Priorities like taking care of our veterans or combating homelessness don’t always have to be on the losing end of public policy here in Orange County.
“They deserve the best,” said Orange County Fair Board member Nick Berardino from the second story of a World War II-era barracks called Heroes’ Hall this past week, as he looked out at the final preparations he is overseeing for the unveiling of a new county veterans museum at the fairgrounds this coming Veterans Day in Costa Mesa.
Yet community services – like taking care of our heroes or our homeless - get less and less attention in local public budgets year after year.
We give up on each other way too easily.
Consider the bid for a veterans’ museum in Orange County.
Despite all the U.S. flags and pins our politicians wear, especially on Veterans Day, none of our traditional veterans groups could get our local politicians to move the ball (ie: find the money or the land) this past decade to establish a local museum to tell their story to coming generations.
I’ll never forget seeing the veterans groups, one after another advocating in front of our county Board of Supervisors over the years, pitching one museum project after another, both on the Great Park and the Tustin air base land.
Yet somehow it just never got going.
Their legacy just didn’t pencil out, county supervisors told them, again and again.
Another one that didn’t pencil out was maintaining the veterans’ Walk of Honor in Orange County's downtown civic center, which county supervisors allowed to descend into disrepair over the past decade as the area became a makeshift homeless camp.
Plaques donated by our local veterans to memorialize the exploits of their fallen comrades became the dirty backdrop to a drama featuring droves of mentally-ill homeless people – many homeless veterans themselves – often times urinating on the wall.
I have been writing about the shameful condition of those plaques since I started as a Register reporter more than a decade ago. And as head of Voice of OC, I also continued to highlight the sad condition of the plaques repeatedly since our news agency launched.
Not one county supervisor was ever able to get their heads around a solution.
“They are the biggest critics about the state it’s in, but they don’t want to do anything about it,” said Terry McCarty, an AMVETS leader in Orange County and former Marine who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, when I interviewed him on the lack of action from politicians on the plaques back in mid-2014.
“High pressure is the only thing that will do any good,” he told me at the time.
When Berardino – who also railed against the Board of Supervisors for years over the plaques - retired a year ago, veterans got that high-pressure activist hose focused on the plaques and the museum.
Four decades of union organizing in America’s most Republican zip codes hardened an already battle-hardened Marine who spent his own stint in Vietnam. Berardino will be the first to tell you that activism is all about having strong legs (aka: vision) and the ability to keep engaging policy makers, donors and not letting go.
I still remember chuckling under my breath when fair board members authorized the first funds to save the historic building, then called Memorial Hall, now Heroes Hall.
At the time, fairgrounds bureaucrats insisted that the building was too old. It couldn’t survive a move. It couldn’t be done.
Like most public sector executives, their vision didn’t match their paychecks.
I knew that once Berardino had won one authorizing vote, he would never stop.
He keeps coming.
His tenacity often angers people, even his friends, especially powerful people.
OC Weekly labeled him “Best Voice for the Little Guy” back in 2011 for good reason.
But he’s right.
After decades of covering public policy, I have found that’s exactly what it takes to get things done: vision, toughness and tenacity.
Especially when your community, as in the case of veterans’ care or homelessness, is already taking fire.
When I saw Berardino last week, the first time in a long while, he looked tired, like somebody who’s been filling sand bags for awhile: moving the building, fundraising, establishing a foundation, preserving the plaques…
There’s a state-of-the-art sound system outside for events, original floors have been restored, lighting and air controls are professional caliber for a museum, and even the grass looks like it’s got a fresh crew cut. The grounds are nice, neat and trim. Military.
“You know what? For me, I’ve been underground since last year working on the thing,” Berardino told me. “I really got tired and I’ve even thought man it’s pushing rocks uphill all day…Not that there wasn’t’ support…there has been the fair board and staff and donors…But I’m just the type that a project like this, time-certain to be done. It must be done.”
Then he uttered the most incredible thing you’ll ever hear a veteran of public service, a union leader, say.
“Government can’t do everything…We have to do our part.”
It takes people to move government.
So this Veterans’ Day, thanks to the tireless work of this former Marine as well all the others he’s inspired – like the county’s head of the advisory veterans affairs panel, Bobby McDonald, we will for the first time, truly see the plaques of our most cherished heroes here locally enshrined in place of respect forever.
“From the outhouse to the penthouse,” McDonald said.
When I walked the grounds last week, I quickly got a sense that every construction worker on the site shares Berardino’s passion. He notes you will often see workers in tears as they stop to read the amazing tales of heroism on the plaques.
That is the same kind of energy we now have to focus on combating homelessness in Orange County.
This last week, Susan Price, the county's homelessness czar, gave us all a fighting chance by effectively sketching out where our biggest deficiencies lie (lack of affordable housing) and where we can create quick opportunities (transforming public spaces like the bus terminal).
You can tell from her presentation that big changes are coming in terms of how the county spends it’s money on contractors and how it advocates across the county for more coordinated services (like knowing who’s got an available bed on any given night for a needy person).
Price understands that transforming the abandoned bus terminal into the Courtyard Transitional Center is just the beginning.
We all have to keep going.
County supervisors need to back up Price by getting to work with business and development community leaders and getting affordable housing projects funded and built throughout the county.
In addition to authorizing four more check-in centers in the other supervisorial districts, ensuring the Santa Ana site does not become overrun, this is a key area where supervisors can be creative and effective.
Campaigning at Public Expense
Yet it seems Orange County supervisors are focused on breaking new ground in a different manner.
They appear to be pioneering a whole new way of legally campaigning on the public dime.
Local campaign ethics watchdog Shirley Grindle last week called me ringing alarm bells about county supervisors’ heightening use of public resources to campaign, especially in the race between Supervisor Andrew Do and Santa Ana Councilwoman Michelle Martinez.
Grindle told me she is so concerned that she’s filing a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), arguing specifically that several county supervisors, specifically Do and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, have gone mad over mailers.
Grindle is also fuming about recent hires in Do’s office, accusing him of using his publicly funded county supervisors’ staff to campaign. Our own newsroom recently reported about the intersection of Do's supervisors' and campaign staff.
Do did not return my phone call seeking clarity.
Yet it’s the mailer abuse that Grindle said she wants to alert state watchdogs to, saying she doesn’t think the FPPC understands to what extent county supervisors are politicking on the public dime.
According to her research, Grindle told me she counted up 19 mailers sent out recently by county taxpayers on behalf of County Supervisor Andrew Do, at a cost of $175,000.
She said that’s more than 514,000 pieces of publicly funded mail in his district, all with big photos of Do – who is seeking re-election this November.
Bartlett isn’t far behind even though she is not facing election – spending $138,000 on eight mailers targeting seniors in her district with 496,000 pieces of mail.
No county political observer that I spoke with last week, including Grindle, could ever remember a time where publicly funded county mailers were used this aggressively by incumbents.
Grindle told me: “It reeks of campaigning at public expense.”
Norberto Santana Jr. is publisher of Voice of OC. Follow him on Twitter at @NorbertoSantana, on Facebook or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org