Football references billowed forth during Tuesday’s heated debate at the Board of Supervisors over a much contested wing for Sheriff Bill Brown’s new North County jail — with much talk of Hail Mary passes, running out the clock, two-point conversions, and on-side kicks. But when the dust settled, Brown found himself ingloriously sacked in his own end zone.
Amazingly, Brown wasn’t even in the room. Instead his undersheriff, Bernard Melekian, filled in and took the political drubbing. By a 3-2 majority, the county supervisors voted to relinquish a $40 million state grant that Brown had painstakingly secured three years ago to build a kinder, gentler 238-bed annex to the new jail. That vote came over the strenuous objection of not only Melekian but also an impassioned coalition of mental-health advocates, plus a handful of North County conservatives like COLAB’s Andy Caldwell.
Over the past year, relations between Brown and the supervisors have soured past the point of redemption over chronic communication problems involving the proposed STAR Complex, the Sheriff’s transition and reentry facility engineered to knock recidivism rates down and push rehabilitation rates up, especially among the mentally ill and addict populations. Supervisors complained, among other things, that key STAR programs for the mentally ill “evaporated” without warning or adequate explanation. They made it clear they didn’t like surprises, and Brown, they charged, was forever surprising them.
In November, they voted to deep-six Brown’s STAR Complex, for which he won a highly competitive $38.9 million grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections, also known as BSCC. (At that time, the supes also voted to approve Brown’s plans to build a more traditional new 376-bed jail in North County.) In December, Brown pleaded for a reprieve, agreeing to include far more robust mental-health and addiction programs in his STAR Complex. The supervisors voiced support for the changes in theory but questioned whether they’d fall within the outlines of the grant application. Accordingly, they instructed county CEO Mona Miyasato to look into the matter. Miyasato did, and the news, she said, was negative. On December 21, Miyasato said use of state funds for anything but what was proposed “would be problematic.”
Since then, however, Brown fleshed out his new plans, proposing that 50 of the STAR beds be set aside for the mentally ill and 50 more for addicts. This portion of the STAR Complex would be voluntary, not locked down. In addition, it would be run by the county’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, not by the Sheriff’s Office. This new diversionary strategy, Melekian argued, was totally consistent with the state legislation that created the funding for the STAR Complex in the first place.
At issue Tuesday was whether the supervisors wanted to pull the plug on Brown’s revised project themselves or wait to see if the state corrections board would do the same. Brown — via Melekian — wanted another 60 days. Supervisor Salud Carbajal dismissed Brown’s new plans as “a fuzzy hope” but expressed a skeptical willingness “to give hope a chance.” His sister, Carbajal noted, had taken her own life. He knew the anguish, he said, that many mental-health advocates in the room had experienced. Leading the charge for more time was 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. He likened Brown’s last-ditch designs to a “Hail Mary pass” and implored his fellow board members to let the Sheriff “try to chuck” one. What was there to lose? he asked. “What’s the rush to run out the clock?”
Supervisor Janet Wolf laid into Brown for keeping the supervisors inadequately informed on key jail issues. She took serious offense at the last-minute attempt to craft plans on the fly for a problem as desperately urgent as mental health. Supervisor Peter Adam, also no fan of Brown’s, opposed the request for more time. Miyasato claimed it could cost the county as much as $700,000 — in planning and consulting expenses — to allow the sheriff the two-month extension he sought to work out the details. Lavagnino challenged the basis of this estimate, which, under closer examination, was acknowledged to be the product more of educated guesswork than precise calculation.
One mental-health advocate — responding to Carbajal’s “fuzzy hope” accusation — replied, “That’s all we have; we live for hope.” He added, “It’s not about process; it’s not about politics; it’s about people.” Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr sealed the STAR Complex’s fate. “I’m a very hopeful person, but we all know hope is not a plan,” she said. Farr added many of the suggestions Brown has since brought forth were “good ideas” but lamented, “I wish we’d heard them two years ago.”
Most devastating, probably, was Miyasato, who toward the end of Tuesday’s deliberations informed the supervisors that state corrections board chief Kathleen Howard had just left her a voicemail stating she’d looked over new plans Brown submitted last week. “Howard said if the county wanted to make a request to the BSCC for a scope change, we could,” Miyasato relayed, “but she thought it would come back as ‘no.’”