After nearly a half-century of Republican control, Orange County’s top elected body has now shifted to majority Democrat with the swearing in of former Santa Ana mayor Vicente Sarmiento.
Sarmiento had his first meeting as a county supervisor Tuesday, joining fellow Democrats Katrina Foley and Doug Chaffee – both of whom won re-election in November – and Republicans Andrew Do and Don Wagner.
During his ceremonial swearing in before the meeting, Sarmiento said his priorities are to make housing more affordable, reduce homelessness, improve public healthcare services, make the board more transparent, and beef up staffing and funding of civilian oversight over county law enforcement agencies.
“I’m very proud of the fact we adopted one of the most aggressive police oversight commissions before I left” the Santa Ana mayor’s seat, Sarmiento said, adding he wants to “robustly increase the funding and staffing” of law enforcement oversight at the county.
Another priority, he said, is “to make sure our children and our youth are able to afford a home in the county they grew up in.”
“I want that dream to be available for them.”
Sarmiento didn’t lay out specifics of how he would go about that, but said he’s been learning about the challenges and what can be done.
He said he’s the first Santa Ana resident on the Board of Supervisors in over 74 years, and “only the third Latino in the county history, to serve as a supervisor.”
In one of his first votes as supervisor, Sarmiento was the sole dissenter on a $13 million contract increase for the overhaul of the county’s Musick jail. He cited the fact he wasn’t present for earlier discussions, and said the unexpected cost increase was due to design problems.
The county board decides nearly $9 billion in annual spending on local regional services like law enforcement, public health, social services and myriad other priorities like libraries.
With the shift – Republican Lisa Bartlett leaving and Sarmiento joining – Democrats now have three of the board’s five seats – a controlling majority for most of the board’s decisions.
But the reality is more complicated.
One of the three Democrats – Chaffee – is a moderate who often sides with his Republican colleagues on key issues, and was opposed by his own party in last year’s election.
He’s considered the most likely swing vote that could decide controversial issues.
In his short swearing-in speech, Chaffee thanked his family for their support and hinted at the clashes he’s had with Foley.
Among them, in 2021 he joined Do in blocking county health experts from being able to join Foley for weekly public coronavirus updates, at a time when the county had stopped doing such updates altogether.
“I look forward to collaborating with you, and developing a friendly working relationship – in spite of friction – on important issues affecting the quality of life of our residents,” Chaffee told Foley at the beginning of his swearing-in remarks.
When Chaffee mentioned the “friction,” audience members let out a laugh.
Foley thanked public employee unions for their support of her campaign, and said she’s committed to representing every resident from homeless people to the wealthy who live in mansions.
“Thank you, labor. Thank you for sticking with me for 20 years! This is your house! You built it!” Foley said, thanking law enforcement and firefighter groups.
“There is such disparity representing people who are living on the streets and trying to get them help, versus representing people living in the most expensive homes in Orange County,” Foley said.
“They all deserve our representation.”
The last time Democrats had a majority on the Board of Supervisors was in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was the U.S. President.
That reign was marred by corruption scandals, including then-Supervisor Bob Battin’s 1976 felony conviction for misusing county staff to work on his campaign for lieutenant governor.
After the swearing in, supervisors chose Republican Don Wagner – the previous vice chair – as their new chairperson for the year, as is tradition at the first meeting of the year.
But they split sharply over who their vice chair will be.
Chaffee sided with his Republican colleagues in picking Supervisor Andrew Do for vice chair, while Sarmiento and Foley supported Foley.
In his first speech as chairman, Wagner said he supports the social safety net for the most vulnerable.
“We must provide for the homeless and the least fortunate among us. There is a role for the social safety net,” Wagner said.
“By ensuring liberty, we ensure that the people who know better collectively than does anyone in government individually, are best able to provide for themselves – reducing the scope and reach of that safety net.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said the last time Democrats had a majority on the Board of Supervisors was in 1976. It was in fact in 1980, according to the Orange County Archives. Voice of OC regrets the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.