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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Loss of Services Feared as Legal Aid Groups Merge

September 05, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A longtime legal aid program based in Oxnard is set to shut down and merge with a statewide farm worker advocacy group by the end of the year, prompting concerns about the loss of legal services for Ventura County's poor.

Channel Counties Legal Services Assn., which has represented indigent clients in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for nearly 40 years, is merging with California Rural Legal Assistance, which does similar work from offices across the state, including one in Oxnard.

The merger is part of a push by the Legal Services Corp.--a private, nonprofit group created by Congress to oversee and distribute money to legal aid programs nationwide--to consolidate services and make programs more efficient and effective.

Details of the merger are being worked out, and it's possible that Channel Counties will be able to retain its offices, attorneys and even its name.

But there's no question that the program will come under the control of California Rural Legal Assistance. That prospect has some at Channel Counties worried about the loss of autonomy and local control, and what that might mean for the thousands of clients who seek help each year from their organization.

"I think it's a real tragedy," said attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz, who during her decade-long tenure at Channel Counties has led landmark legal battles to create affordable housing and extend a variety of social services to poor people.

"This is not a knock against CRLA, but we're looking at two organizations that are distinctly different," she said. "They are a statewide organization with a huge bureaucracy and a top-down philosophy of policy setting. The bottom line is, how do you set your priorities? We set our priorities by who comes in the door and has a need."

Under the merger, California Rural Legal Assistance will oversee a broad-based legal aid program in a newly created service area that encompasses rural outposts from Imperial County to Yuba County, including counties along the Central California coast.

Three Legal Services Corp.-funded agencies--Channel Counties, California Rural Legal Assistance, and Legal Aid of the Central Coast--have been providing services in those areas.

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But following a pattern of consolidation established in other parts of the state and the nation, Legal Services Corp. earlier this year decided that one agency should represent that territory. And it gave the three groups the option of competing for the service area or sharing it through a merger.

Because California Rural Legal Assistance already represented most of those areas and was the largest of the three programs, it has become the lead agency and is creating a plan to take over the two smaller programs.

Mauricio Vivero, spokesman for Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., said such consolidations have been occurring since 1996, when Legal Services launched an initiative to make legal aid programs more efficient and effective in the face of severe budget cuts.

And he said many of the new partnerships have been very successful in maximizing federal dollars and expanding services to clients.

"We felt in this case that combining the resources of all three programs would be more effective," Vivero said. "We don't care whose name is on the door, we just want to provide the best service possible."

At California Rural Legal Assistance, which for more than 30 years has provided legal services to the poor in rural counties, officials say they are trying to ease the concerns of their merger partners.

Board President Richard Fajardo said it's only natural that an agency like Channel Counties, which has been around a long time and has established a solid track record, would be apprehensive.

Fajardo said he and others have been trying to convince Channel Counties that the two groups will be able to work together to strengthen legal services throughout the region.

And he said he has tried to assure representatives that California Rural Legal Assistance will do everything it can to preserve the identity of the community-based program, including possible creation of an advisory board that would have a say about how the local office operates.

But most of all, Fajardo said, he wants to ensure Channel Counties that no clients will fall through the cracks as a result of the merger, adding that California Rural Legal Assistance has established a solid track record of its own for its work on behalf of farm workers and the rural poor--the same client base Channel Counties serves.

"If we thought this was a move to undermine the ability to provide services, we wouldn't have any part of it," Fajardo said. "Our hope is that by doing this consolidation, we will be able to free up more resources for more people."

Despite those assurances, worries abound.

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