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Santa Ana anti-gang commission in jeopardy amid deficit

The 17- member panel formed two years ago to keep young people out of gangs might be cut along with five other commissions to save the city about $425,000 a year.

February 04, 2009|Tony Barboza

A gang-intervention panel that was formed two years ago in Santa Ana to help curb street crime is likely to be disbanded as the city tries to erase a $15-million deficit.

The Early Prevention & Intervention Commission, a 17-member panel of community members and representatives from the school system and law enforcement and social services agencies charged with developing strategies to keep young people out of gangs, is on the chopping block along with five other city commissions.

Santa Ana, the most urban city in Orange County, had 13 homicides and 151 assaults last year connected to gangs, a marked decrease from the year before.

Police said activity among Santa Ana's 90 active gangs has been on a general decline since the mid-1990s, when there were dozens of gang killings every year. In 1993, when gangs claimed 47 lives, residents became so frustrated and afraid that they asked the city to develop an action plan for ridding the city of its gang culture. The next year, police staged a massive, citywide gang sweep, which resulted in prison terms for many gang leaders.

When the anti-gang commission formed two years ago, it was lauded as an innovative way for the city, which traditionally focuses on planning, zoning and business development, to further address a social problem.

"For the first time in a long time we've got a way to start making headway," said the panel's vice chairman, Albert Garcia.

But now that progress is at risk.

"It's very unfortunate and disheartening," Laura Morfin, past chairwoman of the anti-gang commission, said of its possible demise. "Gang issues in the city are not going to go away. If anything, they're going to get worse."

However, Morfin said the city never fully supported the commission and that recommendations submitted more than a year ago -- such as holding a citywide gang-prevention conference or adding a young adult to the panel -- didn't receive any feedback. She resigned in December.

Like cities across the country, Santa Ana has been hit hard by declining tax revenue during the recession and has been forced to slash its budget by laying off more than 40 workers, raising fees, cutting costs and services at parks and libraries, and even voting to raise zoo admission by a dollar.

The commissions that would be shut down are advisory to the council and not among the three panels required by the city charter. The city's 14 commissions cost more than $650,000 in stipends for commission members, salaries for support staff, meals and supplies, a city report concluded.

The city would save about $425,000 a year by dissolving six of them, including the Historic Resources Commission, the Environmental and Transportation Advisory Committee, the Library Board, the Youth Commission and the Human Resources Commission, according to a staff report. Their responsibilities would be distributed among the remaining commissions.

At a meeting Monday, City Council members suggested alternatives, such as making the commissions temporarily "go dark" or meet quarterly and as needed. The council voted unanimously to give the chair of each of the six targeted commissions 30 days to submit ideas to become more efficient.

"Everything that is in place is needed," said Councilman Sal Tinajero. "But these are the tough decisions we face."

Some cautioned that the move would limit public participation, making City Hall leaner but more insular.

"We need to make sure not to over-correct," said Councilman David Benavides. "I just want to make sure we don't limit the access our community has to City Hall."

Many commissioners are hoping the city doesn't rush into a decision.

"We are the eyes and ears of our elected representatives in a way that they can't be," said Ava Steaffens, a member of the gang-prevention commission. "It's a shame that they're closing the door on some potential solutions that could be right in front of our faces."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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