Santana: Can Local Government Operate in Total Secrecy?

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Happy Sunshine Week!

Leaders across the nation will spend this whole week focusing on the importance of open government to our democracy.

Indeed, it’s a great time to reflect on the sacrifices of our forefathers as well as those of so many veterans, citizens and activists over the past 200 years to keep our government accessible and hold it accountable.

It’s also a great time to recommit ourselves to open government.

Here in Orange County, the Voice of OC newsroom will mark the holiday in court.

About a year ago – again ironically during Sunshine Week – we filed suit for a series of emails between County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and a county public information officer about a bizarre incident where Spitzer handcuffed an evangelist while armed at a Wahoos’ restaurant on Easter Weekend.

When Sheriff’s Deputies showed up, they let the man go.

Yet questions regarding Spitzer’s judgment and actions remain.

The evangelist, who has avoided the press, was later also mysteriously let go from his job at Boys Town, coincidentally just as Spitzer held up contracts for the non-profit county contractor, eleven days after the incident.

And in an abrupt departure from standard policy on public records, county officials aggressively fought a series of straightforward Voice of OC requests about official email correspondence between top county executives and Spitzer concerning the incident and the Boys Town contract.

Looking into the emails was part of a due diligence process to ensure we as investigative journalists had taken every opportunity to examine independent documents that could shed light on this odd incident.

Keep in mind that Spitzer is a leading candidate to become the next District Attorney of Orange County.

Yet when Voice of OC asked for internal email traffic about Spitzer’s Wahoos incident – something we have done in the past and continue to do with success on other issues – county officials balked.

In this case, county executives, prompted by Spitzer, have developed an argument that internal email communications between county supervisors and taxpayer-funded public workers are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

Total secrecy.

That’s the new standard that County of Orange lawyers – funded with your tax dollars – want to enshrine here locally in their public arguments before Judge Walter P. Schwarm on Tuesday.

Yet note that the preamble to the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs the transparency of our civic life in our state, says it all about what the intent was in California back in 1953 when the law on access was enacted.

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Also keep in mind that voters also hardwired our right to know, right into our state constitution with the adoption of Prop 59 in 2004.

While Donald Trump’s loud attacks on the media have drawn significant concern on the national stage, here at home Orange County supervisors continue to wage a more discreet battle against freedom of the press and disclosure of public records.

If not overruled, the County’s position on the secrecy of internal email communications between elected officials and public employees could become the default position of all public agencies in California.

The California Supreme Court recently upheld public access rights, in its important case deciding that even records stored on private devices by public officials are disclosable public records.

In doing so, justices noted the great importance of the right to access public records.

“It is no answer to say…that we must presume public officials conduct official business in the publics best interest. The Constitution neither creates nor requires such an optimistic presumption. Indeed, the rationale behind the Act is that it is for the public to make that determination, based on information to which it is entitled under the law. Open access to government records is essential to verify that government officials are acting responsibly and held accountable to the public they serve.”

As journalists, we trust in this principle, and Tuesday, we will get to see whether it holds up under fire here in Orange County.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Give it a freaking rest, Norberto. Your pick and choose whining about this is old. You are handed proof that Spitzer committed ethics violations that could get him disbarred, using his wife and his own law client, and you do nothing. What, is that not sexy enough for you? Enough already! Todd Spitzer is a jerk, and you help protect him from the real consequences of his terrorist and criminal actions. You are complicit, so shut up, already! You have no credibility, because you ignore really serious crap. Just get over yourself. This is all showboating so people will donate to you, making you look like a crusader…instead of a coward who doesn’t want to deal with the real crimes committed by Spitzer.

  • LFOldTimer

    Yet another consideration….even if the judge orders the county to turn over the emails – what makes you think they won’t be selective in what materials they disclose?

    Oh, you might say “They can’t withhold materials ordered turned over by the courts! It’s the law!”

    HA! I say if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

    If someone commits a crime and is not prosecuted for it does the law really matter or is it really a crime?

    Or better yet…if 2 people openly commit the same crime and only 1 person is prosecuted for it do you really live in a society that promotes liberty and justice for all?

    • verifiedsane

      If a judge in OC were to actually commit political Seppuku & order the county to turn over emails…the BOS would just go all Hillary on us..fraudulent secrecy without consequences….

  • LFOldTimer

    IMO what Spitzer did to that proselytizer at Wahoo’s is as bad, if not worse, than what the LAPD cop did to that 13 year old in Anaheim.

    Both used incredibly poor judgment.

    But the cop doesn’t make multi-million dollar decisions on my behalf and there’s no possibility that he would be in charge of our OC criminal justice system in 2019.

    “The evangelist, who has avoided the press, was later also mysteriously let go from his job at Boys Town, coincidentally just as Spitzer held up contracts for the non-profit county contractor, eleven days after the incident.”

    The OC residents deserve a detailed follow-up on that statement to set things straight. Why is this the first time I’ve heard about it?

  • LFOldTimer

    Look, let’s not be naive. Of course they can operate in total secrecy as long as they have the backing of the court system.

    Even though it seems obvious to us that the Brown Act forbids concealment of emails between government officials on matters of public interest from public scrutiny – if the courts ‘interpret’ it as permissible – does it really matter what the black letter law says?

    Rule of law is violated constantly in this country. Judges are legislating from the bench all the time. How do you think ObamaCare got cleared at the SCOTUS level?

    Some black robed lawyers won’t even allow our President to temporarily restrict foreigners from known terrorist nations from coming to America until we update our immigration security systems to preclude more terrorist attacks. There is solid legal precedent that such an order is a Presidential prerogative. Carter, GW Bush and Obama all blocked foreigners from certain ME nations from coming to America. But when Trump does it suddenly his actions are legally scrutinized! lol.

    So all of you who cry about what the county is doing to Norberto while you applaud what the courts are doing to Trump are part of the problem.

    And all of you who applaud sanctuary cities that protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes against the state (over and above violations of US Immigration Law) from deportation yet cry that Norberto is being unlawfully bullied by the county are part of the problem.

    You too are nothing more than political pawns who selectively approve violations of rule of law as long as they favor your particular ideology. You’re really no better than Spitzer in the final analysis.

    I wish Norberto well. He’s in the right here. But being right won’t buy you a decaf at Starbucks. His fate is in the hands of the court. Hopefully the judge is not Spitzer’s buddy. I’d feel much more comfortable if Judge Goethals presided over the case.

    • The real problem is a judicial branch that mistakenly thinks anyone not a citizen or legal resident has Constitutional rights.

      As far as Spitzer goes, I’d be more concerned the judge will consider the future – a future where Spitzer is DA. And, as tarnished as his armor is looking these days, would we really want T-Rack’s handpicked piranha (or is that, pariah) as County DA?

      • LFOldTimer

        Hopefully someone with integrity will run for DA.

        I would love for Scott Sanders to run, for the laughs if nothing else. I’d vote for him.

        Or Judge Goethals would make an excellent candidate. I bet he’d win.

        Anybody but Spitzer or a T-Rack protégé.

        • Jacki Livingston

          Brock Zimmons is being groomed. He buried all of the Spitzer/Schlomo crime stuff with the Grand Jury. He will be rewarded.

  • When it comes to the political shenanigans perpetrated in Orange County, California by the elected “leaders,” the sky is the limit. So many scandals, so little time to list them but lets begin with former Sheriff Carona for starters and follow it up with current Sheriff Sandy Hutchens who recently published a statement that her agency will be cherry picking which federal laws she will be enforcing. Spitzer is just one in a long line of dirtbags in Orange County.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Just like Norberto cherry picks what crimes he reports.

  • OCservant_Leader

    in order to extract this corruption from OC, it would take a herculean effort of comprehensive public sector reform.

    1. Public Servant Immunity – protection must be removed. Unfortunately, Government would come to a halt as we know it as we do not have the capacity in the Courts to prosecute all offenders.

    2. Technology & Transparency – how to create laws that can manage the constant change in communications? Criminals are always one step ahead.

    Of course V of OC will win this court case but how do we know what “they” choose to reveal is everything? Do we need to hire a personal nanny to follow Spitzer around and record everything he does not put in writing?

    And Norberto – I missed the connection of Bible-boy gate and his former employer’s contract shenanigans? This adds a whole new twist to this bizarre story.

    The BOS fiddling with Contracts for personal reasons IS the cause of the chaos inside the bureaucracy.

    • David Zenger

      “The BOS fiddling with Contracts for personal reasons…”

      We need to send this to our new OC Ethics® Director, pronto!

    • Jacki Livingston

      VoC has been handed information and documents proving serious wrongdoing by Spitzer, and they ignore it. Please don’t confuse them with real journalists.

  • verifiedsane

    Can Local Government Operate in Total Secrecy? Of course the answer is YES! oversight, accountability, and actual transparency is so stifled by a self serving maze of bureaucracy that the public generally has no idea of the scope & how the out of control the backroom dealing and ruling class nepotism continues to subvert the peoples best interest.

    This isn’t or should it be viewed as a one political party verses another issue; this is an issue of a systematic secrecy & corruption operation being conducted by a self ordained ruling class & their tethered institutional segregates . Unfortunately, the press is so focused upon supporting/encouraging the self created partition illusion, disseminating fake news, and picking sides upon trite social issues and debates, that they have now been relegated as impotent and void of the public trust in investigating, reporting, and exposing the real criminal corruption problems that persist with reckless abandonment in relative obscurity by these supposed public servants & elected leaders.

    The oligarchy’s shell game is working just as it was designed to do…where everyone loses except the political cons running the rigged game, while making all the rules…the names playing their dubious roles may change from time to time, but those with the real pocket power continue grasping upon the reins of control throughout the ages.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Yea- It’s not a question of can they-They ARE doing it!

    • OCservant_Leader

      You are so right. I know I get you RedCounty boyz trunks twisted when I point out in the OC it’s the GOP who set up the collusion.

      It’s just a fact.

      I didn’t work at Blue Santa Ana – so I can’t speak to what’s going on there.

      OC is where I got my PhD in Public Sector Crime. And I try to stay in my lane and share the wealth.

      • verifiedsane

        Historically it’s little different in LA County (a geographical similar example) …not exactly a conservative nirvana…the allure of corruption, greed, power, and self serving has no particular political preference…as the say, the proof is always in the pudding…it’s like debating acts of corruption preformed by Arnold Schwarzenegger verses Grey Davis..I personally detest leadership corruption & criminality in all it’s forms; whether it wears stripes or polka-a-dots…

  • David Zenger

    “The evangelist, who has avoided the press, was later also mysteriously let go from his job at Boys Town, coincidentally just as Spitzer held up contracts for the non-profit county contractor, eleven days after the incident.”

    That’s news. But there’s no Voice story with details of those contracts.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Yea- how did I miss the “contract-gate” part of this story?

      • David Zenger

        I find it very hard to believe that a reputable non-profit would knuckle under to Spitzer, I really do.

        Norberto needs to document this inference of extortion before he makes this rather bland assertion. I don’t doubt for a nanosecond that Spitzer would try it; I just doubt Father Flanagan would go for it.

        • OCservant_Leader

          Oh you should know that the BOS rules with absolute power.

          Contractors must grovel and appease even the most fragile egos of the BOS and staff are left to throw the CPM out the window and try to explain the 5th Floor’s “new” procedures with a straight face. Then you have to alert Rob Richardson to bring in the cleaning squad to get ahead of the challenge.

          Meanwhile, Contractors can blow through Millions like its Monopoly money with no accountability. They don’t have any reasonable cash handling practices? No problem. No need to monitor their expenditures because the CPM is thrown out the window and they will continue to get the award.

          Just look at the Dana Point Harbor Marina contract audit. That contract should have already been terminated!

        • OCservant_Leader

          Zenger- can u fill us in about what is the real story about the Dana Point Harbor Marina contract – Audit?

          See the AC Press Release.

        • Devon Rémy

          Well, Father Flanagan is no longer with us. And Boys Town is very political.