Following years of neglect and disrepair at a key veterans memorial inside Orange County’s civic center, an impromptu coalition of local residents has taken maintenance of the site into their own hands – and in turn, spurred the county government into action.
A week ago, following a Voice of OC report on the condition of the Orange County Walk of Honor, about 20 county residents put together an impromptu Memorial Day cleaning crew, attempting to clean off the grime at the memorial site. The wall features plaques packed with tales of dramatic wartime heroism by local residents, including medal-of-honor recipients.
This weekend, another group took it a step further.
State Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) jarred county officials, stepping into the situation and helped organize more than a dozen volunteers – ranging from Home Depot workers to veterans to county employees – to gather Saturday morning and give the wall an immediate fresh coat of paint.
County officials also came out on Saturday, speeding up their efforts to power wash the wall and assisting with masking the plaques. OC Public Works Director Shane Silsby also announced plans to finance the $27,000 needed to refurbish the plaques.
“This is the time for us to remember those that aren’t here,” said Tom Sandy, an Army veteran who also serves as chaplain for the local Disabled American Veterans chapter on Saturday while observing work on the wall. “I can guarantee we will be back.”
Correa, whose office reached out to Home Depot for help, said service members memorialized on the wall “made the ultimate sacrifice” for America’s freedoms.
It’s not only up to the county government to keep the wall in respectful shape, he added.
“It’s all of our collective duty” to make sure the memorial is maintained, said Correa.
Last month, just before Memorial Day, county Supervisor Janet Nguyen – who is running in a hotly-contested race for State Senate on Tuesday – jumped out in front of the issue and announced that the memorial’s deplorable condition finally had an action plan, with a $27,000 grant obtained by the veterans group Amvets.
Nguyen, who as the 1st District supervisor has jurisdiction over the civic center, publicly took credit for organizing the effort.
But Nguyen apparently forgot to check the accuracy of the May 9 public works memo she was reading into the record.
Amvets said they told her office months ago the grant had been denied and efforts to fundraise for the plaque restoration effort were stalled.
Terry McCarty, an Orange County Amvets leader and former Marine who has spent years arguing with the county over maintenance of the Walk of Honor, criticized the county’s politicians for wanting to have it two ways: celebrate veterans on Memorial Day and then forgot those promises the day after.
Nguyen sent out an apology last Thursday to veterans group leaders.
“It wasn’t until after I made my comments that I learned that the information provided to me regarding funding was inaccurate,” Nguyen wrote in her letter.
Although supervisors privately took issue with McCarty’s straightforward criticism of the lackluster record on memorial maintenance at the civic center, his Memorial Day critique seems to have struck a chord.
County leaders haven’t paid that much attention to the ongoing maintenance needs of veterans’ memorial sites at the civic center, much less developed clear policies or budget priorities despite public concern going back a decade.
The issue is also raising uncomfortable questions about the long-held tradition of “district prerogative,” where each supervisor is given veto power and ultimate authority over projects inside their area.
Consider that Nguyen’s action plan for the site comes just as her time as a supervisor, which began in 2006, could be nearing a close. Other county supervisors, meanwhile, are now getting hard questions on an issue they have little information on or ability to change.
Since the disrepair of the Walk of Honor has been raised, Silsby said his staff has been researching what kinds of agreements exist for maintaining the sites. It’s unclear if any exist.
No one can find any kind of agreement governing how the Walk of Honor – which was donated by Amvets – is maintained, Silsby said.
McCarty said the county has always avoided making a hard commitment to keep the area clean.
That is now changing, Silsby said, adding that this year’s budget process may feature a more in-depth discussion about how memorial areas at the civic center are maintained.
For years, the area around the plaques has been, by all accounts, disgusting.
The walls have been caked with dirt, scuff marks, bird droppings and are often used as outside urinals by the homeless people camping at the civic center. Two large trash bins from an adjacent parking lot often sit right against the Walk of Honor.
That seems to have changed dramatically over the past few days.
On Saturday, ahead of the paint work, the large green trash bins – which often have heaping piles of odorous garbage and have been near two medal of honor plaques for years – were finally moved away from the memorial:
The county power washed the wall in preparation for the painting and then taped the letters that spell out “Orange County Walk of Honor,” said Phillip Cook, a project manager with the county’s public works department.
About 10 employees from Home Depot helped at the wall Saturday, with the hardware retailer also providing the paint and rollers.
Going forward, the county has asked volunteers to sign up to help clean the wall every second Saturday of the month.
It’s unclear when the plaques, many of which are scratched and worn down, will be refurbished.
The head of the main county employees union, who has been a frequent critic of the wall’s disrepair, said the negative attention to the situation ended up having a silver lining.
It “turned out to be a blessing, because it raised awareness about veterans issues and brought together the community” to take action, said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Meanwhile, in a parking lot behind the wall, homeless residents – many of them likely veterans themselves – lined up Saturday for a meal provided by a local nonprofit organization:
The wall’s newfound maintenance effort comes at a time of widespread public outcry over problems with the federal Veterans Administration.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday amid scathing reports that officials in his agency conspired to cover up long wait times for some veterans seeking medical help.
At the Phoenix VA hospital, 40 veterans reportedly died while waiting for care.
Additionally, much attention recently has been paid to the fact that large numbers of homeless Americans served in the military.
A statewide ballot initiative, up for a vote Tuesday, would re-allocate $600 million in publicly-funded bonds to build affordable housing for low-income and homeless veterans.
You can reach Nick Gerda at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.
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