Commentary: Legal victories show that it is worth it to stand up and fight when needed

The Orange County Needle Exchange Program handed out syringes at the Santa Ana Civic Center, shown here in June, before having its permit denied.
(File Photo)

As elected officials, we know it’s our responsibility to fight for our residents and protect our neighborhoods and community.

So when we learned that, over the objections of Costa Mesa, the county and four other cities, the state had approved the application of a volunteer-staffed nonprofit to distribute needles near one of our schools and new library, we had to stand up.

We both appeared before the Board of Supervisors to advocate for an alliance with the county to sue the state and the OC Needle Exchange Program to stop the distribution of needles in our town. That same day, Mayor Katrina Foley proposed and the Costa Mesa City Council voted to initiate litigation along with the county and the other affected cities.

At the same time, Costa Mesa was embroiled in a high-stakes federal court case challenging our ordinance regulating sober living homes, which have become over-concentrated in Costa Mesa, resulting in threats to our neighborhoods and mistreatment of the residents seeking recovery.

Many didn’t think we could win either legal battle.

But we are here to tell you otherwise.

The positive results in both cases justified the council’s commitment to funding these causes.

On Nov. 27, a San Diego Superior Court judge agreed with our arguments that allowing the needle exchange in Costa Mesa would create a public health hazard because the operators are not capable of responsibly addressing or preventing “needle litter.” Important to our position was that the operator could not account for 250,000 needles littering the river trail and civic center in Santa Ana.

The court issued a preliminary injunction against the state and the OCNEP, a result that seemed unlikely even a month before.

While that result was worth celebrating, our biggest legal victory was yet to come.

On Dec. 7, a federal jury issued a unanimous verdict rejecting the sober living industry arguments that our sober living home ordinances unlawfully discriminated against the recovering addicts.

The verdict was a victory for Costa Mesa as well as other cities that face similar issues.

We would like to give those cities some advice: hire Jennifer Keller. Keller is a hall of fame trial lawyer, widely regarded as the best in the county. We convinced Keller to take our case and our council colleagues agreed to hire her and give her the latitude and resources to put on the best defense possible. That was a courageous and wise decision.

As Keller said after the victory: “The Costa Mesa City Council stood tall and refused to be intimidated by the plaintiffs.”

For those who witnessed the case firsthand, it was clear to see why it was so important to have Keller and her talented trial team on our side.

Keller masterfully told the story of how nuisance sober living home operators had disrupted neighborhoods with nightmare parking problems, clouds of cigarette smoke invading their homes, loud vulgar conversations taking place right outside their windows, catcalls to teenage girls, and neighbors moving away from previously tranquil family oriented neighborhoods. She also drove home that our ordinances actually protect recovering addicts from predatory practices rather than discriminating against them.

As many know, we are both attorneys. While litigation is not always the best course, sometimes you have to stand up in in court and protect the community. We are proud that the city council did so in both of these cases and we were able to apply our professional backgrounds to good use for our constituents.

Katrina Foley is the mayor of Costa Mesa and John Stephens is a mayor pro tem.