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Santa Ana Says Image Is at Stake in Court Fight

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Times Staff Writer

When Santa Ana’s reputation is attacked because of a high crime rate, when its image is tarnished by its congested apartments, and when it is disparagingly called a haven for low-income immigrants, city officials have been secure in the knowledge that the city enjoys a county seat’s prestige.

It is the home of Orange County government, Orange County Superior Court, the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse and the state 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 3.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 2, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Appellate court -- An article in some editions of Tuesday’s California section said Santa Ana would be the only county seat in California without a state Court of Appeal if the court moved to Irvine. It should have said that in counties where state appellate courts are located, Orange County would be the only one where the court was not in the county seat.

Now, with a bid to move the Court of Appeal to UC Irvine, civic leaders realize their assumption about the city’s role as a seat of government is fragile. If the university prevails, Orange County would be the only county in California without an appellate court in its county seat. Santa Ana officials fear it could lead to the loss of the two other courts and even county government.

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“No matter what problems are faced here, we are the county seat, and it’s something that everyone felt could not be taken away from us,” said Councilman Jose Solorio.

“We are going to fight back. What is to stop anyone else from saying, ‘The county Hall of Administration is getting too old; let’s move that to another city’?”

UCI officials see the court as an impetus for its long-desired law school, another resource for students and faculty, and a place to find experienced law lecturers.

UCI doesn’t want its quest for the courthouse to deteriorate into a nasty dispute with Santa Ana. Addressing the issue only through a written statement, officials said: “The university has submitted a proposal to have the new Fourth District Appellate Court building located at its campus. We now trust the Judicial Council to evaluate the merits of our proposal, as well as the merits of the proposal from the city of Santa Ana. During this sensitive period, we will continue to refrain from discussing in greater detail the university’s proposal or debating the merits of the bids.”

The state Judiciary Council’s advisory committee is expected to issue its recommendation Wednesday. The choice, expected to be made in the next couple of months, will be made by the 21 members of the Judicial Council and then reviewed by the state Public Works Board.

The notion of moving the courthouse out of Santa Ana affronts residents like Steve McGuigan, who at a recent City Council meeting called the court “a jewel” of the city. Others feel bullied by the university.

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“It is disheartening to know that the big UC would try to come in and take [the court] away from this community,” said Audrey Noji, a member of the Santa Ana Unified School District board. “It is a David-and-Goliath thing.”

The court may be a jewel in name, but in terms of physical presence it is almost lost amid the government buildings of downtown Santa Ana. It operates in an overcrowded former house, so small some of the judges have to work out of offices in nearby buildings. The state has set aside $17 million to buy a site and build a courthouse.

Santa Ana officials had long assumed the new facility would be built at the northwest corner of Ross Street and Santa Ana Boulevard. But UCI, which previously indicated it would defer to Santa Ana, submitted its competing proposal Jan. 31.

Losing the court would be a blow to Santa Ana officials and residents, many of whom say upholding their civic image is an ongoing job. While the city boasts sparkling, upscale neighborhoods, a bustling core of downtown government offices and trendy stores near South Coast Plaza, it also is perceived as a grimy city chock-full of small manufacturers, low-rent retail storefronts, mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants and struggling schools crowded with non- English-speaking students.

UCI, on the other hand, is in the midst of upscale suburbia.

“Santa Ana is always put to the test, put to higher scrutiny than others,” said Councilman Mike Garcia.

“It has a lot to do with the socio-economics here. People don’t feel comfortable. We house the low-income people,” Garcia said.

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It is, in fact, a tough sell. After developer Mike Harrah spent $11 million to restore a 1930s Masonic Hall into a restaurant and performing arts hall in 2001, its operators spent months trying to persuade people in south Orange County to have events there.

Last year, an organization celebrating its 100th anniversary chose a Costa Mesa location instead of the hall because leaders believed the Santa Ana location could hinder ticket sales, said Jason Kordas, who runs catered events at the hall, called the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Events Center.

Santa Ana has struggled in the past to retain landmark buildings that buoyed the city’s image.

Twenty-five years ago, the city successfully fought to keep the federal courthouse, which Irvine wanted. The court had been in a temporary facility for 10 years in Santa Ana before the construction of the new build- ing.

Nearly a decade ago, Santa Ana fought to keep the Discovery Science Museum, which Irvine also coveted.

The concern for the Court of Appeal is more about finding affordable space than it is about helping Santa Ana’s image.

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In an April 26, 2004, letter to the administrative office of the courts, Appeal Court Presiding Judge David Sills, a former Irvine mayor, expressed his frustration with Santa Ana’s inability to offer a suitable site.

Sills said the city proposed a 2-acre court site that was later reduced to 1.44 acres.The latest proposal “is the same as before, except they have added 50 parking spaces,” Sills wrote. “Santa Ana is still far short of our requirements.”

In the last four months, city officials increased parking by 70 spaces and have met every need presented by the state administrative office of the court, City Manager Dave Ream said.

The city paid for soil testing of the proposed site and canceled a $185,000 annual lease with the county because officials thought the court would use it.

Ream is now seeking City Council permission to hire lobbyists and consultants to persuade the Judicial Council, the Public Works Board and the UC Board of Regents to leave the facility in Santa Ana.

Among those the city would like in its corner is Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who heads the judiciary committee that determines court budgets. In 2003, Dunn said that if Santa Ana could not offer a suitably sized site, UCI would be a better option.

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Ream complained that in the five years Santa Ana had been working to keep the state court in the city, Dunn had not been supportive.

“It’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Dunn said the faceoff between Santa Ana and Irvine occurred because of Santa Ana’s refusal to provide enough land for the state courthouse. He called the city arrogant.

When city officials could not meet the court’s needs in 2001, new proposals were solicited in 2003. Dunn points out that had the city been more generous in the first proposal, UCI would never had been able to bid and offer a proposal Jan. 31. Ream said the state courts, not the city, selected the sites to consider in 2001.

Santa Ana officials say the UCI proposal is too little, too late.

“It’s not only a year late, but it’s just a page-and-a-half letter, not even a formal proposal,” said Ream, who received a description of the document from the court. “We’ve asked for a copy, but no one is willing to give us one.”

Santa Ana attorneys are worried about losing the Court of Appeal. Alfredo Amezcua said “to take one leg of the legal system somewhere else does not make any sense.”

Vince Sarmiento said moving the appellate court to Irvine would inconvenience Santa Ana-based attorneys like him.

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“It is a question of accessibility and convenience,” he said.

“For lawyers to do a simple appellate court filing, it is inconvenient to cross half of the county. There [are] no other court-system departments” in Irvine.

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