Members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors last week tried to defend their turf. Literally.
It began with three of the five supervisors criticizing Supervisor Todd Spitzer for comments he made outside his district disparaging both homeless people and his colleagues’ proposals for new homeless shelters.
But it centered on Spitzer’s violation of “district prerogative,” an unofficial, longstanding “honor code” that supervisors said gives them control over what the county and other supervisors do in their districts.
“The idea that we’ve got members of our body showing up at city council meetings in other people’s districts, enflaming the crowd – not only is it outrageous, it’s totally inappropriate. All it does is divide this board,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said during the April 10 board meeting.
“There is only reason to go do that. One. [It’s] all campaign-related,” he added. Spitzer is a candidate for district attorney, a position elected by countywide voters. Three of Spitzer’s four supervisors colleagues – Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Michelle Steel – have endorsed Spitzer’s main opponent, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
“If that crap doesn’t stop,” Nelson continued, “I absolutely will vote to cut the budget – which would be the staff – of anybody that pulls that stuff again…I was embarrassed when I saw the video [of Spitzer] down in Laguna Niguel.”
Nelson characterized Spitzer’s comments last month to public meetings of the Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa city councils as “stirring up a bunch of lies and nonsense.”
During the meetings Spitzer called homeless people “sex offenders and drug addicts” who don’t want help. And he warned a since-rescinded plan by the supervisors to create temporary homeless shelters in Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach or use Costa Mesa’s Fairview Developmental Center, would endanger nearby communities.
Laguna Niguel is in Bartlett’s district and Costa Mesa is in Steel’s district. Nelson had suggested Fairview as a possibility for emergency shelter.
In response to Voice of OC’s questions, county probation officials said there was one convicted sex offender among the several hundred homeless people who would have been eligible for the proposed shelters. And the county would not have allowed sex offenders at the proposed shelters, according to an interview last month with Nelson and a follow-up text message from him Friday.
Do, the supervisor’s chairman, also used the word “campaign” when discussing what Spitzer did, but said he didn’t “want to use the word ‘campaign,’ because that’s not – I’m not here for that. But when is [a supervisor going outside their district] improper, because we are no longer just reaching out to constituents that we represent?”
Bartlett said Spitzer engaged in “fear mongering” when he went to the Laguna Niguel meeting in her district.
“I attended a four-hour meeting at the city of Laguna Niguel on a particular evening, and unbeknownst to me, Supervisor Spitzer showed up to speak at that meeting, saying he’s going to be the champion of keeping the homeless out of Laguna Niguel,” Bartlett said.
“Really it was fear mongering,” she added.
“I think we have to be respectful of each other’s districts, and we’ve got to set some guidelines. And I thought we had guidelines in place a long time ago, and we were respectful. But for some reason, this particular year, everything has sort of hit the fan and it’s a free for all.”
Spitzer said his colleagues weren’t telling the truth.
“Guys, you’re not being honest,” he said. “Behind my back, Supervisor Bartlett, you negotiated a museum plan for the Tustin [Marine] base, with one of your biggest supporters, who was bid the Headlands [project] down in Dana Point.”
“The fact of the matter is, I have every right to express my point of view throughout this county on particular issues, especially when it affects my votes,” Spitzer said.
“I’m not sure you remember my state of the county speech in 2015 when I was chairman [of the Board of Supervisors]. I really made a point of the fact that this whole point of district parochialism was not good for our county.”
Spitzer was in a position, in the month between the first discussion of the shelters and when they were publicly proposed, to ask his colleagues to prohibit convicted sex offenders at the shelters, as the county does with its Bridges Kraemer shelter in Anaheim. Spitzer apparently did not do so, and went on to cite the risk of sex offenders in his warnings to residents.
The same night as the Laguna Niguel meeting, Spitzer raised fears about the Board of Supervisors’ homeless shelter proposal during a widely-attended meeting in the Irvine City Council chambers, which is within his district. Other supervisors were privately upset at Spitzer for that as well because of the fears he raised, but did not publicly take issue with it during last week’s discussion.
Central to the infighting was “district prerogative,” an unwritten rule among generations of supervisors in which each supervisor is given deference – and even veto power – over county projects and events within their district.
Bartlett said Spitzer himself has tried to enforce it.
About a year or two ago, Bartlett told her colleagues she sent a staff member to a Chapman University event Bartlett was invited to, but couldn’t attend.
“Supervisor Spitzer called up my staff member and said: ‘Don’t you ever come into my district again! Either supervisor or staff members…unless you get my approval.’ ”
As Bartlett was recounting the story, Spitzer interrupted her, saying “Wait, wait, wait,” and “Lisa, give me a break.”
Do interrupted Spitzer, telling him, “No, no, no. You can’t just [describe] both of us as being wrong here. We’re telling you what we experienced.”
Spitzer replied: “Any supervisor is welcome anywhere in the county or [their] staff anytime. Period.”
“I think we need to set some guidelines,” Bartlett responded. “You got after my staff member.”
Steel, the supervisor who represents Costa Mesa, was present for the supervisors’ half-hour discussion of Spitzer last week, but was the only supervisor who did not speak.
The other supervisors acknowledged they had no legal ability to stop Spitzer from going to their districts to attend public events and speak at City Council meetings.
That protection for Spitzer stems from two well-established constitutional rights: freedom of movement and freedom of speech.
At the end of the discussion, Do declared district prerogative to be dead, which Spitzer later said was a warning directed at him.
“So now we know, there is no district prerogative, and we’ll do what ever we want. Okay?” Do said. “That’s clear.”
The supervisors are scheduled to discuss homelessness again during a special public meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.