Scroll Top
Orange County's Don Wagner treasures public service, optimistic about future 

By Sigurd Neubauer


Orange County Supervisor Donald P. Wagner considers himself lucky to serve because he can help the roughly 630,000 diverse constituents of Orange County’s Third District. His District spans several cities and unincorporated canyon areas, stretching from former President Richard Nixon’s hometown to parts of the Cleveland National Forest. Before serving at the local level, Wagner served the 68th and 70th District of the California State Assembly from 2010-2016. 

He also served as the former Mayor of Irvine, California, from 2016-2019. However, Wagner describes his current Supervisorial position as “a sweet spot” with “real responsibilities and a large budget.” The Orange County Board of Supervisors is a governing body that consists of five Supervisors, elected by districts, to non-partisan seats and to four-year terms. The board decides policies ranging from transportation to land use to public safety and public utilities, both directly and indirectly through its power over budgets and appointments to boards, committees, and commissions. The board manages services carried out by departments that operate the County’s waste and  recycling, roads, social services, law enforcement, regional parks, water and sewers, animal control, buses, freeways, and commuter rail.

While Orange County is the sixth largest jurisdiction in the United States, its $8.8 billion budget for 2022-2022  increased by $1.1 billion from the previous year; however, less than a billion ($975M) is available for the Board to direct for critical public resources. Moreover, its general fund budget only represents approximately six cents on the tax dollar Orange County residents send to Sacramento. However, the California average is 17 cents. As a fiscal conservative with a track record of protecting taxpayer dollars, Wagner explains: “If Orange County could get the 12 cents that the neighboring San Diego County got, then Orange County could double its available general fund to address homelessness, public safety, infrastructure, and other integral County needs.”

While the Board seats are non-partisan, Democrats wrested away the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors in its last November election for the first time in Orange County history. The incoming Board of five will have three Democrats and two Republicans. On what the changing majority on the Board of Supervisors means for Republicans, Wagner says: “A lot of what we do is good, solid government responding to community issues and needs,”  adding that “we work pretty well together.”

Wagner says, “it’s all about helping everyone you are privileged to represent, including your friends, neighbors, and the people who elected you. We’re on 24/7, and when you’re at the grocery store, people recognize you.”

He firmly believes in the principle of maintaining local control in government: “Let the locals who know their community govern. It is the best way to experiment with what works best,” Wagner says. He adds that finding success in county government is about delivering for constituents. After all, all politics is local, he asserts.

Serving on the Orange County Board of Supervisors comes with real responsibilities: Wagner

However, he cautions if the incoming majority attempts to bring in elitist, progressive California policies, such as increased rent control and enhanced support for unions, “it will be my job to stop it,” as he considers them “bad policies” that many of Orange County’s hard working residents simply cannot afford.

Wagner nonetheless expresses optimism about the new Board being a responsible one. “I am not afraid of saying this is a bad idea and voting no,” he cautions. Our wide-ranging interview covered the recent pandemic, housing policies, rising crime, and California’s infamous homeless problem.

“Covid upended everything in Orange County, impacting everyone. But the state of California mishandled the pandemic,” Wagner says while adding that his Board “pushed back against the left, and we have a lot to show for it.”

“Every metric [in Orange County] is better than any other surrounding jurisdictions,” he says, referring to intensive care units occupied at local hospitals and pandemic-related deaths. As far as metrics go, “We managed to come through Covid as good as anyone else,” but notes that anti-vaccine and mask mandate sentiments are present throughout Orange County’s diverse constituency. Wagner emphasizes the vaccination rate in Orange County is nonetheless higher than the state average. “Orange County takes care of itself.”

I am not afraid of saying this is a bad idea and voting no: Wagner
Wagner served as mayor of the City of Irvine, California, from 2016-2019
Crime and homelessness  

“There’s no doubt that our communities are suffering from homelessness, of which our good weather plays a contributing factor, but a lot of it has to do with failed government-driven policies.”

To drive home his point, Wagner emphasizes that if there are not enough beds available for the homeless population, or even if they decline available beds, people experiencing homelessness are given de-facto carte blanche to sleep in parks and on the streets. And because of existing laws, police must address the issue on the ground.

“It all goes back to Reagan-era policies,” Wagner says, referring to former President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) who previously served as a two-term governor of California (1967-1975).

He noted that deregulations enabled the homeless who did not want to take their medicine and wanted to sleep in public to do so. However, Wagner says the reasons for homelessness are complex, and varied, for example, “some of them are women who are fleeing domestic abuse.” 

“We need the wrap-around services, but we don’t have the money for extra social services,” the Supervisor explains. The federal government, he notes, mandates that a census on the homeless population is carried out every two years. 

There appears to be a silver lining: the homeless population in Orange County seems to be declining based on a recent count, “as we’re getting more people into treatment and we’re seeing the tide turn,”  he explains. 

This trend does not, however, apply to the surrounding jurisdictions as they instead see an uptick in homelessness. Addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness are cited as top contributors to the growing homeless population. By identifying contributing factors that often lead to homelessness, Orange County has put its focus towards promoting healthy communities via education, early intervention, and supportive services. 

A concept Wagner cautiously supports is a state initiative called Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment(CARE) COURTS. The Court system is entirely separate from the Board of Supervisors, and it would require offenders to enroll in a court-ordered treatment plan for up to two years before they deteriorate or commit a crime. The program is meant to keep those suffering from severe emotional or mental disorders out of the prison system and the opportunity to get critical help. “California is trying new approaches because the old ones are not working,” Wagner says while explaining that California’s Democrat Governor, Gavin Newsom, has asked him to help the state by replicating the program.

CARE COURTS is an entirely separate system from what the Board of Supervisors does, Wagner says, stressing that he believes that it may provide what he describes as an additional humane opportunity to continue California’s progress on housing the homeless.

The Supervisor firmly believes that “there is nothing compassionate about allowing those who have a mental illness, which is often exacerbated by substance abuse issues, to continue their misery alone on the streets.”

Regarding public safety, “the problem lies in Sacramento,” the state capital, Wagner argues, as District Attorney’s “have decided that crime is not a problem.” Wagner explicitly refers to fentanyl as “it is destroying life throughout this county, but it is impossible to get Sacramento to increase the penalties for it,” he laments. At the County level, Supervisor Wagner got the County to adopt a Resolution to join local law enforcement in the fight against fentanyl threats. He convinced  all the cities in his District to pass similar resolutions and send a message to state policymakers that fentanyl dealers need to be held accountable for fentanyl poisonings. Supervisor Wagner also directed grant money from his Third District funds for Naloxone supplies for school districts to utilize. Naloxone is a nasal spray that can stop the absorption of fentanyl and it will save lives.

“In Orange County, we’re crying for help, but it is business as usual in Sacramento.” He’s getting some support from Orange County Democrats represented in the state capital on this issue, he concedes.”When I served in the California State Assembly (2010-2016), as a Republican, I tried to solve problems that require a local solution that is district specific, but I stayed away from hot button social issues,” Wagner recalls.

Wagner at Veterans Cemetery Groundbreaking Anaheim Hills, California, December 2021


Improving mental health

Orange County has created a model for the nation, known as Be Well, which aims to become a vital part of a robust healthcare ecosystem responding to the community’s mental health and wellness needs, including the body and the mind. The Be Well initiative provides mental health services at one location to residents from all walks of life, irrespective of their ability to pay. The program is the culmination of a public-private partnership that began with the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ Mental Health Ad Hoc Committee in 2015, Wagner relays. 

“The facility in Orange County features a crisis stabilization center for mental health needs and the County’s first recovery station for substance use disorders. Other services include withdrawal management, adult residential treatment (transitional, co-occurring, and substance use), and an integrated support center,” Supervisor Wagner says. While the facility will primarily treat adults, it will also feature limited youth and adolescent crisis stabilization services made possible through a partnership with Children’s Hospital of Orange County and other community-based organizations.

The OC Be Well is renowned for its state-of-the-art design and program: it is not a shelter for the homeless. The wellness campus is a hub that seamlessly fits into communities that value health, as it offers whole person care with resiliency support. A second campus is set to open in the City of Irvine.

“The idea is that when law enforcement meets someone in the street who is either under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he or she can be taken to a place that’s not a jail to keep them out of the [prison] system.” Wagner notes with evident pride that the OC Be Well initiative is “a model for California as we have seen some success. Unfortunately, the largest provider of mental health service providers in Orange County is its prison system, and that needs to change,” he reveals.

Wagner unfurls flag with veterans in Anaheim Hills, California, December 2021

Housing, Irvine Lake  

“It’s expensive to live in Orange County but developing a policy that makes it cheaper is even harder. It’s all about location, location, location,” Wagner says in response to what it takes to make his jurisdiction more affordable, especially for those starting out and for young families. 

California is dealing with a housing crisis, but this is exasperated by what the Supervisor describes as “conflicting ideas.” Southern California, for example, is required by Sacramento to come up with 1.3. million new housing units. “We have to plan for this, but cities and counties don’t build housing, but construction companies do,” he explains about a disconnect between public sector policies and the profit margins the private sector needs to help bring new housing units to market.

An example of the many conflicting ideas coming from the very same state government, Wagner points out, was when the California Coastal Commission recently rejected plans to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach to provide water for the proposed new units.  

Suddenly local schools will be overcrowded, bringing out vocal voters. “The residents are our voters concerned about property rights and their interests”, Wagner adds. Wagner explains that balancing these various interests takes work, which is why people are increasingly moving out of Orange County and into more rural jurisdictions, such as the neighboring Riverside County. 

“The tradeoff is that you will spend longer commuting, but we’re also working on the transportation aspects, including making it easier to travel within Orange County.” This includes building new road lanes, the Supervisor adds, but cautions nonetheless: “I firmly believe one cannot build its way out of congestion. ‘So, what do we do?’” he posits rhetorically. “At some point, autonomous vehicles will help transform congestion, but the question is: will it be in five, 10, or 20 years?”

Wagner doesn’t believe that California will ever embrace mass transit and much of it has to do with the astronomical costs. “For example, in Santa Ana, we have a streetcar project where one-mile costs $100 million,” Wagner reveals, noting that the prices are tied to what he describes as government overreach ranging from environmental protection measures to the fact that everyone can sue construction projects they do not like for whatever reason. “This contributes to delays and makes it expensive,” he says.

These dynamics also apply to transportation, Wagner points out. He’s specifically referring to the California Environmental Quality Act as an impediment to growth as it negatively impacts transportation and infrastructure developments.

California is dealing with a housing crisis exasperated by Sacramento’s conflicting ideas.

While the County is often hamstrung by Sacramento policies at the state level, Wagner looks for opportunities at the local level to give resources back to the people, without raising their taxes. Wagner is particularly proud of his success in Orange County, especially of his contribution to reopening Irvine Lake, a public resource that was closed for three years prior to him taking office.

The Lake was a popular spot for shoreline fishing, idyllically nestled in the rural, eastern part of his jurisdiction. Because Orange County is home to approximately 3.1 million people, Irvine Lake was beloved as a quiet reprieve from the Southern California metropolis. “It was unavailable to the public for several years, and people were frustrated about their inability to access it, including for fishing and other recreational activities.”

California is dealing with a housing crisis which is exasperated by Sacramento's conflicting ideas: Wagner

In 2019, following a process that took “a couple of months, we brought together people, businesses, and government for our community. Government can still be made to work,” Wagner explains. In December of 2022, Irvine Lake was stocked for trout, and Supervisor Wagner’s office held the inaugural fishing derby to kick off the fishing season. Amid winter, the free event offered fun, some sun, and an opportunity for residents of all ages to enjoy a reprieve from the bustle of everyday life. 

All photos are credited to the Office of Supervisor Don Wagner.

Irvine Lake Grand Opening August 2019. The lake remains a popular recreational destine in Orange County
When it comes to public safety, the problem lies in Sacramento. District Attorneys have decided that crime is not a problem
Share this