A homeless person walks near the Walk of Honor at the Santa Ana Civic Center.  (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Plans for Orange County’s first permanent, year-round homeless shelter appear to be in jeopardy after the Fullerton City Council Tuesday night rejected an agreement that would have allowed the shelter to operate at property on South State College Boulevard in the city.

The 3-2 vote means it is now up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether to move ahead with the proposed shelter without the City Council’s consent.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who represents Fullerton, has been the driving force behind the project and has chided those against it for having a not-in-my-backyard mentality. But he also told council members last month that he would not push forward without their approval.

Nelson indicated Wednesday that he’ll bow to the council’s wishes, even if he isn’t happy about it.

“Absent some appetite on their part to do something different, what they voted yes on is to maintain the armory in its current dysfunctional state,” Nelson said.

Orange County is among the few large metropolitan areas in the nation that does not have a permanent, year-round shelter. The county instead relies on the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana as temporary shelters from December to April.

Mayor Bruce Whitaker and Councilmen Doug Chaffee and Greg Sebourn voted against the agreement, while Councilwomen Jan Flory and Jennifer Fitzgerald supported it.

There has been significant opposition to the plan in Fullerton since January, when the supervisors approved the $3.1-million purchase of the property, a 29,000-square-foot former furniture store in the southeast section of town. Many have complained that the shelter would be too close to an elementary school.

But on Tuesday, council members characterized their opposition as a rebuke to the county’s lack of transparency regarding the agreement. Whitaker, who in January urged the supervisors to delay the purchase of the property, said approving the agreement would amount to tacit approval of how the county approached the process. The county, he said, failed to treat the city as a partner in the endeavor.

“Some have claimed the [agreement] gives us control,” said Whitaker, citing the possible costs to the city for security and mitigation. “At this point, we’ve had no control. The only control we can have is to reject this agreement.”

Council members and several residents have accused the county of excluding the public from the selection process and failing to seriously consider alternative sites for the shelter. But in an interview Wednesday, Nelson said the county had done its due diligence to find other suitable locations.

“The practical reality is that we looked at every site, and there’s not another suitable one,” Nelson said. “In the world of the simple-minded, all you need to do is find an empty building and ‘aha!’ But it’s like finding a man. Just because there’s a guy and he’s single doesn’t mean he’s the perfect husband for you.”

Nelson’s personal connections with the broker, Cameron Irons, have also sparked concern. According to Irons, Nelson — a close friend from high school — expressed frustration about the search for a property and asked Irons for help. After he located a property, the supervisors approved a contract for Irons to represent the county in the deal.

Irons has not received compensation from the county. If the sale closes, he will split a commission with the property’s listing agent, which could be as high as 3 percent of the sale price, Irons said.

“When we’re looking for sites, there is no opportunity or value in taking community input,” said Irons.  “Each requirement filters out another property that won’t work. It’s a scientific approach, not a feel-good, rah-rah one. It wasn’t rushed or done in secrecy.”

Several members of the public also asked Fitzgerald to recuse herself from the City Council vote because of her work as a political fundraiser for Nelson’s 2014 campaign. Fitzgerald recently held a fundraiser for Nelson at Irons’ restaurant in Tustin.

City Attorney Richard Jones said his office has addressed the potential conflict of interest twice, including informal input from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission hotline. He said that the councilwoman has no direct economic benefit from the vote and that it’s a matter between the city and the county, not the city and Nelson.

“What may be a perception of conflict doesn’t mean it’s a legal conflict of interest,” said Jones.

Chaffee also cited transparency issues behind his no vote, instead proposing a citizens commission to select a new property, which he said would give the public more control and get a shelter up and running as soon as the end of this year. He suggested using some of the $25 million in housing bonds from the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency toward the cost of the shelter.

He said starting over would be worth the time and money for a more transparent process and better location.

“Approving this [agreement] is the same as kicking the can down the road. That’s why I’m suggesting at the next council meeting an open, transparent process for selecting a site in Fullerton now,” said Chaffee.

Fitzgerald characterized criticism of the county as a pretext to avoid moving forward with the shelter.

“There has been no secret process; that’s an excuse,” said Fitzgerald.

Both Fitzgerald and Flory said that concerns about the location are overblown and that the city is wasting an opportunity.

“I’d never risk a child’s safety, but there is no basis in reality to the emotional concerns you have,” said Fitzgerald. “I understand them, but these facilities aren’t flop houses. This is the least expensive way for the taxpayers of Fullerton and for the taxpayers of Orange County.”

Flory was also skeptical about Chaffee’s assertion that a shelter could be open by the end of the year.

“There will be no shelter or beds by the end of the year,” said Flory. “Approving tow contracts, we can’t even do that in a year.”

Contact Thy Vo directly at thyanhvo@gmail.com

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