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Process to pick LA County Sheriff Baca's replacement is underway, many questions remain unanswered

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks at a press conference Jan. 7, 2014 where he announced his retirement.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks at a press conference Jan. 7, 2014 where he announced his retirement.

There have been 11 presidents, eight Popes, and exactly four sheriffs of Los Angeles County in the last 80 years. With Sheriff Lee Baca’s announcement that he will retire at the end of January, the obvious question is who will be the next person to lead one of the largest, most complex law enforcement agencies in the country.

RELATED: Update: Sheriff Baca to retire; LAPD deputy chief considering run

While Baca suggested Ass't. Sheriff Terri McDonald for the job, the appointment will be made by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

They, along with the county counsel’s office, have been begun the process of figuring out the qualifications needed for the job. There are a lot of laws on the books about certifications that a sheriff is required to have, along with other requirements.

No one's sure how long this process will take. The county’s CEO’s office and some supervisors have said they would like someone ready to take over when Baca leaves office.

At least one issue has been resolved: The county counsel told supervisors they can pick an interim sheriff from outside of the department, which significantly opens up the field of potential candidates.

So far, the names that have been floated for interim sheriff are from inside the department.

Supervisor Don Knabe, the president of the board, said Ass’t. Sheriff McDonald is definitely a candidate for interim sheriff. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is also considering McDonald for interim sheriff and even suggested she would be a good candidate in the upcoming election. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said it's likely all the department's assistant sheriffs will be considered for the interim job--one of whom, Todd Rogers, has announced he's entering the June race.

One issue board members need to resolve during the process is if they want someone short term or someone who might seek the office long-term. Knabe says it's a critical time for the sheriff's department, which is facing many serious problems. He doesn't want to see someone running the sheriff’s department who is also running a campaign.

"They would be burdened with the responsibility of the press chasing them about various issues and having to respond to that when they really should be focused on their leadership capabilities, the fact of how they want to change the culture of the sheriff's department," Knabe said.

Other supervisors have said they have not made a decision as to the best route forward for the department. Which direction they take could have a significant impact on the election.

Raphe Sonenshein, of the Pat Brown Institute at CSU, believes this will likely be the first competitive race in a long time. In the past, when a sheriff in L.A. County came to the end of their career, they groomed a successor to run in the next election. And in a lot of cases, the sheriff retired early, and supervisors appointed the successor favored by the sheriff. That person would then stay in office for a very long time. That's helps explain why the county has had only four sheriffs in 80 years.

But Sonenshein said this election could be different because there is no incumbent sheriff and there is a growing field of candidates.

"The truth of the matter is, if there's actually a competitive election for sheriff in Los Angeles, it'll be an absolutely historic event," Sonenshein said.

If the board of supervisors appoints someone who also intends to run for sheriff, that person might have a leg up on the other candidates. So Soneneshein suggested that if they do want to appoint someone who they think may also win an election, that they choose carefully.

Because historically, once a sheriff takes office in Los Angeles, they tend to stay there for a long time.