Orange County Register, June 6 2017
SANTA ANA The Board of Supervisors deadlocked Tuesday, June 6, essentially voting down $252,000 in annual funding for the Orange County Human Relations Council, which could lead to the elimination of three staff positions and require the nonprofit to leave the county building where it has been housed for 25 years.
Rusty Kennedy, the nonprofit’s CEO, said his office was served with an eviction notice by the county last week, asking the council to vacate the building by July 1. The funding for the three positions and the license to operate in the county building are treated as a package.
Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett voted to approve the funding. Andrew Do and chairwoman Michelle Steel were opposed, over concerns that the commingling of the county’s Human Relations Commission, a public entity, and the council, which is a private entity, raises the issue of accountability and puts the board in jeopardy of violating state public meeting laws.
Spitzer moved to put the item back on the agenda for June 13, when Supervisor Shawn Nelson is expected to return from vacation. It’s not clear if Nelson will cast the swing vote on the matter.
Supporters of the Council, which has partnered with the Human Relations Commission on community programs ranging from promoting race relations to compiling the annual hate crimes report, packed the chamber and an overflow room during the meeting. More than 50, including Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, spoke in support of the nonprofit and it’s anti-bullying, police-community reconciliation, mediation and other programs.
“Hate crimes, in general, have risen,” Hutchens said. “But, beyond the hate incidents, there is a lot of fear in our immigrant and LGBTQ communities that are concerned and need our support. This is an important public safety and quality of life issue for us.”
Several spoke about their own positive interactions with the organization or about how the council has helped them during a crisis. Orange County activist Felicity Figueroa said when the Orange County Equality Coalition, which is known for supporting gay rights, found a noose hanging over its door one morning, their first instinct was to call Orange County Human Relations.
“They called the police and helped us deal with the trauma of this hate incident,” said Figueroa, one of the organization’s founders. “In our current, polarized political environment, we need them to continue their work more than ever.”
Do said as a refugee and an immigrant who has experienced the trauma of hate and bullying first-hand, he values the work done by the council. But the problem he has had for the last two years, he said, is that the county’s commission and the private nonprofit have become indistinguishable from each other.
“They raise money in our name, but we don’t have any control over how those funds are raised or spent,” Do said.
Voting down the $252,000 in funding for staffing does not mean “defunding” the nonprofit, he said, adding that 85 percent of the council’s $1.5 million budget is privately raised anyway.
Steel shared Do’s concern about the “commingling” of the two entities.
Bartlett said she is worried about where community members would go with their concerns if the council gets kicked out of the county’s building by the end of the month.
“I certainly don’t want it on my conscience that we let the lease lapse,” she said.
Spitzer said he couldn’t in good conscience cut the council’s funding given the current environment.
“There are people every day who wake up in this county and they worry if they are going to get safely to school,” he said. “Are they going to be jumped on the way to school because they are LGBT? There are people in this county who want to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and don’t know whether there is going to be some kind of explosion or act against them because of the religion they pursue.”
If the supervisors vote the issue down again next week, the Human Relations Council will be forced to move out of the building by July 1. The loss of funding and the relocation could set the group back about $300,000 and likely force some tough personnel decisions, Kennedy said.
The nonprofit has continued rent-free for 25 years in the county building, but has paid utilities, cost of security and other expenses, he said. They’ve also had to account for every dollar that has been raised and spent, he said.
The nonprofit has now been put in a precarious position, Kennedy said, adding that they’re already negotiating leases for a new office space.
“If they don’t approve our contract, we’ll be out on the street because it’s not enough time for us to sign a lease and move 25 years worth of history into a new location,” he said. “If they approve the contract, we may have spent money on a lease agreement that we didn’t need to spend.”