The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to draft a charter amendment for the November ballot that would require a minimum of 10% of the county's unrestricted general funds to be spent on direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration.
The measure passed after a contentious debate and opposition from the county's chief executive officer, who warned it would hamstring future boards.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissented.
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Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis proposed the amendment, which would phase in to reach the 10% limit by 2024. Though the language of the amendment has not yet been drafted, it would prohibit the distribution of any of the committed funds through any law enforcement agencies, including the District Attorney's Office and the courts.
"It's fine to study the results of racism. It's fine to say to ourselves, , we need to do something about this," Kuehl said, adding that she had enthusiastically voted for an antiracist policy platform earlier in the board meeting. "But what I'm saying and what so many of our constituents are saying … is, in addition to saying you want to do something about (it), please do something about it. Make certain that all the things that you are trying to do and put in place don't just vanish in a puff of smoke when you're all gone in a decade."'
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn wrote a separate motion to give the county's chief executive officer an opportunity to address the idea of a charter amendment, an early sign of dissent on the board.
CEO Sachi Hamai pushed back hard against the plan, saying it would tie the board's hands.
"The effects may go unnoticed during good budget years, but will become readily apparent during economic downturns when maximum flexibility is the single most effective tool to develop a sound budget," Hamai said. "I want to point out that during this pandemic, we needed this flexibility to close fiscal year 2019-20 without any layoffs."
Without that flexibility and barring any uptick in revenues -- which Hamai said was unlikely -- the board would likely be forced to make deeper cuts in fiscal year 2021-22, the CEO told the board. She twice mentioned that flexibility has been key to the county's positive credit rating.
Kuehl accused Hamai of frightening labor partners.
"Inflammatory statements about how people will definitely be laid off if we do this are completely unsupportable," Kuehl said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger argued that the board was free to make these investments by a simple majority vote and had no need of a voter referendum, which she characterized as "irresponsible." She listed tens of millions of dollars of investments the board has already made in and on behalf of the community.
"We were voted into office to make these decisions," Barger said.
"We don't need a charter to tell us how to do it. We are doing it."
Much of the county's revenue comes from federal and state funding designated for specific uses. Of approximately $8.8 billion that the county raises on its own, primarily through property and sales taxes, about $3.6 billion is unrestricted, according to the CEO. The charter amendment would effectively restrict 10% of the total -- or roughly $360 million -- for direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration.
About 20% of those unrestricted dollars are allocated to the Sheriff's Department's $3 billion-plus budget, according to the CEO.
Many of the speakers allowed to address the board during an hour allocated for public comment spoke out against the measure.
"I believe this is an ill-conceived, knee-jerk reaction to the recent protesting and this needs to be researched further before reallocating funds," one resident said. "You want to appear like you're doing something, but this is just appeasing a very vocal segment of the citizenry who are very anti-police. What about the vast majority who don't want to see public safety defunded?"
Sheriff Alex Villanueva was given five minutes to address the board.
"I would submit to you that the county of Los Angeles does not have the priorities that you have," the sheriff said, citing a Pew Research Center nationwide survey finding that 73% of Americans believe that police spending should remain at current levels or be increased.
"When you try to dismantle law enforcement and the primary source of public safety services to the community, you're endangering the public,"
Villanueva told the board.
Activist Lex Steppling of Dignity & Power Now said the arguments posed by the sheriff and his supporters amounted to "fearmongering versus facts." Others, including the president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, asked the board to up the set-aside to 20%.
Barger referenced a survey by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles apparently showing support for the amendment and accused the nonprofit of acting in the "dead of night" and not thinking through all the issues, including that the amendment "could kill jobs in this county."
Hamai, who sits on the United Way board, said she hadn't heard about the initiative to undertake a survey until this week. She told the supervisors that she had resigned her board seat effective Tuesday to avoid any conflicts of interest.
"Budgeting this way establishes a perilous precedent," the CEO said.
"If we look back 15 years ago and the board utilized the ballot initiative process to set its priorities for funding, I don't believe today's board would be supportive of it. Similarly, as we look out 15 years to the future, we don't know what's on the horizon."
Ridley-Thomas, who ultimately voted in favor of putting the issue on the ballot, accused Kuehl of putting plans to prioritize community investment at risk by rushing the matter and failing to include all of her colleagues in the process. He recalled how much work had to be put into Measure H and other ballot measures to ensure their passage.
"If in fact my record demonstrates that I'm an ally … then it seems to me that we ought to be treated as such," Ridley-Thomas said. "How about an open conversation?"
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she was comfortable putting the measure on the ballot.
"I feel completely confident putting this before the voters, and I trust the voters to show us again what their priority is," Hahn said.
"Nothing speaks to all of our values more than I think this charter amendment does. Yes, maybe it was rushed. Yes, maybe it wasn't completely vetted. But these two big things happening in our lives -- the moment of George Floyd and the moment of this pandemic -- compel us to act quickly."