The Orange County Board of Supervisors. From left: Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, Todd Spitzer, Lisa Bartlett, and Andrew Do. (Photos by Nick Gerda and Katlin Washburn)

Orange County’s five elected supervisors preside over $6 billion in public spending and pressing issues like homelessness, mental health and drug treatment, and how to balance spending between those programs and county jails, the Sheriff’s Department, and District Attorney’s Office.

One of the top issues Orange County supervisors faced this year was growing homelessness, particularly camps that house hundreds along the county-controlled Santa Ana River. To read about developments on the homelessness front, click here.

In addition to homelessness, supervisors faced controversy on a variety of issues, including limiting residents’ ability to participate in public comments, devoting a large majority of new funds they control to expanding Sheriff’s Department spending, and curtailing the public’s ability to obtain public records about county government.

Here’s a rundown of important developments in county government during 2017:

Supervisors OK Immediate Destruction of Public Records

Following the release of controversial records earlier in the year, county supervisors passed a new policy in September allowing themselves and other county officials to immediately destroy their emails and text messages about government business if they consider it to be “working notes” or internal memos they no longer need.

This came after the California Supreme Court ruled in March that officials’ communications about public business through private devices are subject to the Public Records Act, and Voice of OC reported later in the month that, based on county emails obtained through the Public Records Act, Supervisor Shawn Nelson had a homeless camp along the Santa Ana River replaced with rocks, which scattered homeless people elsewhere amid a shortage of shelter beds.

Then, in July, the county was forced by a Voice of OC lawsuit to release records showing Supervisor Todd Spitzer tried to issue a public statement suggesting he would have been justified using “deadly force” against a Christian preacher he handcuffed in 2015 for allegedly staring at Spitzer and a nearby table knife at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant. The supervisors had been fighting in court for more than a year to keep the records secret.

Two months later, in September, the supervisors and their lawyers brought forward a policy change allowing immediate destruction of emails and texts about county business. It went on to be approved on a unanimous vote on Sept. 26.

Public records experts said the policy appears to violate state law requiring public records be retained for two years. There have been no known legal challenges to the county’s new policy thus far.

Supervisors’ Dealings With Contractors Come Under Scrutiny

Companies battled this year over a lucrative county contract to run general aviation services at John Wayne Airport, which covers everything from corporate jets to small propeller planes. Following thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, supervisors granted the lease to a firm that was ranked fifth out of six by the county’s evaluation panel.

The winning fifth-ranked company, ACI Jet, and its supporters spent twice as much in political campaign contributions to supervisors as the first-ranked company, Signature Flight Support, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign filings for the months leading up to the February decision.

Then, in March, the supervisors granted themselves more power over county contractors, who now get shorter terms for their agreements and must return to supervisors more often for extensions.

Supervisors get to make the final decision on who gets large contracts, which also provides a lucrative opportunity to fundraise for their re-elections and campaigns for higher office.

A significant portion of the supervisors’ campaign contributions come from county contractors, much of it given in close proximity to when supervisors are deciding whether to approve their contracts.

In July, the Sheriff’s Department got supervisors’ approval for another phase of a $140 million no-bid project with Motorola, in which the company will overhaul its proprietary radio system used by virtually all law enforcement and emergency personnel across the county.

Only Motorola products can be used on the system, which the company was chosen to create in 1995 under a $70 million contract that later grew to $83 million.

Under the county’s pricing agreement, Motorola charges taxpayers up to $5,800 for each handheld radio and $9,200 for each motorcycle radio.

Sheriff’s officials later confirmed the overall radio system has not been independently reviewed to ensure the more than $100 million in taxpayer money spent on it over the past 15 years was spent appropriately.

In August, Voice of OC reported that Nelson had accepted more than $700 worth of wine and cigars from two contractors soon after he was a deciding vote to award them county contracts, despite a county ban on accepting gifts from contractors.

One of the vendors, Potomac Partners, had been ranked last out of four lobbying firms in the county’s competitive bidding process to represent the county in Washington, D.C. Nelson made the motion to pick Potomac and was a deciding vote in the 3-2 decision to pick the firm for the $1.3 million county contract.

Nelson then reported receiving $539 worth of wine from Potomac Partners. Nelson argued that his office could accept the gifts because he used campaign funds – which the contractors paid $2,000 into – to buy the $708 in total gifts from the vendors. He said it was legal because the wine and cigars aren’t for his personal use, but rather are owned by his campaign committee for officeholder purposes.

Yet state regulators said California law bans the use of campaign funds for personal purposes, including gifts.

Nelson currently is running to become a Superior Court judge and has reportedly sought a federal judicial appointment as well.

Further Shifting of County Spending to Sheriff’s Department

The supervisors continued their longstanding trend of devoting a large majority of new county dollars to the sheriff’s department, which received about 70 percent of the $41 million in new discretionary spending increases requested by county departments.

Over the past decade, county supervisors have cut $16 million in funding they control from public health services, which includes mental health, while at the same time adding $64 million to the Sheriff’s Department budget, largely for salary and compensation increases.

Despite the major cost increase, Sheriff’s Department officials said they expect to provide essentially the same level of service next fiscal year.

The Sheriff’s Department’s sharp cost increase is largely due to a $62-million, three year salary and benefits raise for sheriff’s deputies that supervisors approved in September 2016. Of that amount, $37 million was projected to come from county discretionary funding over the three-year period.

Supervisors approved the pay raises unanimously and without public discussion, and the deputies’ union went on to spend $100,000 supporting Supervisor Andrew Do in his tight run for re-election, which he ultimately won by 0.4 percent of the vote.

The increase in discretionary funding this fiscal year for the Sheriff’s Department amounted to $29 million.

In comparison, the total discretionary increases for the Social Services Agency and Health Care Agency were about $680,000 and $500,000, respectively.

OC Community Resources, which is responsible for homeless housing programs, among several other key responsibilities, was on track to receive a $117,000 increase in its discretionary spending.

Limits on Public Comments and the Press

2017 saw stepped-up restrictions placed on public speakers and the news media at supervisors’ meetings – some of which were dropped after receiving public attention or pushback.

In January, supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel reduced the speaking time limit from three minutes to one minute per speaker. And when it came time to impose the limit, she was much more lenient with letting corporate executives speak longer than the limit than she was with county social services workers and homeless advocates. Those limits were eventually eased at later meetings, with most public comment periods now having three-minute limits.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the Board of Supervisors for alleged free speech violations, including shortening public speakers’ time limits, refusing to let speakers address supervisors by name, requiring speakers to give their names, and a policy blocking the release of security videos of supervisors meetings. The supervisors’ top attorney rejected the claims.

The lawyer leading the ACLU effort, Brendan Hamme, was hospitalized in June after he was hit by a car while protesting outside a fundraiser for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. The ACLU has not filed suit over the supervisors’ free speech restrictions.

In April, a sheriff’s deputy threatened to arrest a Voice of OC reporter for trying to remain in the supervisors’ meeting room to film law enforcement’s handling of a homeless advocate who refused to leave the public speaker podium.

After Voice of OC reported on the incident, county officials considered changing their policy, and when a similar situation came up later, they ultimately allowed reporters to stay and observe law enforcement from the back of the meeting room.

Among the policies that has been challenged as illegal is the supervisors’ ban against public commenters mentioning them by name, which is codified in their official meeting rules. When a public speaker mentioned a supervisor’s name at a June meeting, Steel interrupted him and said, “you can’t comment on individual supervisors here.” The next speaker, lawyer Mohammed Aly, told her that’s an unconstitutional restriction on speech and proceeded to mention each supervisor by name, without interruption.

As they head into the New Year, the supervisors are considering further limits on public speakers. Steel has requested that people who haven’t submitted their speaker cards by the start of the speaking time (9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday) would not be able to speak. The current rules allow people to speak if they submit a card before the end of the public comment period.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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