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County CEO put in charge of emergency operations

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously March 31 to put the county CEO in charge of coordinating emergency operations, a role that Sheriff Alex Villanueva had insisted should be his.

The board said the county had never officially put any sheriff in that role. It originally voted to update its plan for emergency preparedness in November after reviewing an “after action report” on the devastating 2018 Woolsey Fire.

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 Sheila Kuehl 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, 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] a brazen 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.

More recently, Villanueva caused some confusion last week with statements that he intended to shut down gun stores as part of the countywide stay-at-home order. Those statements were walked back after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory memorandum March 28 that included firearm and ammunition manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors and shooting ranges as essential businesses.

The supervisors frequently insist that there is no vendetta at play and the sheriff has their respect, while the sheriff continued to insist that personal animosity drives the supervisors’ decision-making, leading to some testy virtual exchanges.

“I would respectfully indicate to the sheriff that this is not about him,” Kuehl said. “It’s not about his candidacy having been opposed, it’s not about his attitude, it’s just not about him. It’s really about the safety of the 10 million people in L.A. County.”

“The minimally staffed [Office of Emergency Management] survives on bankers’ hours,” Villanueva claimed at one point.

Kuehl countered, “Perhaps [the sheriff] hasn’t been talking to (Office of Emergency Management Director] Kevin McGowan and the rest of the OEM in the middle of the night as I have.”

After the meeting, Villanueva released the following statement: “I am committed to the public safety of all residents of Los Angeles County. I am still waiting for the Board of Supervisors and CEO to provide a transition plan. In the meantime, we will maintain our staffing at the County Emergency Operations Center until the county provides suitable replacements. We must work together to save lives.”

In comments March 30, County CEO Sachi Hamai pointed to the wealth of experience on the OEM team and made clear that dealing with emergencies isn’t a one-person show.

“OEM is made up of highly skilled individuals who have trained extensively to lead emergency efforts for the county,” Hamai said in an email to City News Service. “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.”

Hamai will now have “responsibilities for coordinating disaster preparedness, response and recovery, including the maintenance, management, activation and operation of the County Emergency Operations Center.”

Under the revised ordinance — originally drafted in the 1970s and last updated in 1993 — the sheriff will retain operational command and control over law enforcement activities.

The emergency ordinance is effective immediately.

Supervisor Hilda Solis expressed her strong support for putting Hamai and the OEM in charge of the county’s emergency response, while acknowledging that the county will still rely heavily on Villanueva as the pandemic worsens.“Now, more than ever, we need your support,” Solis told the sheriff.

By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO

City News Service