Santana: Phantom Government

Supervisors' Chairwoman Michelle Steel (left) speaks with a sheriff's special officer just before issuing her order to clear the board room. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

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Since winning office in 2014 the only thing I’ve seen Orange County Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel really do on her own is clear a room.

Last week, when publicly challenged by homeless advocate Mohammed Aly about the Board of Supervisors’ response to homelessness in Orange County from the public speakers podium, Steel chose to shut down the whole meeting – even apparently ordering  journalists be cleared from the room, clearly violating the state’s public meeting laws in our opinion.

Reporters have the right in California to record someone being removed from a meeting. It’s there to protect both the government agency and the protestor because it allows an independent set of eyes to observe and record what is happening.

Yet that independent set of eyes is increasingly coming under attack, mainly from nervous politicians trying to insulate themselves from accountability.

For example, Orange County officials are denying public access to video of the confrontation between Sheriff’s deputies and Aly, again in flagrant violation of the state’s open meetings and public records laws as we see them.

Our reporters tried to have the Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors explain the rationale behind having reporters threatened with arrest for doing their job on Tuesday but, as usual, Steel declined to engage.

It’s the latest in a disturbing trend amongst Orange County elected officials, one that is fueling a phantom local government, operating in the shadows — most often those cast by campaign contributions from special interests.

Today’s professional politicians, like Steel, often avoid press interaction or issuing any kind of official statements at all.

They largely stick behind county counsel secret opinions, opting to hide public records wherever and whenever possible. Their aim seems to be avoiding triggering any kind of public record at all…while collecting tons of lucrative government benefits and preaching wonderful fiscally conservative values, at least in Orange County.

In the case of Steel – who has hardly any connections to her district – the strategy should catapult her straight into Congress, where she is expected to replace Dana Rohrabacher.

Now I totally get why politicos like Steel, who is apparently very nice on a one-to-one basis but doesn’t have much to say in public, would prefer to skate by.

Yet as a local news agency, Voice of OC journalists are committed to holding our local elected officials accountable, no matter the cost, even when it means risking being arrested as our county correspondent, Nick Gerda, had to deal with last week when Steel decided to clear the room of activists, and apparently reporters.

Note that it was just a few months ago that Supervisor Todd Spitzer was trying to have county lawyers depose me in court because Voice of OC challenged an official denial of public records related to his citizens arrest of an evangelist while armed at a local Wahoos restaurant.

Judge Walter P. Schwarm effectively quashed that bullying attempt on Voice of OC and upheld the California Reporters Shield Law (which protects sources) last December when he ruled against the County of Orange.

Today, Voice of OC is headed back into Schwarm’s court to fight the County of Orange over their notion that they can conduct government in secret.

Spitzer is essentially championing the concept that politicians are like rock stars and they need to be able to riff, be creative, with county (ie: taxpayer-funded) staff and resources in private in order to produce the best policy.

Thus, Spitzer and county attorneys argue the email exchanges Spitzer had with a county public information officer – about the incident where he handcuffed an evangelist while armed – should remain totally private.

We disagree.

We believe our state constitution’s transparency protections, recently strengthened by voters through Prop. 59, stand in steadfast opposition to Spitzer’s notion.

Indeed, the preamble to the state’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, says it all.

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. 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 governing bodies they have created.”

In a previous hearing on the issue, Schwarm indicated he was likely to grant a series of public records to Voice of OC but asked for more time to consider briefings on recent California Supreme Court decisions that were aimed at making politicians’ private emails accessible.

Again, the key conflict here is simple but age-old.

Politicians often want to make official policy but be shielded from public criticism.

Once again, we disagree.

County supervisors – who are paid six-figure salaries plus Cadillac-style health care plans, gold-plated retirement benefits and luxurious car bonuses – should be able to stand in front of the public that pays their salary and engage.

Yet in order to truly facilitate that engagement with the public, local government needs to offer a real inside peek at how the sausage is made, which is what the state’s open meeting laws intended.

That might often turn up ugly stuff, and offend people like Steel or Spitzer.

Yet accepting anything less is embracing phantom government.

  • oorfenegro

    Went to college in Orange County 40 years ago and elected county officials (Supervisors and Sheriff) were as corrupt as the day is long….Looks like things haven’t changed much in the OC.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Like it or not, the voters are responsible for putting Michelle Steel in office. Not only was she not a resident of Orange County until she decided to run for Co. Supervisor, but a majority of her campaign funds came from the Korean community up and down the state — she had virtually no local financial support. Steel personally told me her plan is to replace Dana Rohrabacher. Being a County Supervisor is merely a holding position until she runs for Rohrabacher’s seat. And I agree — this woman is poorly equipped for political office; she is really just a mouthpiece for the likes of her husband Shawn Steel, the Schroeders and others associated with that same bunch. Her performance as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors is indicative of her limited abilities to govern.

    • Shirley, you’re not telling any stories we haven’t heard. It was an open secret from the beginning of her campaign she was headed for higher office. It’s a sad fact that political campaigns in California (and everywhere else) are popularity contests where the person with the most name recognition, whether qualified or not, wins the brass ring.

    • LFOldTimer

      Give me a reason (any reason) someone would vote for Michelle Steel for congress. Just one.

      Maybe I’m missing something. When I’m not looking perhaps she makes a brilliant statement or does something that exemplifies leadership.

      Do they like her because she has the same first name of the former President’s wife?

      Yes. That would be reason, albeit an insane one.

      But insanity seems to rule these days. 🙂

      • kburgoyne

        Oh she could get elected for what is probably the most common reason when it comes to the House. A combination of name recognition (without knowing anything else about the person) and having the most number of signs stuck on phone poles and street corners. It’s folly to assume there isn’t a huge block of voters who vote based on “I recognize that name”. Basic marketing 101: If plastering zillions of signs all over the district didn’t produce results, then candidates wouldn’t spend the money printing the signs and posting them. The candidates continuing to do it year after year tends to prove it produces results — for right or wrong.

        • LFOldTimer

          Yes. That’s the reason each candidate should be able to spend the same fixed amount on their political campaigns. Once that amount is met – not a dime more. And the amounts should be predicated upon the political office in questions. City council and school board candidates should have the smallest fixed amounts and it goes up from there. They have turned the entire electoral system into a house of ill repute with money and lies.

          • kburgoyne

            Unfortunately that’s just a dream. The Supreme Court has upheld the position that the First Amendment means money = speech. Until that’s reversed, getting elected is less about governing competency and policies, and more about how much money you have to spend on marketing campaigns to sell your product: you.

          • LFOldTimer

            You may call it a “dream” but my proposal would be an HONEST way of governing campaign financing.

            SCOTUS has proven to be an arm of the government that has no judicial independence. All 9 are owned by some outside faction. OBAMACARE is Evidentiary Item #1.

            If you think SCOTUS is impartial and fair w/o ideological forces at play – I have oceanfront property in Arizona for sale.

            The system is rigged and will remain rigged because corruption rules the country.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Great article Norberto!

    You are describing an organized, deliberate collusion of our elected officials who have hijacked OC government for their own self-enrichment.

    #OCgraft

    • You misspelled exorbitant retirement…..

    • verifiedsane

      If the Feds continue to sit on their hands and the ongoing investigations…Then there is no doubt that the oligarchy hijackers have won, and will continue to reek havoc upon the average law abiding citizens of OC…..we are currently teetering at a dire precipice in OC and America; where the governed are being tasked with serving a deaf and egomaniacal government….The great promise and experiment of our founding fathers Constitutional Republic stands today in tremendous peril.

  • John Claxton

    Voice, how’d it go in court today?

  • LFOldTimer

    “In the case of Steel – who has hardly any connections to her district – the strategy should catapult her straight into Congress, where she is expected to replace Dana Rohrabacher.”

    Now that statement just scares the holy bejezus out of me. First time I’ve read it. The few times I’ve watched Steel in action I walked away with the impression that there’s not so many operating parts from the neck up. She never said much but when she did the statements were shallow and simple that did not require much imagination. She struck me as a follower, not a leader. Why would she be “expected” to promote to a congressional office and attain even more power? Have the voters gone mad?

    Look. It’s obvious she didn’t know how to handle a simple situation after a public speaker willfully violated the 3-minute speaking limit and refused to exit the podium. She turned what was a very simple matter into a swat operation for God sakes. All she needed to do was instruct the cop who was twice the size of Mohammed to grab him by the arm and escort him out of the room. So simple it was stupid. No-brainer. And if he resisted (which I doubt he would) there were 3 other heavyweight cops to help. We know he wasn’t armed. He walked through a magnetometer and had his stuff searched before entering the room. Instead Empress Steel clears the entire room and inconveniences dozens of attendees and then seemingly violated state open public meeting law by ejecting a bona-fide paid journalist who was assigned to monitor and report on the supe’s meeting. ha. This was like watching a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Nelson should have turned to the Empress and said “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Michelle” How could this woman possibly manage a congressional office?? lol. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet to properly represent thousands of constituents in congress!

    County government reminds me of that old show I used to watch as a kid “Outer Limits”. You know, the one that started “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture…” Weird, illogical and scary. I understand that every so often people mess up. I know that. And I offer allowances for that. But county government is a perpetual moving disaster zone. One big scandal after another. And when they get caught with their pants down around their ankles they REFUSE to take phone calls or answer questions!!! What the frick? It’s just abominable. These people are supposed to be our leaders. We pay though the nose to keep this government running and I feel like it’s the blind following the blind. All of them are batting .000.

    As far as county government goes I feel like a passenger in a 757. I get up to use the restroom and glance into the cockpit. It’s empty. And we’re on a direct collision course with the side of a mountain.

    • justanon

      Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!!

      A trump supporter calling anyone unfit for higher office because their “statements were shallow and simple that did not require much imagination” has got to be the the ultimate in irony.

      Made my day ….. thanks for huge laugh!!!!!

      • LFOldTimer

        You’ve got the board personality of a rattlesnake.

        Lighten up a bit and expand your mind. Use imagery and visualize yourself as a person other people might want to hang out with. Sometimes imagery has a powerful effect.

        It’s worth a try. You’ve got nothing to lose.

        The worst that could happen is that you’d stay the same.

        • justanon

          Better a rattlesnake, which is an honorable creature, than a self-deluded lemming.

          • verifiedsane

            YAWN!!!! Diaper Boy fails once again…but that is nothing new…..is it….. 🙂

          • LFOldTimer

            Only you would refer to a rattlesnake as an honorable creature. lol.

            So telling.

            Flounders say the darndest things. lol.

          • justanon

            Proof that you know nothing about snakes or anything else for that matter, lol.

          • LFOldTimer

            Oh, you’re an expert in snakes too?

            I’m shocked. 🙂

          • justanon

            Well, I’m obviously more knowledgable than you, but considering how you revel in your ignorance that is a low bar indeed.

            Cult45, ignorant and proud of it, lol.

      • verifiedsane

        Diaper boy once again has nothing to offer except laughable attacks…..now go away and play with your hate mongering pals Ocsays and Diamond in the buff……I’m quite sure your anarchist cohorts at Berkeley are impatiently awaiting the arrival of their favorite stooges for their next display of moronic ignorance, mayhem, and civil unrest.

    • Kind of reminds you of another Supe who couldn’t put a sentence together without reading a text message from her handlers – and then manged to get “promoted” to state senator…..

  • verifiedsane

    This is deeper than simply a phantom government, this is how tyranny grows & works…..the powerful self inoculate themselves from any and all accountability to the citizenry they are supposed to serve and represent….We have government corruption and self service that has reached beyond critical mass. Without swift and decisive action we are doomed to be ruled by a secretive oligarchy of both political stripes. This is the hard and unseemly truth to few are willing to recognize before the damage has already been done; by then it’s just to late to avoid the resulting catastrophe….

  • kburgoyne

    We’re basically seeing immature cowards being elected to public offices across the nation. Rohrabacher’s cowardly dodging of town hall meetings place him squarely in that camp. On the flip side to demonstrate some non-partisanship, I was impressed to see a “few” high profile and heavily disliked (at the moment) Republican congress critters actually stand up in front of large town halls. I have respect for their courage and maturity in doing so with their knowing full-well the beating they were going to be taking from their constituents.

    My comment is not about right versus left ideology or policy. It is about whether the elected representatives have the maturity to face those who they represent, or whether they are actually too immature to be holding public office.

    Norberto is suggesting something a little more nefarious. It is potentially not a question of whether the representatives are mature enough. It is potentially a question of whether they are intentionally engaging in totalitarian, rather than democratic, practices. The intentional denial of information to the public is a long-honored tool of totalitarian regimes of all stripes — information being the most valuable commodity.