriate for any law enforcement agency to be in charge of anything other than law enforcement," Kuehl said. "This is the appropriate and 21st century response to emergencies."

Villanueva pushed back aggressively. During a Monday afternoon briefing from the county's Emergency Operations Center, he said he had a message for the board.

"This will impact public safety and public health," Villanueva warned. "They're going to reassign the job to a financial analyst, and not a first responder with experience managing natural disasters and man-made. We're in the middle of a global public health crisis."

He accused the board of advancing its own political interests.

RELATED: Governor, LA Sheriff sued by NRA, others over forced closure of gun stores during COVID-19 pandemic

"They need to remain focused on this united front against this spread of the coronavirus, so that together we can save lives," the sheriff continued. "This is not meant to stoke any fears, but we have to be united in this fight, and not to be distracted by politics because that has no place in this fight against this deadly disease."

Villanueva, speaking remotely during the board's first virtual meeting, countered that the move amounted to creating an extra layer of bureaucracy at a time when the county can least afford it.  

"This radical gutting of the emergency services code ... (is) abrazen attempt to consolidate power," Villanueva said, after having repeatedly warned during prior public appearances that the change would jeopardize public safety.  The sheriff criticized the idea of working by committee to address the crisis, ticking off his objections to what he characterized as "group think."

"The last thing you want in the world is to have voices that have a different point of view silenced," Villanueva said. "I'm the voice of Los Angeles County."  The board has wrangled with the sheriff in the past over a number of issues, and even sued to limit his authority in rehiring a deputy terminated for misconduct.

Asked for comment, CEO Sachi Hamai pointed to the experienced members of the Office of Emergency Management and made clear it wasn't a one-person show.

RELATED:, FOX launches national hub for COVID-19 news and updates. 

"OEM is made up of highly skilled individuals who have trained extensively to lead emergency efforts for the county,'' Hamai said in an email. "This group works day in and day out on all aspects of emergency management including planning, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. They also maintain critical relationships with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

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On Thursday, when Villanueva first warned that he thought the board was making a mistake, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was surprised by the sheriff's reaction.

"I actually didn't know where it came from," Barger said in response to a reporter's question at a daily briefing on the coronavirus. "We're all in this together and now is not the time to argue about who's in charge, because all the people in our communities want to know is that we're working together collaboratively to make sure that we control the spread (of the virus)."

Barger said the sheriff was given the opportunity to offer comment back in November, when the  board voted unanimously to assign Hamai "responsibilities for coordinating disaster preparedness, response and recovery, including the maintenance, management, activation and operation of the County Emergency Operations Center."

Under the updated ordinance, the sheriff would retain operational command and control over law enforcement activities.

The November vote was prompted by an "after-action report" on the county's response to the 2018 Woolsey Fire -- which Hamai called ``the worst of its kind in county history.'' The report included a host of recommendations by an outside consultant for how emergency operations might be improved in the future.

Hamai said the existing ordinance -- last revised in 1993 -- is outdated.

"If approved by the board, these changes would modernize a section of the County Code that was originally drafted in the late 1970s. These changes, if adopted, would follow recommended best practices with regard to the county's Office of Emergency Management," the CEO said.

The stated goal of the revised ordinance is to create better interagency collaboration and coordination, in part by clearly defining each agency's role and by expanding the County Emergency Management Council to include the board itself and more county departments and organizations.

The update of the emergency ordinance will take immediate effect if approved by four members of the five-member board.

Villanueva said the ordinance doesn't need updating.

"It really laid out a very well-thought-out set of orders where there's a very clear command and control in the process," he said during his briefing. "There's separation of powers. There's checks and balances, and it's everyone working together towards the betterment of the community and making any emergency -- whatever the case may be -- as short in duration as possible
and to return to normal life after that."   

The board's vote is backgrounded by an ongoing battle between the sheriff and the board over sharing information, disciplining deputies and cooperating with oversight agencies -- which has already resulted in a series of lawsuits. In comments to the Los Angeles Times, Villanueva characterized the board ordinance as payback for his abortive attempt to shut down gun shops during the pandemic.

The Woolsey Fire after-action report pointed to the immensity of managing a countywide emergency and the need for collaboration.

"While the Woolsey Fire disaster presented unprecedented challenges, it was still a single, focused incident; it was not countywide," the report stated. "Imagine the challenges after a great earthquake or similar wide-ranging event."