Santana: 2015 Showed How The People Can Impact Public Policy in OC

Michelle Rubio/Voice of OC

Protesters crowd the speaker's podium at Tuesday night's Anaheim City Council meeting.

You had an impressive year.

When it comes to Orange County’s civic life, the public moved the ball this year on numerous public policy fronts that had been stalled for a long time.

At the county level, you pushed elected officials to take unprecedented action on government ethics, homelessness, animal shelters and law enforcement oversight.

In cities like Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton, citizens successfully pushed elected officials to start opening up the electoral system – by pushing for the establishment of neighborhood district elections instead of at-large races.

Over in Anaheim, the battle heated to the boiling point in recent weeks and looks to be intensifying in the weeks to come – just the tip of change in that city as its demographics continue to tilt toward Latinos.

The city halls of Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Irvine are also opening up after years of unchallenged concentration of power in the hands of singularly powerful elected leaders like Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and (now former) mayors Bruce Broadwater and Larry Agran.

You’re getting your local elected officials to work for you.

And your local non-profit newsroom, Voice of OC, was a big part of that.

By focusing just on civics and real-time investigations aimed at arming residents with information in time before big public decisions – our newsroom has continued to spur change.

That’s helped to place you, the public, in the drivers seat because it’s tougher for elected officials and public sector executives to hide the ball.

In addition, our enterprise investigations – including the Fast Times at Rancho Santiago series – continue to take deep dives into how agencies like our local community college districts are functioning – or not – for the public.

The biggest transformation in our region continues to happen at the county Hall of Administration, where there’s a seeming tilt toward professionalism after years of abuse in terms of stacking agencies with political appointees.

Former finance director and budget guru Frank Kim was appointed in May as CEO after then-CEO Mike Giancola abruptly retired following an extended leave due to back surgery.

Not the deepest thinker in county government, Giancola was appointed to the CEO slot as a consensus second – or third – choice among a deeply split county board of supervisors that was afraid of a appointing a strong CEO.

Kim’s appointment also came on the heels of a full-scale dismantling of the county’s auditing staff and powers that have yet to be replaced or strengthened.

To date, the county has no performance auditor and the auditor controller has yet to gear up it’s internal audit staff – after they were transferred by state legislation after auditing the elected Clerk Recorder Tom Daly (who went on to Sacramento and authored legislation changing the status of the internal audit staff).

Steve Danley, the county’s human resources director (who was a former performance auditor and passed up as CEO because of his work as an auditor and later as HR director), abruptly retired earlier this year in protest over the lack of accountability.

A county system for hiring outside attorneys for investigating claims of fraud, waste or abuse of top officials continues to be mired in secrecy with the public having almost no idea of who is being investigated or the results of investigations.

Yet despite those systemic accountability problems, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer did move forward a series of initiatives this year that have the potential to address some of the county’s most longstanding issues – like ethics, homelessness and animal shelters.

Orange County voters next June will get an opportunity to amend the county charter to establish a countywide ethics commission to regulate campaign finance – something that District Attorney Tony Rackaucakas – mired in the midst of an evolving jailhouse snitch scandal (another top story) – has chosen to largely ignore.

That came after months of activism from citizens across the board – led by longtime campaign finance activist Shirley Grindle, Chapman University professors Mario Mainero and Fred Smoller and Common Cause leader Bill Mitchell.

Supervisors this year also finally moved to purchase an abandoned bus terminal near the civic center that will hopefully provide an impetus to increasing services at the Civic Center given the ever-increasing number of homeless people living there.

This year, I introduced a weekly column, with my work advocating for the bus terminal purchase coming in at No. 20 on the top story list.

And after years of protests, and numerous editorials in the Voice of OC by animal rights activist Rose Tingle, supervisors announced they were moving forward to build a facility to replace the aging 75-year old structure now serving the region in Orange.

Spitzer’s board of supervisors and Kim also were able to successfully negotiate a multi-year contract with a majority of county workers represented by the Orange County Employees Association (our second most popular story of the year after Santa Ana PD’s pot raid controversy) that puts the county in a unique position to streamline efficiency and operations next year.

There’s also a new era in labor relations with the retirement of longtime OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino and the ascent of new GM Jennifer Muir, who just negotiated the labor contract, which gave workers their first significant raise in years. Muir and OC Labor Federation head Julio Perez also took on influential statewide posts becoming vice presidents with the statewide labor federation.

The ongoing transformation at Santa Ana City Hall continues to dominate our news pages and was responsible for almost half of our top ten most popular stories.

Our most popular story of the year was the videotape that captured Santa Ana police officers apparently munching on marijuana edibles after a raid on a dispensary within the city limits. Police Chief Carlos Rojas recently confirmed the incident is being investigated internally but no findings have been announced.

Other popular stories in Santa Ana this year included an expose on a series of sexual relationships at City Hall along with Pulido’s alleged connections to pot shops and his removal from the regional air quality management board.

Other top ten stories included problems with the stalled Galleria project in Garden Grove, corruption issues in Lake Forest, the evolving jailhouse snitch scandal, and Anaheim’s controversial ARTIC train station.

Kimberly Edds from the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs landed our top Op-ed of the year (and one of our most popular posts at No. 15) writing about the seeming hypocrisy of countywide elected leaders like state Sen. John Moorlach and Supervisor Shawn Nelson over their public positions on pensions and their personal penchant for the ultimate public-sector perk.

Other top Op-eds included Jeff LeTorneau’s take on the Democratic Party’s sanctioning of delays in voting districts in Anaheim and Susan Mercer’s Op-ed on the ongoing battle between Ceci Iglesias and teachers at Santa Ana Unified School District.

Deputy sheriffs logged our No. 12 story with checking in to see how their managers rated at AOCDS’ first-ever manager rating report.

And Santa Ana resident Marc Payan rounded out our top 20 news stories, showing the other side of Santa Ana — transforming the city’s local stadium into a exercise gathering place for local residents on most mornings.

Other popular articles this year included:

Uncovering the history of a vicious Pit Bull that bit a pregnant Huntington Beach woman after county officials had released it back to it’s owner following a previous biting incident.

Profiling how one top county official – Brian Probolsky – got called out for failing to document his time off as an elected official while working on the clock as a senior county public executive.

Detailing how Pulido was borrowing money all over town to keep up with the numerous legal investigations triggered by Voice of OC probes.

Looking into how the widening of Warner Avenue in Santa Ana was impacting local neighborhoods.

Keeping a singular eye on the transformation of the ambulance transport industry in Orange County.

Informing readers how Supervisor Todd Spitzer Inc. works and how his concealed weapons permit came into play this year.

Showing readers how the legal careers of county supervisors continue earning them money while sitting on a public dais.

Detailing how the district attorney’s office hires the sons and daughters of senior district attorneys as prosecutors.

Exposing how Santa Ana City Councilman Sal Tinajero – a high school debate coach – has developed an interesting consulting business to pot dispensaries.

Profiling Supervisor Spitzer’s connections to an influential Tustin property owner.

Exposing how District Attorney Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder got her music client hired to headline DA charity events and their questionable trips to Las Vegas.

As we enter 2016 and our sixth year of coverage of Orange County civic institutions, we’re  hoping to a do a better job of reaching out periodically to you and reminding you that our efforts depend on you donating to us, which is an investment in transparency.

Together, we can continue to tame our city halls and make our public sector work for us.

Norberto Santana Jr. is the publisher of Voice of OC and writes a weekly column about issues across the county.  You can contact him at nsantana@voiceofoc.org.

  • mutheta

    I was glad to see the Voice of OC exposing the issues within the Rancho Santiago Community College District. Such unethical and possible illegal behavior is not limited to city hall and Adam Elmahrek’s reporting certainly showed us with his “Fast Times at Rancho Santiago” three-part series. I’m hoping to read more about Rancho because the fast action that’s needed will only come when everything is finally exposed within the Rancho district.

  • RyanCantor

    Nice year, VoOC. Keep up the good work.

  • kburgoyne

    Good job, VofOC team. Much of the pessimism expressed in comments is unfortunate. What needs to be recognized is success starting to push the ball in the correct direction rather than continuing to allow the political critters to move the ball unopposed.

    I’ll suggest to the pessimists one way they can help hold the political critters feet to an even hotter fire is by convincing all their friends and relatives to follow VofOC and become educated in what is happening. Get everyone you know to subscribe to VofOC’s email list. I’m personally very busy like everyone else, and I would never remember to come visit VofOC’s web site if nothing reminded me. I rely upon VofOC’s emails to break me out of my work stupor and remind me to check out what’s happening in OC.

    I live in Westminster. Without VofOC I would have had NO CLUE Westminter is in such deep financial straights. NOT A CLUE. The ONLY reason I do know about it is directly linked to the daily VofOC emails I get. The Westminster fiscal difficulties reporting is something Noberto didn’t include in the above.

    VofOC’s job is to inform the population/voters what the political critters are up to. It is NOT VofOC’s job to show up at city halls and demand the political critters make changes. The changes to be demanded are for the population/voters to decide and force upon the political critters.

    To that end, the more people who become informed about what the political critters are ACTUALLY doing, versus what they like to pretend they’re doing, the more people there will be scaring the political critters into actually doing what the people want. The political critters are not afraid of one lone voice no matter how well educated that voice may be about the dark dealings the political critters are engaged in. The political critters DO start becoming afraid when increasingly larger and larger numbers of people are combining their voices speaking out against the dark dealings.

    So recruit everyone into becoming more educated about what the political critters are constantly trying to do in dark smoke filled back rooms and the dirt they want to keep swept under the rug. The more people who start paying attention, the more afraid the political critters will become. Maybe enough people will then start actually paying enough attention during campaigns to seek out and try to elect the honest representatives instead of the most politically connected and financially backed. It is more likely the most honest person running for office will also be the one with the least financial backing, and thus give the superficial impression of being the least popular, and therefore fallaciously the least desirable, candidate.

  • LFOldTimer

    Well, at least we got Shirley Grindle’s ethics measure going to ballot. Oh wait. I forgot. The supervisors select the commission members and can dump them w/ 4 votes at any time without cause. Talk about a stacked deck. This would be like Dracula appointing or dismissing a self-created commission that is tasked with blood bank security in the Town of Translyvania. Plus, the whistleblower hotline to the commission for employees to report ethical misconduct got trashed. And enforcement of the county’s Code of Ethics was narrowed from the entire code to just sections 6 and 9. So much for ethics reform in Orange County. More bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that wastes millions more of our taxdollars. But it was a nice thought in passing. But stay tuned for the new and improved Office of Independent Review (OIR) times 5. No doubt that will be a real head turner. ha. More workfare and busy work for Gennaco’s watchdogs from L.A. ha. The only agency that should be worried is the Public Defender. Scott Sanders better mind his P’s and Q’s and stop making waves. ha. Like a wise Frenchman once told us: “The more things change the more they stay the same”. But hang in there. Maybe we’ve hit the peak (Yet I said that 5 years ago too).

  • David Zenger

    These are some good things but there is something fundamentally broken in a system that relies on governance brought about by public embarrassment. It really doesn’t change the culture of a County government that is completely politicized – where a Supervisor publicly states he wants “political hacks” working for him; where a failed OIR model refuses to die, and instead is quadrupled in size; where a sizable minority, if not a majority of the OCTA board continues to see (or pretends to see) merit in the phony transit projects of the Anaheim Kleptocracy; where the fate of some sort of wolf dog is ginned up into a phony cause at the highest level of County government, where Supervisors, apparently had nothing better to do.

    City governments continue to be driven by the automatic impulse that development – any kind of development – is a good thing as long as the populace is willing to accept the impacts created by somebody else, and water shortage be damned.

    • Jasenn Zaejian

      #David Zenger: Yes, a lot needs to be done in this county, considered by some to be the most corrupt county in the US. Kudos to the VOC for their uncovering of many corrupt practices. I am hoping they can increase their funding sources to cover the possible corruption and patronage, rampant in some city councils and city government like Huntington Beach a city approaching 200,000, not a small town. Issues like the HB Senior Center property being lobbied by developers to violate the original agreement in the grant to remain public property. The proper accounting and rational distribution of funds received by various agencies through public funds and donations like the Council of Senior citizens, marketing itself to be a council assisting Seniors, while they exist mostly as a fund raising agency providing no assistance other than the raising of money whose distribution is mired in obfuscation…with poor accounting practices; the refusal of sanitation to clean and maintain the public service drives between many streets…the drives are single lane streets in and of themselves, and many other fiscal issues important to taxpayers.

  • LFOldTimer

    Despite all the good work by Norberto and crew – have you really seen the ‘pay to play’ political system slow down or even stop to take a breather? Nope. The pols really aren’t influenced by the media like they used to be back in the day. Of course that’s when we had real investigative reporters on a national scale like Woodward and Bernstein. Those reporters are as rare today as the Caspian tiger. Big government and corporate America own the mainstream media here in America. That’s the reason you’re lucky if you get half the facts on socio-political or economic events that have a direct impact on your lives. The primary reason that the politicians have approval ratings on average in the teens while incumbents get reelected 90%-95% of the time is due to a dumbed down and apathetic electorate. What percent of registered voters turned out for the last election? 20%? ha. Same as Moscow in 1965 when they had to lure voters to the polls with vodka and caviar. Look what they’re graduating from our high schools. Those are your future voters. ha. They vote for the guy who promises them the most free stuff. Hence, we have nearly a $20 trillion dollar federal debt. We’ll get there by the time Obama leaves office. Our society has been turned upside down and inside out by big money and the sold out politicians at every level of government. Just when you’ve thought you’ve seen the worst some goofball outdoes his predecessor. ha. The antithesis of what I saw 50 years ago. I’m damn glad I’m as old as I am.

    • Philmore

      Well said for both posts. But with the preponderance of UN-investigated, UN-indicted and UN-punished, hearing that “the public moved the ball” …..seems to beg the reply ‘so do Dung Beetles’. Thank God for VofOC as one of the few lifelines of information and curiosity in a sea of tone-deaf corporate media and apathetic public, but I remain more hopeful than optimistic. When closed society civic veneers for cronyism can exist like City of Industry , is the only hope for honest government enthusiasts perhaps to unite and re-incorporate afresh somewhere, like horse enthusiasts did for Norco ?

      • LFOldTimer

        I’ve given up on liberty, Philmore. I’ve read the bulletpoints of the recently passed Omnibus Bill in Congress and now know for sure that no longer do we have a government ‘of, by and for the people’. They’ve turned ‘consent of the governed’ into a mockery. Quite honestly I’m not sure if we still have an adversarial political system anymore. It looks more like one big incestuous political party wrapped arm in arm to me. It’s only the little people who bicker among themselves about which party is best. The D’s and R’s on Capital Hill are giving one another high fives while the commoners argue and fight. Very strange. Yet I hardly see any pushback at all from the mainstream media – which strengthens my belief that they’ve sold out – which I’ve known for a very long time. The Omnibus Bill was just more evidence to support my case. No wonder people are gravitating toward Trump. He’s really the only one who isn’t bought off by the sugar daddies and gives the people an option other than ‘more of the same’. People are tired of being fed the same old manure sandwich every 4 years. How was Obama really any different than Bush?

  • Jacki Livingston

    No. There’s no chance of change. For all of the stories that are on the list, they are all pretty tame. Nothing really dangerous or gritty. Pretty genteel and tame. The ugly stories require depth, and risking the ire of the establishment. You don’t do that. No one thinks you should sling mud. But the ugly truth requires getting your hands dirty…or at least inky, from documents. You should not report anything not backed up by proof or be irresponsible. But you really are not going to the depths of ugly stories and uglier truths. It’s like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the Widder Douglas’s fence, not Woodward and Bernstein.

  • Paul Lucas

    Norbert, VOC has basically debuted as a medium for civiv engagement as a single body by vox politi. I am highly confident we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in the depth of your penetration. And for that, I am patiently sharpening my knives while I wait to hear the confessions of the sinners. In waiting, I have only this musical prelude for myself and others: follow the link below.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zJ6ElB-MrM

  • LFOldTimer

    I think the VOC has done a yeoman job at exposing the dirt. However, I fail to see any real good that came from it. Looks like more business as usual to me. Politicians still get away with shenanigans with no consequences, except for fall-guys like Webster Guillory. The taxpayers continued to get screwed, blued and tatooed. Those at the top and their cronies continue to be immune from the laws the rest of us are mandated to follow. Kimberly Edds of AOCDS tells us that there is no scandal at the OC Sheriffs Department when there are news headlines across the Country (and internationally) decrying the jailgate informant embarrassment that seemingly violated the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution for years resulting in hardened violent felons being set free or given new trials – with sweet plea bargain agreements. So I have my eyes peeled, Norberto. But I have to be honest, Sir. Looks like more of the same to me despite the excellent work by the VOC reporters. You fellas should get an award. Sorry for being the Christmas grinch on the State of the County. But I feel compelled to tell you what my ears hear and eyes see. Hopefully 2016 will be a better year in that way. But I seriously doubt it. With each passing year we seem to decline a little further. Oh, one good thing – looks like El Nino was a hoax and we’ll sidestep the torrential rains. I just checked the extended forecast through January. Very little rain predicted. Glad I didn’t get suckered into buying a new roof and gutters. That’s a good thing. Happy New Years!

    • Jacki Livingston

      Lol…I respect every word. I despair for change, too. But I am encouraged to see Norberto and his team at least shining lights. It is a start.