Santa Ana City Council members again are threatening to sue the county for allegedly mismanaging federal money meant to address homelessness.
They directed city lawyers at their Jan. 16 council meeting to look into a possible lawsuit, four months after the council gave the same direction to the attorneys at a September meeting. Council members have not provided examples of alleged misspending, either when they gave the original directive in September or during their half-hour of public discussion before last week’s directive.
County officials, meanwhile, say Santa Ana has a seat at the table for how the homelessness dollars are spent, and that the county is open to working with city officials on any concerns they may have.
City staff say they have a good working relationship with the county, and have had a more limited role in funding decisions so far, but that it's expected to soon grow to a larger role helping set higher-level spending policies.
The issue first came up in September, when council members – led by Councilman Vicente Sarmiento – publicly directed the city’s lawyers to explore a potential lawsuit against the county over its management of federal homelessness money and to find out if other cities, like Anaheim, would join.
At the time, county officials said Santa Ana already was involved in helping decide how that federal money is spent, and the county’s chief executive, Frank Kim, said in a September interview that he’s open to any concerns city officials have.
“The $22 million [is] not being wasted,” Kim said, referring to the amount of federal homelessness money the county is overseeing this fiscal year. If cities want to see the county do it in a different manner, he said, “we’re all ears.”
Santa Ana didn’t pursue the lawsuit after the September meeting. But last week, council members brought up the issue again and leveled more criticism at the county.
“I also would like us to look at what our standing is if we decide to file a lawsuit against the county,” Sarmiento said. As precedent, he again cited a 1990s lawsuit in which the city of Los Angeles sued LA County to gain a seat at the table in how federal homelessness funding was allocated.
“I think the issue is ripe. I think we have incredible, incredible harm that could be thrust upon us and damages that we could be looking at,” Sarmiento said, citing the county’s plan to close down an encampment along the Santa Ana River and push hundreds of homeless people into nearby cities.
A majority of the council, without mentioning the September direction they gave to staff, again directed city lawyers to explore options that include a potential lawsuit against the county.
Voting in favor were Sarmiento, Sal Tinajero, David Benavides, Jose Solorio, Michele Martinez, and Mayor Miguel Pulido, though Pulido said he doesn’t support a lawsuit and Solorio said he was unsure about it.
“We really need to get aggressive. We need to hold the county accountable, and figure out strategies of how we’re gonna recuperate our funds,” said Martinez.
While council members again accused the county of mismanagement, they didn’t cite any examples of how they believe the county is misspending the money.
“It’s not right [for us to] say, you know, ‘We’re going to sue you,’ if we’ve never even given them an ask list,” said Solorio,
He said any time he’s met with county Supervisor Andrew Do about homelessness, Do has been “cordial” and “collaborative.”
“We don’t have a coherent game plan,” Solorio said of the City Council. None of the other council members disagreed.
Sarmiento, who suggested months earlier the county was mismanaging the federal funds, said last week he didn’t know how much funding the county receives to address homelessness.
“One of the things I think I’d like to recommend for staff to do, is to find out how much money the county has available to address [homelessness],” Sarmiento said. “They receive money from [the federal government] to address this. And I don’t know what that number is.”
The county repeatedly has said – including through news releases – that it is about $22 million per year.
Santa Ana already is involved in choosing how that federal homeless money is spent, according to both city and county officials.
“Santa Ana is very active in all of this, and they have been,” said Susan Price, who leads the county’s homelessness efforts, in an interview this week.
“I don’t know if their council is aware of this,” but then-City Manager David Cavazos served on the county’s Commission to End Homelessness for about three years, Price added.
Additionally, she said, Santa Ana city staff are involved in reviewing applications for Orange County’s federal homelessness funding and making recommendations about which programs should get funding.
“These past couple of years, we’ve had everyone at the table,” Price said.
The city’s representative for the federal funding allocations, housing director Judson Brown, “is very knowledgeable,” and hasn’t raised any major concerns about how the homelessness money is spent, she said.
“He’s been a very good, active member of providing feedback and priorities. He’s a vocal guy,” Price said.
City staff said they’ve had a good working relationship with the county when it comes to homelessness funding, though their role lately has been limited when it comes to how the money is spent.
The city’s involvement in the funding process is limited to helping recommend which programs get funded, as opposed to the overall policy for how to divide the money between the various types of homelessness programs, said Deputy City Manager Robert Cortez in an interview this week.
“Judson has been involved in the past, but it’s been a limited role,” Cortez said, adding that the city’s representative has had “good working relations” with the county.
The county has also invited Brown to serve on a higher-level policymaking board for how the homelessness money is spent, known as the Continuum of Care Board. That appointment is up for a vote Friday, Brown said.
“We’re excited to be part of it,” Brown said in a joint interview with Cortez. “We’re just delighted to be part of this.”
At last week’s council meeting, Santa Ana’s city manager, Raul Godinez, said he spoke with Kim, the county CEO, a few days earlier about the city’s concerns regarding the riverbed clear-out.
Kim committed to working with Santa Ana and suggested city and county officials get together to talk more in-depth about how funding is allocated, Godinez said.
Councilman Juan Villegas was the only no vote against directing staff to research a lawsuit against the county.
“I’d rather work with the county and resolve this,” said Villegas, who works for the county as a sheriff’s special officer. Lawsuits are “not the way to solve this,” he added.
In the lawsuit Sarmiento cited as precedent, Los Angeles city officials challenged how LA County was spending federal homelessness dollars, and the case led to the city of LA gaining a more direct role in deciding how the federal homelessness dollars are spent.
An outcome of the suit was the 1993 creation of a joint city-county agency, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, which continues to manage LA’s federal homelessness dollars.
Anaheim city officials also are exploring possible legal action against the county over homelessness, at the request of Councilman Jose Moreno.
For either city to actually file suit would require support from a majority of their councils – at least four of the seven members.
Meanwhile, the county remains open to discussing any concerns Santa Ana may have, Price said.
“We welcome the partnership of the cities in Orange County, because it’s not going to be any one entity that solves homelessness in Orange County,” she said. “I think by working together is how we’re gonna solve it.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.