November 2, 2017; Voice of OC
It appears the drama of Orange County, California is not limited to fictional television. This week, the county board of supervisors voted to take control of the nonprofit Human Relations Commission and overhaul its governing rules.
NPQ has often been suspicious of public-private partnerships, and we have frequently warned against even the appearance of conflicts of interest. This story features both. According to Deepa Bharath, writing for the Voice of OC,
The commission was created by county supervisors in 1971, and works to foster better communication among diverse communities and fight hate crimes. In 1991, a nonprofit group was set up to supplement the county dollars with private funds. Today, the commission’s staff are officially employees of the nonprofit group, OC Human Relations, and are funded by a mix of county and private dollars.
The takeover effort was driven by commissioners Andrew Do and Michelle Steel, both with complicated histories on the board. In March, Do lost his bid to be chairman of CalOptima, which “manages the healthcare of 800,000 low-income Orange County children, adults, seniors, and people with disabilities.” The board voted 6-3 to elect anesthesiologist Dr. Paul Yost, but Do complained that he had lost because of his Vietnamese-American ethnicity. (Do does not have a medical background.) He and Steel then tried to grant county supervisors a controlling majority on the board of CalOptima, but were blocked by fellow supervisors and nearly every state legislator.
Now, Do complains that the board has insufficient control over HRC. “They raise money in our name, but we don’t have any control over how those funds are raised or spent,” Do told the OC Register in June. He was irate when a press release expressing support for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and condemning anti-LGBTQ violence went out with the county logo on it. He and Steel have also tried to change the rules of the Ethics and Campaign Finance Commission so that commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the supervisor” who appointed them.
Steel’s story is even more conflicted: Her husband is a member of the Republican Party’s national governing committee who has defended President Trump on Fox News and served at the convention when Trump was chosen nominee. She opposed the release of the HRC’s hate crimes report, and tried to get an influential Republican executive elected as a commissioner at HRC. When she failed on both counts, she and Do began working on their proposal to give county supervisors control over HRC.
Steel and Do have both expressed concern over the lack of strict boundaries between the nonprofit HRC and the county board of supervisors. That’s a legitimate concern, but their solution of a hostile takeover seems a bit extreme. This summer, they tried to defund the HRC, but the board granted the nonprofit a year to get its administrative butt in gear and establish clear public-private boundaries. That year is not even half up, but the supervisors now have control over HRC staff, including the ability to hire and fire the executive director at will.What makes all of this worse is that the real problem of rising hate crimes and hate incidents go ignored. The number of reported hate crimes—crimes motivated by racial or ethnic animus—increased from 44 to 50 according to the commission’s 2016 annual report, while the number of hate incidents (racial epithets, threatening phone calls, derogatory remarks) rose even more rapidly, from 43 to 72. It’s worth noting that while the televised image of Orange County is often lily white, the “real OC” is quite different. According to the commission, 43.5 percent of residents are white, 33.8 percent Latinx, and 18.2 percent Asian, with the rest Black, American Indian, or in another group.
Susan Fothergill, who has worked with HRC in the past, told OC Register, “I’m upset. Why would we not continue promoting the wonderful work they do? They bring people together.” It remains to be seen what the Orange County’s Human Rights Commission’s work will look like in the future, but for the sake of OC residents, we hope they get it straightened out soon.—Erin Rubin