Santana: Civic Center Shows What Politicization of County Board Brings

I was stunned earlier this month when I learned that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors actually wants to be in charge of county government and voted to give themselves direct control over department heads.

Yet maybe that is the answer.

Here in Orange County, given the dysfunction of our county government, many have spent the last year advocating things like an ethics commission and police review models with the aim of introducing some discipline and accountability to county government.

Now we see LA County is headed the other way, seemingly embracing politicization.

Getting rid of the CEO slot altogether does allow these elected leaders to fully implement whatever mandate they receive from voters and eliminates muddling through the bureaucracy to get things done.

There’s no CEO to hide behind when things don’t go well.

Yet looking at the demise over the past decade of the Orange County Board of Supervisors leaves me wondering whether LA is headed toward a disaster.

What we’ve found in Orange County is that when you put a bunch of politicians truly in charge, what you get are lots of ribbon cutting ceremonies – Ronald Reagan statues, victims’ memorials, violent video game conferences, Superior Court judge recalls and aging summits.

You go light on policy. Department heads don’t know what to do. And they are a nervous bunch.

In short, you’ll see every one of your agencies turn into a promotion machine for the latest politician, vying for the next higher elective office. In the meantime, you’ll watch as every single job slot gets transformed into a campaign payback for political appointees.

Looking at Orange County, the result is animal shelters that are falling apart. IT systems that are expensive and don’t work. Homeless policies that go nowhere while the streets pile up with lost folks.

You’ll see a Hall of Administration choc full of politics but bereft of any work, much less any progress on tough issues.

At the same time, in Orange County we pay about $1 million each year for each county supervisor and their staff.

If you want to see what this buys, you don’t have to walk far.

Just step out onto the Santa Ana Civic Center grounds.

Meet Ana Reyes, she’s a 47-year old grandmother you won’t meet at this month’s upbeat Senior Summit in South County where Supervisor Lisa Bartlett will officially pick up the bullshit baton from State Senator (former County Supervisor) Pat Bates to talk about the “State of Aging in Orange County” to hundreds of seniors, who happen to be high-propensity voters.

Reyes is the state of aging in Orange County for far too many.

During one of my latest walks through the favela that holds the remnants of our county civic center, I ran into Reyes sitting with her two grandchildren.

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Grandchildren always make grandparents feel happy, even when visits to grandma are on the street, where she lives.

On this recent day, Ana sits on a bench with her belongings, next to her mentally-ill son who is sleeping nearby next to a tree.

Her daughter, Janet, 24, is trying to finish her high school diploma but has two young toddlers and has no idea how to get affordable housing or much of anything else.

This family spends their days out on the Civic Center grounds.

Ana bounces her youngest grandson, year-old Elian, on her lap. Two-year old Salvador sleeps in a stroller nearby.

By nightfall, they’ll head to a local motel – mainly because taxpayers who walk by offer donations after the shock of seeing a young family existing like this.

The grandkids will soon get to hug grandma and pray for her while she sleeps on the streets at night. They’ll hope to see her again in the morning.

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When I ask the mother and daughter about the myriad of government programs that are supposed to help (county supervisors insist there are no families living at the civic center), they both say they don’t know anything about government programs because they’ve never seen a government social worker.

Even though they live at the Civic Center.

Social Service Agency officials acknowledge they never walk the beat in their own backyard.

When I asked the SSA top dogs why these families living at the civic center never see an eligibility worker – someone who can assess a person in need and try to match them with existing government programs designed to help – the answer sounded like it came from Nurse Ratchet from the film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.”

“The Orange County Social Services Agency (SSA) is committed to delivering quality services that are accessible and responsive to the community’s needs,” responded SSA Director Mike Ryan in an email.

Here’s the real answer, buried in the midst of jargon.

“SSA does not have the capacity to conduct initial assessments in the field at this time,” Ryan wrote.

Although he does note, “accommodations are available for individuals who are unable to get to one of the regional offices to apply for specific services.”

Ryan then adds, “community outreach is a priority for the agency.”

Ryan concluded noting “staff are out-stationed at the county’s many Family Resource Centers throughout the community, to reach out and provide information to individuals in need of assistance. Upon application for services, individuals are assessed for eligibility for multiple assistance programs in order to streamline the process for them and ensure they receive the help they need.”

Yet social service workers are nowhere to be found at the Civic Center, where the most desperate are living.

That’s because the supervisors don’t provide the resources to do that.

If you talk to Jennifer Muir with the Orange County Employees Association, she’ll remind you of this budget reality, how supervisors have twisted the notion of public safety.

Sandra Fox, who represents eligibility workers at SSA with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), will tell you the county violates the law consistently by keeping staff short, leaving them to deal with the stress of confronting a human wave of need by themselves.

“Addressing issues of homelessness, poverty and public health aren’t just moral imperatives, they should be considered public safety and fiscal priorities,” Muir told me.

“It costs less – in lives and resources – to address the underlying issues of homelessness than to simply police those who are living in the ever growing encampments throughout our communities,” Muir continued. “Keeping homeless healthy stops the spread of dangerous communicable disease that can endanger all Orange County residents. Providing adequate access to mental health services for the homeless reduces crime and puts homeless residents on a path toward getting off the streets. Identifying and supporting affordable housing gives veterans and families hope that when they work hard, they will be able to afford a place to sleep and keep their families safe. The county must do better in all these areas.”

Yet look at this year’s budget process. The little extra money that appeared in the budget all went to law enforcement.

It came down to a series of easy votes that translate into campaign cash from the law enforcement community to county supervisors.

Meanwhile, an outstanding budget request from SSA waits to the next quarterly budget adjustment a few months down the road.

At the same time, an abandoned bus center sits nearby within a hundred yards, empty. This is a place where such assessments, maybe even a temporary bed, could help.

But in the meantime, this $3 billion bureaucracy funded through your tax dollars just leaves a pair of health care agency nurses to try to walk the civic center grounds and patch up broken lives with medicine or suggestions.

As usual, this group of supervisors just lets the county workers figure it out. And then complains about the rising costs of their pensions.

Then, these so-called conservatives will blame Sacramento for lack of tax resources and go home, or to fancy summits to talk about aging, or crime victims, or video violence, or recalls of Superior Court judges.

Anything but confront the tough job right outside their window.