Orange County’s 2016 election calendar is officially in full swing.
And they don’t call it the silly season for nothing.
The same county and city elected leaders who ignored homelessness for the last decade now will ostensibly work together under a 30-day deadline to use an abandoned bus terminal as a multi-service center at the Santa Ana Civic Center, where a small tent city has arisen.
All while County Supervisor Andrew Do and Santa Ana Councilwoman Michelle Martinez square off for Do’s supervisorial seat this November.
You couldn’t ask for a more politicized approach to a complicated issue.
Yet in Orange County, any attention on the issue of homelessness is a miracle.
And in many ways, the first district election seems to be turning into a referendum of sorts on the county’s response to homelessness.
So let’s get it on.
The Civic Center situation is a direct challenge to the entire county government bureaucracy, which is tasked through large amounts of state and federal pass-through tax dollars to combat homelessness.
It’s a chance to be relevant right on their front doorstep.
Yet so far, county supervisors are a total failure on the issue.
Santa Ana City Council members haven’t done much better.
I have often noted that the county should study using the bus terminal as a rapid response center for dealing with homelessness, especially around the civic center.
Supervisors finalized their purchase of the terminal for $3.2 million in May but have never officially said for what purpose or done anything to study how it might work for homeless response as far as I can tell. I’ve heard that it was really bought for parking or some other purpose.
Based on my interviews with homeless activists and non-profit leaders over the past year, I think there are possibilities there to use the site as a way to organize a more creative and effective way of delivering services – like food – to the chronically homeless in central Santa Ana.
Yet the site will require creativity to address things like security, storage and bathrooms.
The goal should be to create a place where homeless people want to go not a place they are dumped off at.
A place where they can charge a phone or a laptop or use wireless internet for free. Most say they just need an address. A place where they can store their belongings in a locker environment that is easy on access.
Nearby at the site there should be full-time counselors from the health care and social services agency that can connect people with help in real time.
There also needs to be a law enforcement presence but not one that is done in an overboard manner. The bus terminal already has a circular security kiosk in the middle where deputies used to be stationed and could once again become a presence.
The message should be clear:
As long as you are a person living on the street, you are welcome. You can come and go as you please. You can store things. You can eat. Take a shower. Access medical care as well as basic social services.
But the bus terminal itself can’t be the end of it.
We need OC Health Care Agency officials and social workers to be working at the facility to begin to assess this community and figure out how many need mental health counseling, how many can work, how many can fit into basic affordable housing.
We should have weekly public updates at supervisors meetings (as they previously indicated they would do but never did).
We all know that developing a healthy stock of affordable housing is the key to getting these people off the streets.
And again, that’s an area where county supervisors and city council members just aren’t meeting the challenge.
We need a strategy.
Now, Santa Ana council members I felt really hit the nail on the head with their formal vote last week calling for a conference on regional homelessness response.
Voice of OC would be happy to host that conference and help with putting together panels as well as speakers.
Shelters and bus terminals themselves aren’t a response.
Human beings handle homelessness.
Orange County can do this.
But we need to think and work together, especially beyond Election Day.
Maybe a 30-day challenge is exactly what we need to help get us all focused.
Public Safety Spending Quietly Hiked
When it comes to the county’s other tough main regional issue, public safety, county supervisors also remain largely silent.
They spend tax dollars along historic proportions.
They just don’t say much about it.
Consider last week when supervisors unanimously voted without discussion to offer deputy sheriffs a healthy 8.5-percent raise over the next few years -- putting them at or near the tops of our region in terms of pay and benefits.
And yet nearly 22 percent of deputies still reportedly voted against the deal.
So we as taxpayers spend a tidy sum to retain these highly trained workers in a tough field and still nearly a quarter are not happy.
Now, that doesn’t mean we have greedy deputies.
It shows that there is zero leadership from the top telling everyone about the trade-offs on the deal, about what we just bought into, about what is the grand strategy.
According to public records released earlier this month to Flash Report Publisher Jon Fleischman, we all as taxpayers invested in professional negotiators who came up with a deal costing the general fund a total of $13 million over three years.
When that deal went to the politicians, it grew to $62.2 million.
Makes me wonder what was the point of hiring expensive negotiators.
And what about the transparency standard set by COIN?
County supervisors barely said a word last week when they authorized $62.2 million dollars over the next three years on a law enforcement contract.
I’ve seen them spend more time talking about janitorial contracts in public session.
Might have been nice to hear about how patrol services are going to benefit or how the jails will improve or how training and education will be hiked.
This last week’s session shows that all county supervisors care about is the political endorsements – along with direct campaign contributions and independent expenditures – from the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
Those endorsements will surely provide critical support to every county supervisor who voted for this contract.
Yet will the contract do well for the deputy sheriffs, contract cities and taxpayers who will live with it for the next three years?
See you at the next quarterly public budget update.
Moving From Partisan Electeds to Nonpartisan
If all the politicization on issues like homelessness and public safety leaves you doubting the effectiveness of partisan political offices like county supervisors, you aren’t alone.
This past week, county hallways were abuzz with the news that Chris Nguyen, a well-regarded OC GOP activist and deputy chief of staff to Supervisor Todd Spitzer, is moving over to work with county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery as a data analyst in a non-political job.
Woolery also has recently hired on most of the county government’s performance audit staff to continue beefing up his auditing capabilities.
Meanwhile, county supervisors have left open the performance auditor position for years after introducing the innovation a few years back as a good government initiative.
The main challenge facing county supervisors in filling this now near phantom job is they do not like a semi-independent senior executive put in the role of questioning their administration of county government.
Nguyen is also part of a wave of staffers – others include Martha Ochoa, his chief of staff, and senior staffer Carrie O’Malley - that have left Spitzer’s office recently as his relations with staff are reportedly difficult and strained.
In Nguyen’s farewell memo sent out across the Hall of Administration, he noted, “I am one of the last two remaining members of his staff still serving from when he was sworn into office on January 7, 2013.”
Nguyen’s move is an open acknowledgement that the place to make a real difference today in public policy across Orange County seems to be at nonpartisan elected offices or the bureaucracy itself...not at a county supervisor’s office.
That gig is increasingly seen as a fast pass to becoming a brutalized, publicly funded, 24/7 campaign worker.