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L.A. County Voters Favor More Sheriff’s Oversight, But Fire Tax Falls Short

Published on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 | 6:00 am

Los Angeles County residents granted subpoena power to a watchdog civilian commission monitoring the Sheriff’s Department, but a measure to provide additional funding to the county Fire Department through a parcel tax was defeated.

Measure R, or the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission Ordinance, which will give the panel the authority to conduct its own investigations of the sheriff’s department, rather than working through the Office of Inspector General, was strongly backed by voters. The measure includes granting subpoena power to the nine-member commission.

The measure only required a simple majority to pass and well exceeded that threshold.

The Board of Supervisors recently gave the commission power to compel documents and records indirectly through the OIG, over the objections of Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Measure R would go a step further, with backers saying it would ensure the authority is not subject to political whims.

The county and the OIG have battled with the sheriff in and out of court, first over his rehiring of a deputy who had been fired over allegations of domestic violence and then over what the OIG called repeated failures to turn over documents critical to investigators.

“Measure R will mean accountability, transparency and fairness is brought back to L.A.’s criminal justice system,” according to the Yes on R website.

Proponents included JusticeLA, the American Civil Liberties Union and the L.A. County Democratic Party, and the measure was been endorsed by members of the Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Compton city councils, among others.

Villanueva had warned that granting subpoena power will result in expensive legal wrangling and maintains that the department has turned over all documents it is legally entitled to release.

“Measure R will open the floodgates for many more ill-advised lawsuits designed to seek documents that are not legally available for public release. This is simply weaponizing oversight as a way to politically bash the LASD,” Villanueva said in a statement to Ballotpedia. “The Board of Supervisors, the Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission would better serve the community by working collaboratively with the sheriff’s department.”

Measure R also requires that the county develop a plan to reduce the county jail population and provide alternatives to incarceration, reinvesting jail dollars into community-based prevention and mental health treatment for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Reform L.A. Jails and other backers of Measure R pointed out that the county’s jails amount to the largest mental health hospital in the nation, and even the sheriff agrees that the system is ill-equipped to provide effective treatment. Spending money on prevention and treatment programs would be less expensive than incarceration in the long run, advocates argue, noting that many inmates cycle in and out of jail, county emergency rooms and homelessness.

Patrisse Cullors, founder and chair of Yes on R and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told City News Service the measure represents 15 years of activism and offers an opportunity to truly change the lives of some of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable residents.

“It’s a watershed moment,” Cullors said of the vote, adding that she hopes change here will drive reforms across the country. “Its passage is both a hyperlocal issue … and also a national issue.”

The second ballot measure, Measure FD, would have established a 6- cents-per-square-foot parcel tax to pay for more county firefighters and upgrade fire equipment. The measure was backed by a slight majority of voters, but it required a two-thirds vote for approval.

Fire Chief Daryl Osby told the Board of Supervisors in December that it was the first time the department had asked for additional dollars in more than 23 years.

A 2018 assessment by the county’s chief executive officer concluded that the department needed $1.4 billion to upgrade and replace fire engines and rescue vehicles — some more than 20 years old — and to modernize its technology.

The plea for more funding came as the department is called on to fight more demanding and dangerous wildfires, exemplified by the massive Woolsey Fire that burned through much of Malibu in 2018.

Osby told City News Service that firefighters and resources are also strained due to a jump in the number of paramedic calls.

“We are facing bigger, faster and more intense wildfires than ever before. At the same time, my department has seen an over 50% increase in 911 emergency medical calls over the last decade alone,” Osby said. “Measure FD will give us the resources we need to hire more firefighter/paramedics and provide them with the equipment they need to meet these challenges and protect our communities.”

The Los Angeles Times endorsed the measure, concluding that the tax is reasonable and residents deserve a properly staffed and equipped department, though the newspaper’s editorial board also raised questions about whether firefighter overtime could be managed more efficiently.

“Failing to approve the measure will leave those people jeopardized by increasing fire danger and a growing gap between their needs and what the department is able to provide,” the endorsement concluded.

The California Taxpayers Association opposed the measure, arguing that it will make it more expensive to buy or rent property and will also increase utilities.

“Adding to the financial strain of people living here, especially those already teetering on the edge of homelessness, would be irresponsible,” Robert Gutierrez, president of the association, wrote in an editorial published by the Daily News. “The measure lacks taxpayer safeguards, raises fairness concerns and would make Los Angeles even less affordable.”

The tax would have applied to property improvements up to 100,000 square feet, does not include parking areas and is estimated to generate $134 million annually. It would have increased by the lesser of 2% or the California Consumer Price Index each year and remain in place permanently unless revoked by voters.

The measure did provide for an annual review by an Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee. Opponents contend that without a sunset date for the tax, county spending will lack accountability.

Exemptions were provided for low-income seniors, and small landlords are permitted to pass through the tax to tenants.

Measure FD applied to 56 cities and unincorporated areas within the county and did not include, for example, the city of Los Angeles, which has its own fire department.

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