SANTA ANA — In a move that could break a stubborn political logjam, all five county supervisors indicated Friday that they will vote next week to create a special commission that would propose a half-cent sales tax to build a new jail. The vote would start the clock on efforts to put the issue on the May 14 ballot.
"There is an imperative need to ask the question of the voters whether or not they want to pay more for a jail facility," Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez said. "I think it is inevitable that the question be asked now or in the near future, and this may be the time to ask that question."
Board members will also vote next Tuesday on a resolution to name Supervisors Harriett M. Wieder and Roger R. Stanton to serve on a special commission that would be empowered to call the election.
The unusual unanimity on an issue that has split the board for years comes after a Times Orange County Poll this week showed strong support for a half-cent sales tax increase to build a new jail in Gypsum Canyon, near Anaheim Hills.
"This opportunity is one that we should take immediately," said Stanton, long a supporter of building the jail in Gypsum Canyon. "The Times results showed that the public has about had it up to their ears with this problem."
The call for a swift election came at the urging of Sheriff Brad Gates, who is under a federal court order to ease a critical problem of jail overcrowding. Orange County's five jails hold more than 4,400 inmates in facilities designed for 3,203.
Supervisor Don R. Roth, who like Vasquez has opposed building a jail in Gypsum Canyon, probably will also cast his ballot to form the commission, according to Dan Wooldridge, his executive assistant.
"We met with Sheriff Gates this morning, and Don is looking at the issue," Wooldridge said. "We believe we need to find a way to provide sufficient monies to build new jail beds, and we need to provide the opportunity to voters to decide if they want to raise their taxes to do so."
Even Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who has been home recuperating from open-heart surgery, said he had obtained permission from his doctors to attend Tuesday's meeting to cast his vote for formation of the special commission.
"If Sheriff Gates feels the time is right to bring this up . . . well, he's no fool," Riley said from his home. "It's difficult for me to believe that there's that kind of enthusiasm (for a sales-tax increase) out there at this time. . . . But unless something comes up between now and then that I don't see now, I might have some difficulty voting against this."
Gates, who spent much of Friday briefing board members and others about the need to act quickly on the referendum, said he is pleased with the progress so far.
"The county family has really pulled together to overcome a lot of technical obstacles in such a short time," he said. "Everybody in my shop worked very hard. It looks like everything is in place."
The election is timed to coincide with a possible runoff in the 35th Senate District. In order for the issue to be on the ballot, the election must be called by Feb. 15.
Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 tax law, requires that if the supervisors propose the measure, it would have to be approved by two-thirds of the voters. However, if an independent commission proposes the tax, only a simple majority would be necessary for passage.
Along with Wieder and Stanton, two other members will be named to the new agency by the Orange County League of Cities, and a fifth member would come from the public at large, to be named by the other four members.
But even as county officials spent much of Friday in briefings to hash out details of the referendum, opponents of building the jail in Gypsum Canyon were also gearing up for a fight.
"We are in the process of building homes at Gypsum Canyon and the county can't stop us," Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter declared. "I might even vote for their half-cent sales tax, but they will never build the jail here. We'll build a brand new jail in downtown Santa Ana, or somewhere else. They don't own Gypsum Canyon, and the best use for that land is homes."
The Gypsum Canyon site is owned by the Irvine Co., which has long said it plans to build homes there. It is in the sphere of influence of Anaheim, however, and officials there have started proceedings to annex the land.
But Wieder said that a strong showing at the polls from residents who support higher taxes for a new jail could change the Irvine Co.'s position against selling the land to the county.
"The Irvine Co. has always been a good neighbor, and that means they will have to be a part of a community that says they want a new jail," she said.