Supporters of Jail Tax Assess Defeat, Options : Measure J: Gates blames wording on ballot, fiscal climate. Plans remain alive to acquire canyon land.


A day after Measure J received a trouncing at the polls, the debate over what to do about jail overcrowding continued anew Wednesday, with some county officials vowing to pursue plans for a jail in Gypsum Canyon and others saying it is time to seek alternatives.

With just 17% of the county's 1.1 million registered voters casting ballots in Tuesday's election--the lowest turnout ever for a countywide vote--Measure J was defeated, 73.6% to 26.4%, according to unofficial election returns.

"It's incredible. It's embarrassing," Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said about the margin of defeat.

Riley, along with Supervisors Harriett M. Wieder and Roger R. Stanton, favor putting a jail in Gypsum Canyon.

Sheriff Brad Gates and the three supervisors were left to assess what went wrong in the campaign for the half-cent sales tax increase. And the determination of the three supervisors to pursue plans to build a 6,720-bed jail in Gypsum Canyon set the stage for a protracted legal battle with Anaheim, whose mayor has vowed to see a housing development built on the land, to be annexed by his city.

"Any election that's 3 to 1 is unbelievable," said Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter, Measure J's most vocal critic. "The logic of government (leaders) trying to build a jail on land they don't even own just makes no sense."

Gates and other supporters of a Gypsum Canyon jail said Measure J was defeated because of the way it was written and because voters were confused about what they would get for their money.

They said, however, that the election results should not be interpreted to mean that voters rejected a jail for Gypsum Canyon.

Gates also said the election's timing worked to Measure J's disadvantage. After a proposal by Gov. Pete Wilson to raise the state sales tax by 1 1/4 cents, the chances of voters approving Measure J, which would have raised the county's sales tax to 7%, plummeted, the sheriff said.

"When we started this (campaign) in January, we had a good chance of winning," Gates said. "I think there are not too many voters who don't believe a new jail is needed in this county and that it ought to be built in Gypsum Canyon."

Gates has vowed to try to put another jail tax initiative before voters, either in November or June, 1992. In fact, at a Kiwanis Club meeting where he was the keynote luncheon speaker Wednesday, the sheriff spoke as if still on the campaign trail, according to some who attended.

Results of Tuesday's election, however, noticeably dimmed the enthusiasm of some county officials for another try at a sales tax referendum.

Stanton, for one, described Tuesday's election as "the end of the sales-tax-for-a-jail idea."

Wieder suggested that she too would be cool to another such election.

Wieder's and Stanton's opposition to another election would be devastating to Measure J supporters, because both represent the Board of Supervisors on the Orange County Regional Justice Facilities Commission, which would make the decision on whether to place another measure on the ballot.

Riley was slower to dismiss the idea of another election, but he too expressed reservations.

"I assume some efforts will be made again," he said. "But before we do, I'd like to see us tighten it up like we did with Measure M," the half-cent sales tax initiative for transportation that was approved by county voters in November.

While some supervisors were ready to concede defeat on the jail tax measure, they had by no means abandoned the canyon jail proposal.

Wieder said she does not think that voters rejected Measure J because it would have paid for a jail in the canyon.

"I think the timing of the conversations in Sacramento about new taxes made people think, how much can we tax (ourselves)?" she said.

"But what do we do now? I think the people of Orange County should be worried," she said.

Indeed, the problem of jail crowding has left county officials in a quandary for more than a decade. The county's five-jail system was designed for 3,203 inmates but frequently holds 4,400.

A federal judge ruled in 1978 that crowding had created unconstitutionally cruel conditions and placed a cap on the population at the Central Men's Jail. As a result, Gates has instituted policies to relieve crowding, including the early release of some inmates.

Last week, a Municipal Court judge found Gates guilty of 17 contempt charges for releasing inmates in violation of state law and restricted him from further releases of certain types of inmates. Gates has said the ruling will force him to find space for about 500 more prisoners each week.

A proposal to pay for a Gypsum Canyon jail that has long simmered below the surface of the jail debate was being widely discussed Wednesday, with some officials predicting that it will chart the county's new approach to the issue.

The plan involves condemning Gypsum Canyon for a county landfill, then leasing or selling part of the land back to the county and using it for a jail. That idea has strong opponents, most notably Roth, but could provide a funding alternative to pay for buying the property, which is owned by the Irvine Co.

The supervisors could vote to condemn Gypsum Canyon as early as this summer, when an environmental impact report for such a landfill is expected to be completed.

However, that plan would be in direct conflict with Anaheim's support for Mountain Park, the 8,000-home development that the Irvine Co. wants to build in Gypsum Canyon.

But some county officials said they are prepared to sue Anaheim to block annexation of the canyon. That would delay the city's efforts long enough to let the county proceed with condemnation, they said.

"I think it's fair for you to speculate that the landfill option will be coming back," said Stanton, the chief board supporter of that idea. "Something's going to have to crack somewhere."

Hunter, Anaheim's mayor, said his city will not crack.

"No, the Gypsum idea as a jail is dead, gone," he said. "The county doesn't own the land. The city of Anaheim is going to annex that because the Irvine Co. is going to make it into homes. That's private enterprise, and the government ought to stay out of it."

The board last year authorized County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider to take legal action to protect the county's interest in Gypsum Canyon, so he presumably could take that action without further board approval. Schneider declined comment Wednesday.

With the county leadership divided over how to proceed, tempers flared at unexpected moments Wednesday, occasionally spilling over into meetings with high school students who had gathered to learn about county government.

During the student group's morning meetings, for instance, Schneider expressed frustration with the county's inability to move forward about the jail and blamed several factors for the logjam.

He dismissed a suggestion that the county solve its jail crowding by expanding the James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine. Noise limits at that facility and other problems would prevent an expansion there, Schneider said.

Moments later, however, Dan Wooldridge, an aide to Supervisor Roth, addressed the students and, in a rare public outburst at the county's administrative chief, told them that Schneider had misled them.

"Ernie Schneider just didn't tell you the truth," said Wooldridge, adding that Musick could be expanded if politicians were willing to press for it.

That expansion suggestion has dogged the jail debate for years and could resurface in a new round of debate. But such a plan too would probably meet with political backlash.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World