Santana: OC Faces Stark Accountability Crisis

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

People have been completely cleared out of the civic center and no tents remain in the Plaza of the Flags, which used to be the center of the Civic Center homeless camp. April 12, 2018.

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 continues to face a stark accountability crisis.

Apparently, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his federal counterparts have had serious issues maintaining a working relationship on political investigations.

It seems the two sides don’t trust each other.

By his own letter – the result of a great reporting scoop this past weekend by a Voice of OC reporting corps alumnus, Adam Elmahrek, who now reports for the LA Times – Rackauckas said he was threatened by federal officials with Obstruction of Justice charges and got no cooperation from the IRS on investigations.

Now, in a world as shadowy as law enforcement investigations, it’s hard to know exactly what’s really going on here between these agencies and why they don’t work well together.

Yet the result is much less hazy: Orange County politicos get a free pass.

We all know Rackauckas’ record on political investigations and enforcement is the equivalent of a diet soda.

But Orange County residents also should be asking some hard questions about where are the feds? And what about state authorities?

At this morning’s Board of Supervisors meeting, we can expect County Supervisor Todd Spitzer – who is running for DA in next month’s primary election – to criticize Rackaucakas over the issues with federal law enforcement authorities and the politicization of investigations in Orange County under his tenure.

And this week, in the closest thing to a head-on debate – Orange County’s Hispanic 100 will sponsor a program featuring separate Q&A sessions with both Rackauckas and Spitzer, Thursday morning at the Newport Beach Country Club.

Now, consider that Spitzer himself is under intense attack from his colleagues over his own politicization of the homelessness issue in Orange County, which landed the County of Orange in federal court last month and left every city at risk of having their cities’ anti-camping ordinances invalidated.

Spitzer also all but destroyed the longtime tradition of “District Prerogative” (where supervisors stood unchallenged in their home districts) by going out and criticizing his colleagues on their vote to set up emergency homeless shelters in some of America’s most affluent communities.

Today, Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do describes the board’s governing philosophy with the phrase, “we’ll do whatever we want.”

The rushed vote to house homeless was ironically set up in large part by Spitzer’s own pushing for evictions along the Santa Ana riverbed, which just as promised by advocates left the County of Orange exposed in federal court – because as they’ve been warned since 2015, officials don’t offer adequate sheltering.

Note that Spitzer was the supervisor who was inaugurated in 2012, with more experience than virtually any county supervisor in history, called out the homeless situation as “shameful” and then did nothing about it for several years until encampments spread to epic proportions.

Today, his strategy is to call out U.S. District Judge David O. Carter as unreasonable for calling on county supervisors to do their job and provide regional leadership on citing a few simple shelter sites for homeless.

Indeed, this past week, the best county supervisors could do was inspire south county mayors – already under fire for offering no shelters but instead shuttling homeless individuals to central county – to devise a plan for sheltering homeless in remote canyon communities.

That plan, while supported by Supervisor Lisa Bartlett for further study, came under immediate criticism from Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson – who both correctly called it out as unreasonable.

Yet what continues to be unreasonable is to expect any city official to accept any sort of county run shelter given the county’s inability to construct any low-end affordable housing.

Without a system of care in place, city officials will avoid shelters, knowing they are stepping up to be a dumping ground for the most challenged individuals in society.

Who can blame them?

There is more and more talk about just taking the county out of the affordable housing business altogether and establishing a regional joint powers authority – a Housing Construction Authority – that could issue bonds and most importantly work on a regional basis to ensure equity on housing…instead of excuses.

Now, last week, I seemed to publicly frustrate a few officials – most visibly Irvine Mayor Don Wagner – during a panel discussion at UCI on the root causes of homelessness where I appeared as a speaker and put a lot of the blame for the homelessness crisis at the feet of politicians.

Politicians are great at helping the public avoid critical debates and kicking the can down the road. Instead, they often tackle the easy – like increasing funding for law enforcement – as opposed to the hard – like dealing with hard cases that fuel law enforcement spending in alternative ways.

Wagner publicly lamented that despite my critiques, he had spent the whole day with south county mayors trying to hammer out a solution to homelessness.

He forgot to tell the crowd that the south county solution was to send homeless to the canyons.

A recent UCI-United Way study on homelessness, which jumpstarted a real discussion here in Orange County on the issue this past year, showed in stark detail how we pay more as taxpayers to criminalize homelessness rather than fund solutions.

Yet report authors didn’t take the next step and ask why do those funding allocations – law enforcement as opposed to housing, health and human services – get approved year after year?

That’s up to journalists and the public.

It’s an uncomfortable and complex discussion.

But at least it’s real.

Now political leaders like Wagner, who seems like a generally good guy and is responsive to the press corps, are in many ways a reflection of ourselves.

We often want simple answers.

We need to press for more.