SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union accused the Orange County, California, Board of Supervisors of forcing residents to wait several hours before they can comment at board meetings and intentionally moving the public comment time to “stifle debate and shield county officials from criticism.”
The Orange County Board of Supervisors determines spending on homeless programs, law enforcement policies, housing goals and other wide-ranging issues that affect the 3 million residents who live in the Southern California county, which is home to Disneyland and several coastal communities.
The ACLU filed Tuesday’s lawsuit on behalf of the People’s Homeless Task Force, a local homeless advocacy group which claims homelessness has reached “epidemic proportions in Orange County” due to a shortage of affordable housing and lack of shelter space.
Previously, homeless advocates sued Orange County in federal court seeking to block the removal of a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River where about 1,000 people lived up until early 2018. The encampment has since been cleared, sending the homeless people out into the community and into overcrowded shelters.
Since then, leaders from across Orange County have met to discuss how to solve the epidemic of homelessness to little effect, and advocates sued several Orange County cities this year over a lack of shelters
Now, in a 28-page complaint filed Tuesday, the People’s Homeless Task Force say any criticism or solutions they have offered to county supervisors have been ignored.
“The board has gone so far to insulate itself from criticism that its rules of procedure even prohibit members of the public from addressing individual supervisors at meetings, each of whom represents distinct districts,” the group says in its complaint. “In effect, constituents are barred from speaking directly to their representative.”
Those who are critical of the elected officials cannot address them specifically but that rule is only enforced against some people, according to the group. Anyone who is complimentary can address individual supervisors, they say.
Furthermore, the group says supervisors have limited public comment on the topic of homelessness. Some supervisors have interrupted and criticized those speaking during public comment periods and don’t give them extra time back to finish their comments.
The group also accuses the county of destroying documents in violation of state law, allowing county officials to sidestep the California Public Records Act.
In a statement, ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme called the Orange County Board of Supervisors “among the least transparent and least accountable government bodies in the state of California, if not the country.”
Public comments previously were heard around the beginning of the county’s weekly board meetings, but that was moved to the end of the meeting in February 2018. Some board meetings can stretch to several hours, which the group says is a violation of the Brown Act.
They also complain county supervisors routinely ignore emails sent to them, so the public comment period is about last option to communicate with them.
“This right of Americans to address public officials is engrained in our Constitution,” Jeanine Robbins of the People’s Homeless Task Force said in a statement. “A desire to remain willfully ignorant does not provide a magical loophole by which public speech can be curtailed.”
In a statement, Orange County officials said while they cannot comment on the group’s lawsuit at this time, “we do believe that our rules regarding public comment and public records comport with state and federal law.”
The group wants the court to order the Board of Supervisors to do away with rules and policies that restrict public participation at the meetings and seek to hide its actions.
They are also represented by David Horowitz of Kirkland & Ellis in Los Angeles.