Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.
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Orange County’s ongoing homelessness crisis continues to showcase serious structural flaws in county government, such as the role of county supervisors.
I rattled cages last week when I suggested that we might want to start considering the idea of part-time county politicians given how badly county supervisors have botched the homelessness crisis.
Just before speaking on a panel at the annual business dinner for the Association of California Cities, Orange County this past week alongside media colleagues from the Orange County Register, the Orange County Business Journal and NBC LA, longtime Costa Mesa Councilwoman Katrina Foley chastised my lack of faith in regional elected leaders like county supervisors.
Yet nearly 25 years ago, after the billion dollar municipal bankruptcy in Orange County that severely discredited and weakened county supervisors, many of my sources reminded me that smart legislators – like the legendary Marian Bergeson – pressed for the adoption of part-time supervisors and in Bergeon’s case, an elected CEO back in 1995.
Supervisors stalled those efforts – including a task force – to curb their power and fought to stay intact.
Yet their governing mandate – and their work calendars (which they won’t share publicly) shrunk significantly.
Longtime campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, who wrote the county’s campaign finance ordinance in 1978, publicly raised this issue in a comment on my column.
“Having been around as long as I have – there is no question that Supervisors of today compared to those of 30 years ago — do not have as much to do,” Grindle wrote.
“Most of the county is developed so land use issues are not before them. Basically all the contract awards on the agenda are systematically approved (without discussion). The ones that are discussed usually involve campaign contributors behind the scenes. Norberto is right — maybe it is time to consider a different way to run County business – without full-time, full-staffed Supervisors.”
Regional governance also has since suffered.
Note that the county Fire department was outsourced as a joint powers authority as the now seemingly ungovernable, Orange County Fire Authority with its 24 board member structure.
Public health was outsourced to CalOptima, which was for many years run efficiently by the health care industry and then significantly weakened by the interference of the board of supervisors. The agency has never been the same since supervisors started tinkering with its management – in order to secure health care campaign contributions.
Public transportation has been outsourced to the Orange County Transportation Authority and Toll Road agencies.
What’s left for county supervisors is poverty.
Now, historically speaking, county supervisors hate the poverty alleviation business.
With their inaction, they have encouraged the county bureaucracy to sit on millions in tax reserves meant for mental health treatment – mainly though a lackluster attention to the county budget allocations – while homelessness exploded.
In turn, if you needed any reminder about what county supervisors really focus on as elected officials, just tune into last week’s afternoon debate at the Hall of Administration about “district prerogative” here in Orange County.
District Prerogative – where each supervisor reigns supreme and unchallenged in their district – is key to understanding why county resources – like homelessness response – are wasted and politicized.
Under our current regional governing system, county supervisors – who are inherently partisan politicians – get to focus the entire county government bureaucracy as their own sort of publicly-financed, re-election campaign machinery – one that often freezes regional public policy like homelessness in favor of serving their individual political needs – like mailers and events.
Tree-lighting ceremonies, not public policy, is what gets this crowd heated up.
At last week’s meeting, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett called out Supervisor Todd Spitzer – who is running for countywide DA – for showing up to last year’s Christmas tree lighting in Aliso Viejo, which is in her district.
Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do also went publicly after Spitzer because he said Spitzer once restricted Do from speaking at the Irvine Chamber of Commerce.
Spitzer responded by calling his colleagues dishonest, pointing out instances where others had ventured into his own district to try and broker political deals on his turf.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson directly called out Spitzer for venturing into adjacent districts.
“There is only reason to go do that,” Nelson said. “One. [It’s] all campaign-related,” he added.
Spitzer is a candidate for district attorney, which is elected by countywide voters. Three of Spitzer’s four supervisors colleagues – Do, Bartlett, and Michelle Steel –have endorsed Spitzer’s main opponent, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
As homeless activist, Mohamed Aly, has pointed out before, county supervisors are truly at their best when calling out each other’s scams.
Nelson had the best idea of any of his colleagues as the best way to temper such behavior.
Cut office budgets.
That is indeed the best way to focus county government.
Cut out supervisors.
More and more that seems to be under review.
South County cities are now studying whether they can provide their own police force – one that isn’t so weighed down by politically driven pension liabilities created by county supervisors.
Irvine is asking public questions about whether it should be footing a majority of the bill for regional fire services at the Orange County Fire Authority, which means change could be on the horizon for that agency.
It’s no different on homelessness.
In my last podcast interview on the homelessness crisis with Utah Homelessness Czar Lloyd Pendleton, he noted that for these types of situations, you need effective leadership.
Pendleton notes that U.S. District Judge David O. Carter has become that leader in Orange County, given his recent ability to force supervisors to confront action after their hasty homeless riverbed evacuation plan landed them in a civil rights federal court action last month.
But Carter can’t hold that hill all by himself forever.
Orange County leaders need to step up.
A series of private sector leaders from Orange County, have begun working with the United Way and the ACC-OC to broker a deal to site up to 2700 units of permanent supportive housing across the county to handle demand.
Could we be seeing the start of yet another regional service agency that takes over homelessness response from supervisors?
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