Supervisors Decide to Let Voters Decide Fate of Jail Initiative

Times Staff Writer

The Board of Supervisors--under pressure to let the voters speak--voted unanimously Tuesday to put the centralized-jail initiative on the June, 1990, countywide ballot.

Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young said immediately after the vote that the initiative, which would require that all new county jail facilities be built in the county seat, will be challenged in court. “Count on it,” he said.

Young said he will discuss the issue with his city attorney and, if there is any problem with Santa Ana challenging the measure in court, he will organize an outside challenge.

The measure was qualified for the ballot through a signature-gathering effort but technically could not be put to a countywide vote without the approval of supervisors.


Privately, a majority of the board opposed the initiative before Tuesday’s vote, and the supervisors were given a way out last week by a county counsel’s opinion that said the measure might be legally flawed and could be ignored.

Nonetheless, ignoring an initiative based on petitions signed by more than 112,000 people seemed politically dangerous.

“I just have a difficult time saying to the public: ‘I don’t care what you say,’ ” said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, a critic of the measure. “I really believe whatever reasons we might have, at least 112,000 people went to the effort to bring this to a vote and to do less might be misunderstood.”

Supervisors Gaddi H. Vasquez and Don R. Roth, both of whom support the initiative, said they do not think the board had a choice. “The board was really not in a position to pass judgment,” Vasquez said.


The Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail submitted the petition signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot in August. Their effort was in response to a 3-2 decision by the supervisors last year to build a massive jail in Gypsum Canyon, near Anaheim Hills.

Santa Ana’s Young has since begun collecting signatures for his own initiative, which would prohibit the construction of county jails in incorporated cities.

The supervisors made a point Tuesday to say that their vote does not mean they are going to interrupt their plans to build the Gypsum Canyon jail. But some county officials acknowledged that the doubts prompted by the unresolved initiative issues will make some aspects of the project difficult.

“There is no question that a black cloud will be over the whole project until this vote is taken,” Roth said.

Even though he is a vocal opponent of the measure, Supervisor Roger R. Stanton said he considers placing it on the ballot to be the best strategy. “I feel very confident that when the initiative is subjected to a challenge, it is going to fail,” he said.

Said Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder: “The issue before us today was not whether we support the initiative. Our decision was to uphold the Election Code.”

At times, the meeting grew testy. Stanton, whose district includes Santa Ana, challenged several backers of the initiative.

“By badgering people, he is inhibiting them from speaking,” said Robert S. Zemel, an initiative supporter and a candidate for the Anaheim City Council.


Both Stanton and Wieder said they discussed the county’s schedule for building the Gypsum Canyon jail, and they do not believe their decision will jeopardize it.

Construction was scheduled to begin next year. But Vasquez and Riley said they do not believe the county will have the money to begin work by then anyway. They said the vote on the initiative could come before the county finds the $600 million needed to build the facility.

Originally, county officials hoped to have part of the jail open by 1990.

Orange County has had a jail overcrowding problem for more than 10 years. Current jails have a capacity of about 3,100 inmates but hold more than 4,000 on any given day. At one point, a federal judge held the supervisors and the sheriff in contempt of court for not relieving the overcrowding.

When the initiative came before them Tuesday, the supervisors could have adopted it as law, set it for the next countywide ballot--which is in June, 1990--or, as the county counsel suggested last week, ignore it, letting a judge decide its validity and then responding.

County Counsel Adrian Kuyper said the measure is legally flawed because it is so sweeping that it could prohibit the government from performing one of its basic services: providing jails.

But initiative proponents released their own legal opinion Monday, backing the measure.

Rick Violett, chairman of the taxpayers group, said Tuesday that he is confident the measure will be ruled valid. The group is ready to defend it in court, he said.


A crowd of more than 150 people--most from Santa Ana and opposed to the initiative--attended the supervisors’ meeting. Several Santa Ana residents told the board they think it is unfriendly for one community to dump its problems on another.

“I agree that 112,000 signatures is very American,” said Sam Romero, a Santa Ana activist. “Sticking it to another group of people is very un-American.”