Homelessness Board Closes Committee Meetings to Public

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Homeless people staying at the Baymont Hotel in Anaheim wait in line for hot dogs and hamburgers at a barbecue hosted by homeless advocacy groups May 18, 2018. Advocates and hotel residents say at least 40 people will be evicted from the hotel May 23.

A county board tasked with managing $23.5 million in federal funding for homelessness programs has closed its committee meetings to the public and made them invitation-only.

The Continuum of Care board, a panel largely comprised of representatives from nonprofits that receive federal funding through the county to provide services to the homeless, voted unanimously Sept. 26 to close committee meetings to the public. Meetings of the full 15-member board, which the county says isn’t subject to state open meeting laws, and a separate meeting for homeless providers, will remain public.

Asked why the board is restricting public access to the committee meetings, members of the board cited the need to “get work done” without disruptions or misinformation being spread.

“The general goal…is to allow the committees to get things done, to actually get work done, without information and misinformation being reported out of committees that has not been properly vetted by the board and approved by the board for dissemination,” said Judson Brown, the board chair who represents the city of Santa Ana as its Housing Division Manager.

“The intent is not to try to keep people from attending committee meetings…we want all those who want to participate, key decision makers, key staff and key volunteers, to participate,” Brown said.

The policy change was proposed in part after a homeless advocate attended a committee meeting and was disruptive, Brown said, although he did not have specific details about the disruption and did not name the advocate. He said “one or more members” of the committee asked county staff to bring forward the policy change, but he said he was not sure which members.

“We want as much public participation, but the committees aren’t the place to come in and disrupt a meeting,” Brown said.

The Continuum of Care board, an entity established as a partnership between the county, Anaheim, Santa Ana and homeless service providers, is described in its governing document as the primary decision-making body for implementing federal dollars for the Continuum of Care program. The program administers and develops standards for service providers countywide, maintains a centralized data system that tracks outcomes for homeless people and assesses progress of federal fund recipients.

The members of the committee are largely representatives from nonprofits and service providers, and includes at least one seat for a current or formerly homeless person.

Before the policy change, committee meetings were open to the public with agendas, minutes and materials posted online. Now people who wish to attend must be invited by the committee chair. Documents distributed to the committee will be marked “draft.”

There’s no written summary or text of the changes, as the board took an oral vote, said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.

Nichelson did not answer a question about whether documents distributed to the committees will still be available to the public, instead reiterating that the public can access information through the full board meetings.

Nichelson said the information generated in committee meetings is “considered incomplete without the input and feedback of the general public and the membership of the CoC board.”

Jill Replogle, a reporter for Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), attended a data committee meeting Sept. 13. Jim Wheeler, the county’s Continuum of Care director, announced her presence to the room and after the meeting declined to answer any questions about the data discussed at the meeting, instead referring her to the county spokeswoman, Replogle said.

During the meeting, the committee members discussed how some of the data collected through the centralized data system in Orange County regarding outcomes for homeless people is misleading and confusing, Replogle said.

“I go to this data meeting and it becomes clear…that the data is not very good,” Replogle said. “If I hadn’t gone to that meeting and taken the data [they] put on the website and ran with that, and even if I had done my due diligence and talked to people about it, I would have trusted [the data] a lot more than I do [after attending].”

The chair of the data committee, Elizabeth Andrade of the nonprofit Families Forward, declined to comment for this article and referred a reporter to Nichelson. Wheeler also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The board’s co-chair, Dawn Price, also declined to comment and referred a reporter to the county spokeswoman.

Matt Bates, Vice President of City Net who is chair of the street outreach committee, said public input has been important for his committee because of the large number of volunteers who conduct street outreach independent of any organization.

Bates said he was comfortable with the policy after assurance from Brown that committee chairs will have discretion over who can attend their meetings.

“I rely on groups that are volunteer groups, they go out every week and send me their reports because they know our agency helps people get connected to housing,” Bates said. “My philosophy is, the problem of homelessness is not going to get solved just by the nonprofit agencies and government workers, we need the help of the public.”

Both Brown and Bates said homeless providers have struggled with strong opposition from the public and criticism from advocates who don’t like the way they approach homeless services, sometimes escalating to hostile and adversarial confrontations.

Bates said at times advocates have confronted CityNet employees with information about specific clients at meetings, “shutting down” meetings by demanding providers comment on information that by law they aren’t allowed to discuss with anyone but the client.

“In that case, their intentions weren’t toward the mission of the committee,” Bates said. He supports participation in committee meetings “to the degree where reporters and members of the public are willing to build the system and promote the system and help conduct the work of the committee.”

Bates said he would be “open to considering alternatives” to closing committee meetings but feels the policy change won’t make a significant difference, as the meetings typically don’t get many attendees and are held on weekday afternoons when most people can’t attend.

The policy change will also mark any documents distributed to committee members as a “draft.”

Government agencies, including the county, have declined to release certain records by arguing they are a draft and fall under an exemption in state public records law.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer commented on the use of the “draft” exemption at a Sept. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“We all know the rule around government, that as long as something’s a draft, no one gets it…As long as you’ve stamped draft, it’s not a public document,” Spitzer said.

Asked whether the draft materials distributed to the committees will be public records, in light of Spitzer’s comment, Nichelson said each request is “reviewed on a case by case basis.”

“The County responds to each request in accordance with the Public Records Act,” said Nichelson.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware and a consultant to Voice of OC, noted the draft exemption has been interpreted by the Court of Appeal to apply to documents used to advise an administrative or executive decision, and which are normally discarded in the course of the agency’s work.

When the exemption does apply, it’s only to the opinion or recommendation of the author; the facts considered in coming to that conclusion remain public, Francke said.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.