Kern County under investigation after denying group COVID contract over support for defunding police

Sep. 22—Kern County could end up paying dearly for an October decision by the Board of Supervisors to withhold a $1.2 million coronavirus contract from a nonprofit group that had voiced support for defunding police.

The California Attorney General's Office is investigating whether the county illegally discriminated and violated civil rights in the areas of contracting and employment. In a subpoena sent to the county last week, state investigators sought a stockpile of records related to Kern's contracting and hiring practices along with any documents connected to 12 grassroots organizations associated with October's contract.

The county is in the process of cooperating with the investigation, County Counsel Margo Raison said in a statement.

"We are confident the practices of the County are in keeping with all Federal and State laws and regulations and anticipate the investigation will so conclude," she said.

News of the investigation was welcomed by the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which was a part of the coalition of nonprofits slated to receive funding.

"Their actions in killing the proposal cost lives," foundation Executive Director Camila Chavez said. "How many Kern County residents have died since Oct. 2020? Our coalition was certainly qualified, and we were doing the work, being in the communities and providing in-language outreach and education on the ever-changing virus and the pandemic."

The contract was meant to provide door-to-door outreach in communities that were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating under the umbrella of Building Healthy Communities Kern, the local nonprofits were meant to distribute health and education materials from October to March, a time which accounted for the most severe spread of coronavirus during the pandemic.

The nonprofits were selected because of their deep community ties. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, the Kern County Public Health Department said the organizations would be a more trusted resource to communities at the greatest risk than standard county officials.

But Facebook posts from June and July of that year sunk the proposal. At the time, the country was still reeling from the in-custody death of George Floyd, which was followed by a nationwide reckoning of police policies.

Building Healthy Communities said in Facebook posts funding for the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern High School District Police Department should be diverted to other causes. That was enough for supervisors to withhold approval of a contract to Building Healthy Communities even though preparation and hiring had already taken place.

Led by Supervisor Zack Scrivner, who wondered aloud during the meeting about how the members of the Sheriff's department would feel if the board funded the effort, the board did not vote on the contract. Only Supervisor Leticia Perez pushed back against withholding funding, saying during the meeting supervisors were not the "thought police."

The October incident is clearly of interest to the Attorney General's Office, but the state investigation could expand further. Few details, however, are known about the intent of investigators. The Attorney General's Office did not acknowledge it when asked by The Californian.

Still, the subpoena specifically requests county documents connected to Building Healthy Communities, Dolores Huerta Foundation, Faith in the Valley, South Kern Sol, Jakara Movement and other nonprofits associated with the contract. That connects the investigation to the board's withholding of funds.

"The one (incident) that we all witnessed at the Board of Supervisors meeting was just so blatant that it cried out for an official response," said Jordan Wells, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. "We are gratified to now see that the AG is responding in this way."

In November, the ACLU sent a letter to supervisors, calling the withholding of funds unconstitutional.

"Undying support for law enforcement is not enshrined in the Constitution that County Supervisors swear to uphold," the letter said. "Freedom of speech is. The government may not take an adverse action in response to constitutionally protected speech, even if it otherwise could take such action based on lawful reasons."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.