Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has been under fire for jailhouse… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
No doubt most Angelenos were as surprised as we were to learn Monday that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had been selected as "sheriff of the year" by the National Sheriff's Assn.
After all, most of the news about the sheriff during the last 12 months has been of the sort that doesn't lend itself to awards. He has been accused, for instance, of improperly doling out favors to friends and campaign contributors. Federal officials have been probing allegations of inmate abuse in the jails he runs. A county commission that spent months studying the Sheriff's Department and the jails concluded that if Baca had been employed in the private sector, he would have been fired for incompetence.
But the National Sheriff's Assn. sees it differently. Its director of operations says Baca has been an "exemplary" sheriff, providing educational opportunities for jail inmates and reaching out to religious groups in the community, while also keeping crime in the county low.
Everybody's entitled to his own opinion. Which is exactly why we were pleased to learn recently that Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell is considering challenging Baca in next year's election. McDonnell is the former second in command at the Los Angeles Police Department under Chief William J. Bratton, and he served on the county commission that recently criticized Baca. If he were to run, he would be Baca's first credible challenger since he was elected 15 years ago. Baca ran unopposed in 2010.
While it's still far too early for this page to endorse any candidate, we would be pleased to see a real race in which Baca's strengths and shortcomings could be seriously considered by voters. We hope McDonnell will be the first of many qualified candidates to enter the race.
A real race might also give Baca an incentive to enact the sweeping reforms in the department that he has promised.
All elected officials should be regularly tested in the court of public opinion, as Baca himself would surely agree. When asked last year how he could be held accountable for what went on in his department, he angrily replied: "Don't elect me." If he meant that in a democratic system, citizens can make their final judgments in the voting booth and that no elected official deserves a free ride, he was absolutely right.