Lights! Camera! Reaction!

Photo by Jack GouldFor the first time in Orange County's history, residents on May 1 were able to watch a county Board of Supervisors meeting on television. No longer required to travel to 10 Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana and sit in the board's wood-paneled hearing room, residents can now see the supervisors from 1 to 5 a.m. every Saturday for a month on Huntington Beach-based PBS affiliate KOCE.

The May 1 broadcast of the board's April 27 meeting-three hours of discussions on “14M Funds,” “CEQA findings” and “utility districts”-was a mostly dull, at best marginal, pilot episode. But like most TV pilots, it had its moments. At one point, Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer-easily the most telegenic member of the board-poked fun at a contract for the executive training firm Enlightened Leadership International Inc.

“Am I to understand this isn't going on right now?” he needled Jan Warden of the County Executive Office, clearly making fun of what he called “touchy-feely training.” Missing her cue, Warden didn't laugh with the rest of the audience, but rather stiffened and hesitated. For the TV audience, that couldn't have looked good. Forget Enlightened Leadership training; CEO Jan Mittermeier should get her staff into television training-pronto.

But the highlight of the May 1 episode came next, when discussion shifted to the Santa Ana-based Safe Healthcare Coalition's five-year plan for dealing with illegal health clinics. And for that discussion alone, enlightened television viewers will want to forego sleep.

For years, the county's working poor and uninsured have sought cheap health care in clinics run out of gift shops and toy stores in mostly Latino neighborhoods. Following the recent high-profile deaths of two infants after they received “care” at these clinics, the supervisors decided to act.

Coalition director Dr. Mary Watson asked the board to spend $181,210, first to inform residents where to get proper medical care and then to ensure everyone access to proper medical care. The supes nodded in approval; Watson looked relieved.

Then it was the anti-immigration crowd's moment on camera. A half-dozen speakers cursed illegal immigrants, all immigrants, and anybody who might want to assist them.

“We will have Third World-style clinics popping up in our county,” said Melody Crandle of Stand up America. Demanding identification checks for all patients at local clinics, Crandle then accused the board of voting to “provide free health care for illegal immigrants”-an act tantamount to “rewarding and validating illegal acts.”

And so it went, each speaker in turn blasting the county's plan to alert county residents to the dangers of unlicensed health clinics as subsidizing illegal aliens. With each new voice, the arguments lost more logic and gained new sensationalism. “We want to cut all immigration,” said Michael Hitchens of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR). “We are a nation of laws, and if you offer medical benefits to people illegally, it won't be long before this is known in villages of Third World countries.”

CCIR founder Barbara Coe accused backers of great access to health care of “baby-waving tactics.” Illegal immigrants “are lawbreakers!” Coe exclaimed. “They should not be given benefits that even war veterans are denied.”

Then Coe, whose gifts to the state include the nativist (and unconstitutional) Proposition 187 and a desert billboard calling California “the illegal immigrant state,” played her favorite trump card: Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the Santa Ana-based Latino rights group that former Congressman Bob Dornan falsely accused of engineering a bizarre voting-fraud conspiracy. Though Hermandad has no connection to the Safe Healthcare Coalition, Coe uttered the group's name as if it were a right-wing talisman. “We all know [Hermandad] was proven not to be accountable in its funds,” she said, before adding, without evidence, that Hermandad is the real force behind the county's effort to get medical care to the working poor and uninsured.

“This is a ruse used by pro-illegal advocates . . . who obviously condone discrimination against citizens,” Coe said.

When Dr. Howard Garber rose to the podium, it was clear that all semblance of reality was lost. TV audiences may not readily recognize Garber, a local gadfly who has written that undocumented immigrants from Mexico constitute a “fifth column” of subversives (that would have been a previous episode). Now he came to the podium to lecture the room on “sociological decline” in what is “a permissive nation.”

One wonders if TV viewers will get to hear Crandle's sotto voce remark upon seeing that one of the Safe Healthcare Coalition members had risen to defend her group at the podium: “Here comes the socialist.”

No one pointed out that a similar plan approved months ago for San Diego County residents appears doomed to fail-not because border-hopping illegals have overwhelmed the county's clinics, but because fear of deportation keeps them away. According to a San Diego County health official, the clinics stand nearly empty, the well-funded program ignored.

But on this evening, victory was in the air. The issue ended in typical Hollywood fashion, with the supervisors doing the right thing by voting 5-0 to fund the coalition's plan.

“This is not an immigration issue,” said Fifth District Supervisor Tom Wilson. “This is a local issue.”

Spitzer echoed the sentiment. “What we're trying to do here is protect kids,” he said.

Even Second District Supervisor Jim Silva-although openly sympathizing with Coe's anti-immigration views-never wavered, saying, “I've never looked at this as illegal care, but as care for the working poor.”

Whether the supervisors continue to fund the coalition's plans to provide all county residents with access to proper health care-a mammoth undertaking, considering the county currently has 19 community clinics and no county hospital -remains to be seen. As does the supervisors' decision to install permanent cameras in the hearing room.

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