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County Jail Initiative Should Be Put to a Vote

On Tuesday the Orange County Board of Supervisors will consider what to do about a certified initiative that would require all future county jails to be built in Santa Ana.

Normally the supervisors would have only two choices of action when an initiative that has qualified for the ballot comes before them: They could adopt it as an ordinance or put it to a vote of the people on the next countywide ballot, which in this case will be in June, 1990.

But County Counsel Adrian Kuyper has given the board a third choice: ignore the initiative and force the proponents into court where they would try to get a judge to order the election.

Tempting as it may be, that is an option the supervisors ought to reject.

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Kuyper may well be right. The initiative may be unconstitutional. As he contends, it could improperly restrict the county supervisors from providing a vital county service--in this case building new jails to ease serious overcrowding. Several years ago a federal judge held the county in contempt of court for overcrowded jail conditions.

Another factor that could bring confusion is an initiative effort in Santa Ana that seeks to countermand the one before the board. The other proposition would prevent any new jail from being constructed in an incorporated city. If it also qualified and passed, the county would find itself in the ridiculous position of violating the law no matter where it tried to build a new jail.

But that is not the question that will be before the county board Tuesday.

Proponents of the initiative to restrict jail construction to Santa Ana spent one year and more than $100,000 in their successful effort to qualify the initiative for the ballot. More than 112,000 county residents signed the petition. They deserve more than official disregard.

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The county board’s reluctance to adopt the initiative as law is understandable. It should not, however, summarily reject the measure and force the petitioners into court to get it on the ballot.

There is a danger in elected officials declaring a certified initiative they dislike to be flawed, then simply ignoring it and refusing to take the legally required action to place it on the ballot.

That approach would thwart the initiative process created to help residents enact laws that their elected officials have neglected or refuse to pass. And it would add considerably to the legal costs of grass-roots efforts.

The county counsel believes that the initiative is legally flawed. Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail, the group that sponsored the initiative, says its attorneys believe that the initiative passes legal muster. Many initiatives are disputed. The courts, however, are usually reluctant to take such issues away from voters and will not ordinarily rule on the validity of a certified initiative until an election is held. Controversial measures are often rejected by voters. If they are passed but are legally deficient, they may be struck down by the court.

The jail initiative should be no different.

We are not enamored with the initiative, nor do we believe it wise to legally restrict new jail construction only to Santa Ana. We may well oppose the proposition if it comes to a vote. But we are also concerned with maintaining the integrity of the initiative process. And that calls for holding the election.


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