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Rural Jail Initiative Fails to Make Ballot

Times Staff Writer

A drive to qualify a ballot measure aimed at keeping a new jail out of Santa Ana or any Orange County city failed Monday, but leaders of the movement vowed to continue battling to have the facility built in a rural area.

Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young, who has spearheaded the effort since September, said supporters of the Rural Jail Initiative had collected “a shade under 50,000" signatures by the deadline of 5 p.m. Monday. The group needed the signatures of about 65,000 registered voters to qualify the measure for the June, 1990, ballot, according to the county registrar of voters.

Despite the setback, an upbeat Young promised to launch new efforts to block construction of a 6,720-bed jail in Santa Ana, which he said may include another signature-gathering drive to put the issue on the countywide ballot.

“Unfortunately we just ran out of time,” Young said Monday of the initiative, which would have banned construction of new county jails in any incorporated city or within a mile of any school.

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“We hoped to make one last push (last) weekend,” Young said. “But between the rain and Easter, we never had a chance. But I remain committed to preventing any new jail from being built in this city or any other place in this county where such a facility would be located near schools or homes.”

The Rural Jail Initiative was intended to counter another measure that would require all future jail facilities be built in Santa Ana. That initiative--sponsored mainly by Anaheim Hills residents organized as Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail, who oppose a new jail planned for Gypsum Canyon--will appear on the June, 1990, ballot.

Meanwhile, the county is proceeding with plans for a new jail in Gypsum Canyon, east of Anaheim Hills and south of the Riverside Freeway. The county, under court order to reduce severe overcrowding in existing jail facilities, is in the design phase for the Gypsum Canyon jail--by far the largest of three proposed projects in the county’s $430-million jail expansion program.

The mayor said he will wait at least two weeks before deciding on the group’s next move. He supports legislation recently introduced by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) that would require that revenues from a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for jail construction be spent only on a project targeted for a specific site. Such legislation, Young reasoned, would link funding for a new jail to the Gypsum Canyon site, which was chosen on a 3-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors in July, 1987, after more than a decade of studies and rancorous debates.

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No one has disputed the need for new jail facilities as the inmate population has soared in recent years. But there have been continued political battles among county supervisors over specific sites, and supervisors more than once sent staff members back to study still more rural locations that would not meet with community opposition. The eventual selection of Gypsum Canyon followed weeks of protests from residents living near all four potential sites: Gypsum Canyon, Fremont Canyon, Irvine Lake and Chiquita Canyon.

Young blamed the failure of his initiative drive on the lack of resources. Gathering enough signatures to qualify a countywide measure “is a monumental undertaking,” he said, one made more difficult because his group relied heavily on volunteers to go door-to-door. Young said the group spent about $10,000 on the effort, most of it coming from donations.

Taking heart from his opponents, Young pointed out that Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail tried twice before qualifying their measure for the ballot.

Young and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) took the lead on the Rural Jail Initiative during their campaigns for elective office and were criticized for trying to capitalize on an emotional issue. Young was seeking to become Santa Ana’s first popularly elected mayor, and Pringle was locked in a close race with Democrat Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach in the 72nd Assembly District, which includes Santa Ana. Both were elected.

On Monday, both men denied that their interest in the jail was merely for political advantage and that they had subsequently abandoned the jail issue because it no longer benefited their personal careers.

“It’s an insult to talk about putting a jail in the heart of Santa Ana as a political issue,” Young said. “The jail fight isn’t my project. It’s a community project. About 1,500 people helped get those signatures.”

During his campaign, Pringle mailed several thousand petitions for the Rural Jail Initiative along with his campaign literature to voters.

“If being committed to a cause in one’s district is capitalizing on an issue, then that’s what I did,” Pringle said. “But it’s a vitally important issue to my district, and it remains so.”

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