Two Orange County supervisors, who have sought to de-fund staff for a commission that seeks to reduce hate crimes and improve community relations with police, now are proposing giving supervisors complete authority to fire the panel’s executive director without cause and pick the replacement.
The proposal from Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel and Supervisor Andrew Do is up for approval today and would require support from one more supervisor in order to take effect.
The plan would shift authority over the commission’s top staff member from county staff to the Board of Supervisors, which would gain explicit authority to fire the executive director at any time, for any reason and choose the replacement after advertising the position.
It would also move the commission’s meeting from a Santa Ana building with free parking to the county’s headquarters in Santa Ana, where the county charges $4 per hour for parking, and shift meeting agenda and note-taking responsibilities from the commission’s nonprofit staff to the county supervisors’ clerk’s office.
It’s part of an overall package of updates to the commission’s governing rules, known as bylaws.
Proposed changes to county policy usually are accompanied by a written explanation of the reason for it, but Steel and Do did not attach an explanation.
Do didn’t return phone messages Friday and Monday asking why he wants to increase the supervisors’ authority over the commission’s staff, including the ability to fire the executive director at will.
Steel initially sidestepped the question in an emailed response, but when asked again said she believes “it’s important to be involved in Human Relations issues in Orange County and not just leave it to the side.
“I want the Commission to have the clear knowledge that the Board of Supervisors cares about their commission and making sure it has an active role to [play] in the county, and that their Executive Director is supported by the Board of Supervisors,” Steel wrote in an email.
Steel said in an earlier email the proposed changes “have been in the works between the commission and the Board of Supervisors for the past two years.” But Rusty Kennedy, who leads the nonprofit that provides the commission's executive director and staff, said the commission and staff were blindsided by some of the proposals.
“OC Human Relations is more than willing to work to address any issues and concerns of all the supervisors. But unfortunately in this process, the commissioners and nonprofit were completely left out of the discussion. They were not consulted,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy served as executive director of the commission from 1981 until last December, when he stepped down. He was succeeded by another employee of the nonprofit Kennedy leads, Norma Lopez, who has served as the commission's executive director since February.
“When we asked for copies of the drafts they were considering, they declined to give copies. So the process of coming up with these recommendations was very secretive, and hasn’t been open to public view until – I mean, we just learned of it.”
Steel’s chief of staff agreed her office didn’t provide drafts, and canceled a planned meeting about the proposal with the commission and nonprofit, but said there was no intent to be secret about it.
“We've been working on these amendments for the past few months and the Board of Supervisors as well as the Commission and nonprofit were aware of that and had a lot of time to provide input to them if they wanted to,” said Arie Dana in an email Monday evening.
“[I] did meet with the nonprofit, Executive Director, and Chair of the Commission to go over the bylaws and answer questions this morning. We worked to include much of what the commission approved in 2015 and certainly had no intention of secrecy.”
The commission’s 2015 proposal, which supervisors did not approve, called for the executive director to be responsible to the commission and the nonprofit’s board. Steel and Do's proposal has the top staffer report to the county Board of Supervisors.
Kennedy said many aspects of the proposal are “perfectly legitimate” and the staff can make them work, “but some of them look like they would be very difficult to operate and would [require] additional costs” and reduce the commission’s effectiveness, so the commission and its staff would like to meet with Steel and Do before those changes are made, he said.
As an example, Kennedy said the proposal to move the commission meetings to the supervisors’ building would make the meetings less accessible to the public.
Requiring members of the public to pay for parking in order to attend “would reduce the accessibility of the meetings,” said Kennedy.
Whether the measure passes likely depends on Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who was the deciding vote on Steel and Do’s attempt earlier this year to end funding for the nonprofit.
Steel and Do voted in June to de-fund the nonprofit’s staff support, citing an intermingling of the image of county commission and the nonprofit group that provides its staff.
The nonprofit provides the staff for the commission and brings in private donations to supplement the county’s investment. Kennedy said it had fixed the issues raised by the supervisors.
At that June meeting, more than 50 people spoke in support the nonprofit, including law enforcement leaders who praised the group’s anti-bullying programs and efforts to lessen tensions between community members and police.
Steel and Do voted against the nonprofit’s funding, but didn’t find support from a third supervisor to block the money.
Nelson struck a compromise in which the nonprofit would be funded for one year instead of three, under the condition they fix administrative issues, which he called “minor” tasks.
“We want to support you, your mission is righteous,” Nelson said. “Please focus on the administrative tasks, which, really, are minor.”
The Human Relations Commission effort is the third attempt this year by Do and Steel to increase supervisors’ influence over other organizations.
In July, they tried to grant the supervisors a controlling majority on the board of CalOptima, which manages the health coverage of 800,000 Orange County residents.
That effort fell apart after it was staunchly opposed by supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett and almost every member of the state Legislature, which passed nearly unanimous legislation to block Steel and Do’s move.
The same month, Do and Steel supported changes to the upcoming Ethics and Campaign Finance Commission that would expand their influence over the panel tasked with enforcing campaign money violations by supervisors, their election opponents, and other county-level candidates.
Do said he wanted to change the length-of-office rules voters approved, to have ethics commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the supervisor” who appointed them. While Nelson also wanted changes to the commissioners’ term length, the supervisors have not voted on a specific proposal thus far.
Do has publicly raised concerns about the Human Relations Commission’s work for more than a year. Last June, he opposed the commission’s use of the county logo on a statement they issued opposing hate against LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the mass shooting of gay people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
And in her emailed statement Monday, Steel alleged the commission’s staff violated California’s open-government meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Steel said the commission failed to publicly notice a special meeting in October 2016, adding “the entrance gate to the building parking lot were Commission meetings take place was closed, blocking public access.”
At a December 2016 meeting, she said, the commission “failed to publicly notice a room change to a different floor for the regular meeting.” And in August, Steel wrote, the commission “failed to properly notice a special meeting and had to re-agendize multiple times to get it right.”
Kennedy responded to each of Steel’s allegations, saying there were no material violations of the Brown Act.
The October 2016 meeting was properly noticed for 7 p.m., and while there was a “listening session” at 5 p.m. that notices were distributed for, the commission meeting didn’t convene until 7 p.m., he said. As for the parking lot gates, Kennedy said there are two gates at the lot and “one of them was always open.”
As for the meeting room change in December, Kennedy said there was a sign at the location listed on the agenda pointing people to the right location in the building.
And for the August meetings, Kennedy said proper notice was provided for the two meetings, with commission staff consulting with the County Counsel’s Office to make sure it was “done right.”
“Interestingly…the only Brown Act violations that we ever had suggested were from Supervisor Steel’s chief of staff, Arie Dana,” Kennedy said.
“Nothing was done to try to hide anything from the public, no votes or decisions were made in any sessions that the public was in any way discouraged from having access to,” he added.
“I’ve been running this meeting for 41 years, and I’m telling you the only three complaints were from [Steel’s chief of staff].”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Kennedy as the current executive director. He currently leads the nonprofit that provides the commission's executive director and staff. Voice of OC regrets the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.