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Keep Relations Panel Public

February 16, 2003

Orange County officials will have to cut from just about every department and program to make their budget work.

So it's silly to suggest that the county's Human Relations Commission be spared. But the county would be equally foolish to eliminate public funding for the commission altogether, as it proposes to do over the next four years.

Pushing the commission completely into the private sector would weaken its authority and its ability to attract the donations on which its survival depends.

That might end up costing the county thousands of dollars solely to resolve court cases that the commission now mediates.

The commission operates with three paid staff members and $437,000 in public money. The county has suggested reducing that amount by $80,000 a year and eventually eliminating the commission.

The 31-year-old Human Relations Commission is no stranger to cuts. Its staff was halved from six to three during similar financial straits a decade ago. The nonprofit Human Relations Council was created to raise private funds for commission work.

Last fiscal year, the council had a $2.4-million budget; that's dropped to $1.6 million this year because private donors also have fallen on hard times. Still, the council has 25 employees and about 100 volunteers.

The commission created some ill will in the past by involving itself in public policy rather than just providing a public service. It has taken positions on legislation and in the 1970s promoted bilingual education. But in recent years it has worked more closely on providing valuable -- and money-saving -- programs.

The council's dispute resolution center resolves 80% of the 1,500 cases it handles each year. That's a lot of cases that don't have to go through expensive court proceedings.

The commission used a private grant to create the respected Bridges program to ease ethnic tensions on Orange County campuses. Principals credit the program for reducing violent incidents and suspensions, and the National Assn. of Counties honored Bridges with its 1998 award.

When a Little Saigon video retailer set off massive and sometimes violent demonstrations by displaying a Vietnamese flag in his window, Westminster police turned to the commission to defuse the situation. The commission helped Cypress College train security officers after a gay dean complained that she had received death threats.

Imagine the expense in both injury and dollars had the commission not been there to respond.

Police and public schools are more likely to seek help from a county agency. They're less likely to ask a private group that has no official standing. Strip away the county's presence and the nonprofit council becomes just another advocacy group looking to survive.

The commission acts as a clearinghouse for reports of hate crimes, and because it is a county agency, its annual report has credibility.

That wouldn't be true for an advocacy group that represents one minority group or another.

Certainly the county should make lifesaving medical care for the poor a higher funding priority.

But it must not abandon the Human Relations Commission, which pays for itself financially and in bigger ways.

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