County officials have pulled back plans to award Census outreach money to the city of Santa Ana and Santa Ana Unified School District, prompting protests from city and school district officials that it’s retaliation for raising public concerns about a proposed county homeless shelter in their city.

With billions of dollars in funding across OC depending on an accurate Census, county officials are distributing about $1.5 million in state money for local agencies and nonprofits to get the word out in communities that are difficult to count.

The OC census outreach grants were originally scheduled for approval by county supervisors today but county officials chose to push it back one more week, to next Tuesday, Dec. 17.

County officials said they pulled the city and school district from the funding plan because they believed the money would be more effectively spent with non-governmental groups like Latino Health Access.

The Nov. 25 reversal on Census grants has prompted loud protests from Santa Ana officials, who criticize the move as raw politics from the county and Supervisor Andrew Do, who also ousted a county commissioner from Santa Ana the day after she joined others in publicly raising concerns about the shelter to supervisors on Nov. 19.

“We have a responsibility to protect our children, and to ask all those questions [about the shelter],” said Valerie Amezcua, the board president of Santa Ana Unified School District, in an interview Monday.

Amezcua was one of more than a dozen Santa Ana speakers who raised concerns at the supervisors’ Nov. 19 meeting about a lack of county outreach about the proposed Yale St. shelter, which Do supports.

A week before the meeting, county officials sent the city a letter on Nov. 12 saying it and the school district were among eight organizations recommended by a county evaluation panel to receive outreach grants for their area of the county.

“Then all of a sudden after the Board of Supervisors meeting, the money was rescinded,” Amezcua said. “It’s a terrible tactic on the county’s part. And I’m going hold Supervisor Do accountable.”

In its Nov. 25 follow-up letter, the week after officials raised concerns about the shelter, the county told the city the grant recipients had changed. Now, there were six recipients – the city and school district were the only two groups that were removed.

[Click here to read the first letter and here for the second letter.]

“He’s acting like a gangster. He’s a bully,” said Amezcua, who’s a retired county probation officer. “And if that’s how the county does business, shame on them.”

Do, who was involved in pulling the grant recommendations, denied to Voice of OC that it was out of retaliation. Asked why he and Supervisor Doug Chaffee removed the city and school district, he questioned their effectiveness.

“Where does it say cities and school districts are the best choices to help with the Census count, when we have effective organizations like Latino Health Access,” Do said via text. He did not say why he believed the city and school district would be less effective.

County supervisors previously held back more than $1.5 million from a Latino Health Access outreach contract because the group used a Spanish word, promotora, instead of “health care worker.”

County CEO Frank Kim said he recommended removing the city and school district from the funding recommendation to make the grants more effective, not out of retaliation over the shelter comments.

Kim said he first reviewed the recommendations after the letter went out saying the city and district were recommended, and took issue with the scoring.

“My feedback back to staff was, I kind of don’t like how the scoring came out,” Kim said. “Because it’s the community-based groups that have deep roots in the community” that will encourage people to participate in the Census.

“What I can say is that my recommendations were not based on anything related to Yale,” Kim said in a phone interview Monday evening. He added that he “can’t speak for Chaffee or Do,” the two supervisors who approved the removal as the board’s ad-hoc committee on Census outreach.

“I’ll tell you, form my perspective, it had nothing to do with Yale. I wasn’t even thinking about Yale when I was talking to my board subcommittee. I just don’t see how the two items are linked,” Kim said.

As for why the city and school district specifically were removed, Kim said, “they’re large government organizations like the county,” and noted the county chose not to keep the money for itself to do outreach.

Asked if Do asked for the city and school district to be removed, Kim said, “it was a unanimous decision based upon the discussion,” referring to the private committee meeting with Do, Chaffee and himself.

When pressed about whether Do initiated the effort to cut the city and school district out of funding, Kim said he couldn’t “remember exactly who said what,” noting it had been a couple of weeks since the conversation.

Kim said the question in his mind when reviewing the bid scores was “are we going to make the impacts that we want, and are the groups that we are funding going to do better than the county? Or can we find organizations with deep roots in the community that have built that trust, so that we can get everyone counted.”

Amezcua said the school district “is a trusted entity” with parents and would be highly effective in boosting participation with the census, including through its numerous parent resource centers. The district could invite parents to campus to fill out Census forms on laptops, she said.

“Again, Santa Ana is being treated like the stepchild. Again, our community is being ignored. again, we have no representation. And again, nobody thinks our children matter. And we’re not going to allow that,” Amezcua said.

Santa Ana city officials also are protesting the county’s move.

“I just can’t believe how gross the retaliation has been [from] the county because of the shelter and us speaking against it,” said Councilman David Penaloza, who chairs the City Council’s committee on Census outreach.

“Now because of retaliation, similar to Angie Cano being removed from the [county] committee, we are losing out,” he added. “It just doesn’t make sense….You’re gonna remove funds from the hardest-to-count city in the county.”

Santa Ana has the highest number of hard-to-count areas of any city in Orange County, according to state data.

Santa Ana’s city manager, speaking two weeks after the county pulled the funding recommendation, said county officials had not given the city any explanation.

“I don’t have an opinion speculating the why behind the County’s decision. Just very surprised by our exclusion and so far my staff has not received any explanation,” said Kristine Ridge, the city manager, said Monday.

Do told a Voice of OC reporter to verify his retaliation denial with Chaffee, the other supervisor who agreed to remove the city and school district. But Chaffee, who reportedly was out sick Monday, didn’t return a phone message for comment.

The upcoming Census is next scheduled for April 1, 2020, and is mandated every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution. Every household is required to fill out a questionnaire about who is living there, and the resulting data is used to generate official population counts, determine legislative districts and how billions of dollars in funding is distributed.

Communities across California have been stepping up efforts to make the Census count more complete. Local and state officials, including Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) are gathering Tuesday in Long Beach to talk about outreach in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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