The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday preliminarily approved an ordinance requiring sober-living facilities to register with the county, a tool District Attorney Tony Rackauckas requested to crack down on the industry which has flourished in coastal cities.
The supervisors' vote was 3-0, with Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer abstaining. Final approval of the ordinance is expected at the board's Nov. 6 meeting.
Spitzer, who is challenging Rackauckas in next week's election, supports the concept of a registry but has railed against what he's characterized as a rushed process to approve a law in time to boost the incumbent's re-election chances.
Nelson has predicted that the registry, which would go beyond state requirements that have largely been ignored for more than a decade, will run into legal challenges that will sink it.
The supervisors approved a draft of the ordinance at their Oct. 16 meeting, but it only covered facilities within unincorporated areas of the county. The ordinance tentatively approved Tuesday covers all of the cities within the county, as well.
Spitzer noted the timing of the ordinance after an Orange County Register investigation of the facilities, which have drawn criticism from residents who complain of increased crime and other nuisances they associate with the businesses.
"Suddenly a task force springs up for something that was overwhelming our communities for a long time," Spitzer said. "It's something that is obviously long overdue. ... These sober living homes are destroying our communities."
Spitzer said the director of the OC Health Care Agency was looped into the proposed law two weeks before it was put on the board's agenda.
"This not the way we do business in Orange County," he said. "This is not leadership."
Spitzer was also critical of the lack of details on how the registry would be funded.
"You have an idea how to pay for it, you don't just fly by the seat of your pants," he said.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who has many of the sober living homes in her community, pushed back on Spitzer's claim of a tardy response to the issue.
"We've been trying to work through the legislative process for several years now, but we've not had any success thus far at the state and federal level," she said. "... We need to act now. We've got a problem right now and we can't wait for state and federal legislation."
"We need something in place because people's lives are at risk," she said, contending that sober living homes are "contributing to the opioid crisis and the homeless situation we have."
Rackauckas maintains that the sober living facilities recruit clients from across the country, and when their insurance coverage runs out, they are kicked out and end up homeless in the area.
Bartlett brushed off Spitzer's concerns on paying for the program. She said the initial cost of outreach to the businesses would amount to "staff time and first class postage."
The Health Care Agency will absorb the cost of creating the registry in its budget this year until a fee or tax can be developed.
Nelson argued at the board's last meeting that the registry would be redundant because the state already requires it. He also pointed out the county's proposal would go beyond the state registry by requiring information about affiliated businesses with the sober living homes.
Nelson noted that when the county approved a ban on sex offenders in the county's parks, the ordinance was knocked down because it went beyond the state's law.
Nelson pushed to spend more time working on the ordinance to make sure it passes legal muster and to see if state would consider an updated law.
"Let's get this right," Nelson said. "The state has been pretty clear that they want and demand primary authority on the subject. I don't like it, but I get it.... This is not a bad thing, but I would rather we bake the rest of the cake."
Rackauckas said the state registry is insufficient and that he needs more information about the businesses to crack down on the unscrupulous operators.
"What we found is these operations are something like an octopus with a lot of different tentacles," Rackauckas said.
The state registry "only gives a name and an address and doesn't talk about the affiliated operations," he said. "And those affiliates are very important for us to know to be sure that they are in fact giving us the true information."
Rackauckas recently filed criminal charges against 11 people accused of involvement in a multimillion-dollar insurance fraud scheme at a sober-living facility.