Rusty Kennedy was camping with his family deep in the redwoods of Humboldt County last week with little inkling of the events brewing back home, where he directs the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
Jean Forbath, commission chairwoman, knew the agency faced deep cuts as the county wrestled to close a $67.7-million budget gap. But she began the week optimistic that she could keep its six-member staff intact.
Neither official had much warning of the bombshell dropped Tuesday in the Hall of Administration: At a time when hate crimes and ethnic conflicts seem on the rise, county supervisors accepted a proposal to eliminate the 20-year-old Human Relations Commission, one of the most high-profile branches of county government.
That, and a proposal to shut down the 16-year-old Commission on the Status of Women, stunned not only agency leaders but community supporters who believed that the broadly based commissions--veteran survivors of past budget battles--this time enjoyed immunity.
"It seems like you couldn't read the paper the last couple of months without the (Human Relations) commission being named or doing something," Forbath said last week. "The commission has provided a wonderful buffer for the Board (of Supervisors) in these sensitive areas. I can't believe they will stick with their recommendation."
Nevertheless, supporters say they are mobilizing to develop convincing evidence that the agencies--which cost taxpayers roughly $400,000 out of the $3.5-billion proposed county budget, should be spared even though the Sheriff's Department, district attorney and other county agencies are also facing severe cuts.
Commission leaders recognize that it will be a tough task. Supporters like Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder say the only hope may lie in documenting what the county would lose down the line--in dollars and cents--if the commissions are eliminated.
"That is the thrust I'm going to take in my meetings (with commission leaders)," Wieder said. "We're past the point of having pressure groups make a difference. What would be important is to come up with an actual assessment of what it would cost the county. They can't wait for the county to do it."
But even if the agencies can prepare such an assessment before supervisors adopt a final budget on Aug. 27, it may be too little, too late. County Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino said the implications of abolishing the commissions were part of a careful evaluation made before the budget proposal.
"This has nothing to do with how successful they've been," Rubino said. "They have provided excellent service. The question is can we afford them now. And the bottom line is if we don't cut here we have to cut somewhere else deeper."
The proposal was a particular blow to leaders of the women's commission who in December overcame an attempt to fold their agency into the Human Relations Commission. County officials argued then that a separate commission on women was no longer needed. However, supervisors relented after receiving a barrage of support from women's groups statewide.
A merger of the two commissions is still an option if supervisors decide to restore limited funding to the Human Relations Commission, Rubino said.
Although both commissions act in an advisory capacity for the supervisors and submit program reports yearly, they have never before been faced with determining how much money, if any, they save the county.
Few agencies are asked to do such an accounting, commission leaders argue, and many of their accomplishments cannot be easily quantified.
"We can look at the numbers we've served, but to figure out what we've done in terms of prevention is hard to measure," said Human Relations Commissioner Fran Williams, a professor of human development at Rancho Santiago College. "My argument would be that because of its unique nature, there is not another organization the county could turn to with even a fraction of the services we offer."
The Human Relations Commission has acted as a mediator in many of the county's most sensitive and controversial ethnic and racial incidents. Kennedy and the commission staff have been able to rally together disparate elements of the community, most recently to condemn a spate of cross-burnings and racial beatings. The commission acted to calm tensions after Amber Jefferson, a 15-year-old biracial teen-ager, was slashed across the face during a brawl among several teen-agers at a Stanton apartment complex last August. Jefferson, who is part black, charged that she was the victim of a hate crime.
Supporters say the commission is needed more than ever. They point to such recent incidents as the beating last March by Los Angeles police of motorist Rodney G. King. Many civil rights groups suggest that the beating of King, who is black, and other alleged police misconduct stem from a lack of understanding of cultural diversity.