OC Human Relations CEO Rusty Kennedy, center, is surrounded by employees, clockwise from bottom: Seema Shah, Alison Edwards, Marco Ortega, Don Han, and Julie Vue in Santa Ana on Monday, April 24, 2017. They show off posters used in a stereotype awareness exercise. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Orange County Register, April 27, 2017

SANTA ANA — County supervisors have put on the back-burner a $250,000 request from the OC Human Relations Council to fund three staff positions, citing concerns about the entanglement and blurring of roles between the county’s Human Relations Commission, a public entity, and the council, a private nonprofit.

Supervisors were scheduled to vote on the funding Tuesday, April 25, but Chairwoman Michelle Steel and Vice Chairman Andrew Do sent out a memo Friday deleting the item from the agenda because of the entanglement issues, and what she said were the council’s lack of compliance with open meeting laws and its failure to “meet Board directives.”

An ad hoc committee comprising Steel and Do will review the staffing needs and return to the board with recommendations, the memo said.

Rusty Kennedy, CEO of the Human Relations Council, said the allegations are without merit.

“When the council raises $30 million over 25 years to support the work of the commission, there is going to be some blurring of the lines,” he said. “And we have been working to address those concerns.”

The debate has emerged at a time when hate crimes and hate incidents are surging in Orange County, as well in California and nationwide.

In an April 14 letter addressed to the supervisors, Kennedy detailed the steps taken to disentangle the two entities including designating three of the council’s full-time staff members to the commission; removing the nonprofit’s logo from commission correspondence; separating the two entities’ executive committees and their meeting locations; and separating their web pages.

In addition, Kennedy said, he resigned as the commission’s long-time director and helped establish protocols by which council staff would clearly identify themselves as working for the nonprofit.

The Orange County Human Relations Commission was founded by the Board of Supervisors in 1971 as an official governmental entity. The nonprofit OC Human Relations Council was established in 1991.

The two became separate entities with similar goals, but have worked together for 26 years to execute community and interfaith programs and to put out the annual Hate Crime Report. Their mission and actions are intertwined, something Kennedy said was bound to happen given that the council helps put the commission’s goals into action.

The council’s programs include the BRIDGES school program that promotes diversity and inclusiveness on campuses and the police-community reconciliation program that focuses on restorative justice.

The relationship between the commission and the council “is a stellar example of what public-private enterprise should look like,” Commissioner Rabbi Richard Steinberg said, adding that breaking up this synergy will harm the commission’s work.

“The commission will be reduced to nothing unless the supervisors fund our work at a much higher level,” he said. “It helps to clarify that these are two separate entities. But this is a relationship that needs to be celebrated, not viewed with suspicion.”

But Commissioner Sean Thomas said a total separation is necessary.

Thomas has concerns about the way the nonprofit operates. He said the Council raises $1.6 million a year but spends $1.3 million in salaries and operational costs, which is “too high.” He said asking the supervisors for $1 million over four years to fund three employees is “unacceptable.”

“The commission has become a rubber stamp of the nonprofit and seems to have no real purpose,” Thomas said.

The commission should be able to do its job in a nonpartisan manner, just as the council should have the freedom, as a private entity, to state its political views if it so desires, he said.

Thomas’ fellow commissioner, Becky Esparza, who has served for 32 years, disagreed, saying the nonprofit does not make any decisions on behalf of the commission.

“The partnership works well,” she said. “As commissioners, we make our own decisions, but we ask (Kennedy) for guidance because he is an expert in this field.”

The council, in fact, lends legitimacy to the commission because of its grassroots work and the relationships it has established with law enforcement and the interfaith community, Esparza said.

“We have to work together to support this work,” she said. “This partnership is too valuable to let go.”

Kennedy said Thomas’ analysis of the council’s income and expenses is “uninformed.”

“Our salary schedule is lower than government and does not include a pension,” he said. “It’s lower than private industry and large nonprofits.”

But they do try to give employees good benefits such as health insurance, vacation time and contributions to retirement accounts, Kennedy said.

“Like most nonprofits, our primary costs are the people who provide the services we offer to the community,” he said.

Supervisor Do said he is still not happy with what he called “an ongoing confusion.”

He said the staff dedicated by the council to serve the commission still report to Kennedy as does Norma Lopez, the newly-appointed director of the commission.

The distinction still seems muddied and confusing, Do said.

“As a public official, I didn’t know myself that these were two separate entities,” he said. “I’m not questioning the need for a Human Relations Commission. But, I think it’s important that the commission has the autonomy to speak on behalf of the Board of Supervisors.”

Do said he has been raising these concerns for more than a year, but hasn’t seen a concrete response from the council.

More than 100 people came to Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting to show support for the council and its work.

Taking funding away from the council would be counterproductive, said Peg Corley, executive director of the LGBT Center OC, which is a program partner with the council.

“Hate crimes and incidents have been way up since the election,” she said. “The council has come to our center to educate our staff. They’ve taught us the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident and how to report them.”

Susan Fothergill, who spoke at the meeting, said she has worked with the council to organize Race Unity Day at the Huntington Beach Library.

“Over the last several years, the council has sent volunteers to talk about their experiences during this event,” she said. “I’m upset. Why would we not continue promoting the wonderful work they do? They bring people together.”