Supervisors Give Human Relations Commission a Temporary Reprieve

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The Orange County Board of Supervisors, which seemed poised to cut funding for the county’s Human Relations Commission, brokered a deal on the dais Tuesday that could end up freeing funds for another year.

For several years, supervisors have been reducing their contribution to the group, which combats hate crimes and mediates conflicts. They allocated nearly a million dollars at the start of the last decade but about $300,000 in the current budget.

Last year, county officials brokered a deal with the commission’s longtime executive director, Rusty Kennedy, that allowed them to transfer two full-time staffers to other functions and had Kennedy retire as the county worker leading the commission.

But Kennedy stayed in his position as leader of the private nonprofit Orange County Human Relations Council, which has a budget of just over $1 million and receives money from the county.

The mixing private fundraising with public dollars is a uniquely Orange County approach to issues, said Supervisor Bill Campbell on Tuesday.

Yet the deal that had Kennedy retire has apparently struck a nerve among several supervisors, including Shawn Nelson and Pat Bates. Nelson originally held up funding for the group, saying that Kennedy had become a working retiree, something supervisors have long said they want to avoid.

“There’s no question I have a problem where we have retirees receiving compensation,” said Bates on Tuesday. “It has an unpleasant name these days: double dipper.”

Bates suggested that county staff take a week to change how the county contribution to the Human Relations Council is structured. Her motion won on a narrow 3-2 vote with Campbell and Supervisor Janet Nguyen supporting the action.

Chairman John Moorlach offered general support for the work of the commission but noted his interest in reducing the county contribution. Moorlach offered a compromise to simply lower the county contribution by $100,000 in each of the next three fiscal years. That didn’t get any support.

Yet while Nelson and Bates mentioned concerns over working retirees, there’s little doubt that the work of the commission on Muslim and Jewish issues in recent years has triggered a flood of emails to supervisors, especially from conservative circles who have issues with Kennedy’s support for several Muslim events and organizations.

On Tuesday as a litany of speakers offered support for the council, touting its ability to offer mediation services to law enforcement officials across the region, there were others that criticized the group’s involvement in a recent controversy involving Muslim students at UC Irvine.

In addition to his concerns over working retirees, Nelson said he doesn’t believe public dollars should be directed at such efforts. “You don’t need the government to hold your hands,” he said.

“Anytime an organization states it’s purpose as benevolent, there’s this feeling that any kind of criticism means that people don’t care,” Nelson said.

Nelson also struggles with how to measure impact on something like human relations.

Remarking on a statistic put forth at the meeting that 75 percent of Sikh children are being bullied at school because they wear turbans, Nelson asked, “Would the stats be different if the government wasn’t involved?”

“Where is this nexus that if the government doesn’t chip in some money, it won’t work,” Nelson argued.

Others have noted that the county contribution, now at a historic low, acts as a catalyst for other private-sector dollars, which now total more than a million dollars. The fear is that if Orange County doesn’t participate, companies might not.

“The way it’s done here in our county is we come together with folks in the private sector to make things happen,” said Campbell.

“If they’re willing to make it on the private-sector side, we ought to keep our investment,” Campbell argued.

Ironically, just as supervisors were split over their general contribution to human relations efforts, they unanimously approved a $600,000 contract with the Human Relations Council for mediation services.

— NORBERTO SANTANA Jr.

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