Santana: We Won!

Nick Gerda, Norberto Santana, Jr. and Tracy Wood show off their awards from the OC Press Club awards contest. Photo by Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC

We won.

We all won.

These past few weeks, Voice of OC achieved some really special wins.

Out on the front lines of First Amendment defense, our amazing litigator, CalAware’s Kelly Aviles earned us all a key victory in Orange County Superior Court after a lengthy and costly public records lawsuit.

Soon, we will get to see an aborted Op-ed written by County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and the email traffic between him and former County Public Information Officer Jean Pasco that ultimately killed it’s publication.

The Op-ed was Spitzer’s take on his bizarre handcuffing and citizens’ arrest of an evangelist while armed on Good Friday back in 2015 after walking the stations of the cross. Sheriff’s deputies ultimately freed the evangelist yet questions remain about Spitzer’s actions that day.

Voice of OC sought public records about the incident. County officials scrambled, as they usually do, to protect their own and withheld documents using flimsy legal arguments.

We stood up to them and challenged their denial in court.

Thanks to Aviles’ effective legal briefs as well as her inspiring advocacy in front of Judge Walter P. Schwarm over the course of more than a year, our newsroom was able to defend a fundamental notion of California’s open records laws.

The public is in charge of our government. It’s not the other way around.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer has led his colleagues and the County of Orange through a reckless and ruthless legal strategy designed to do nothing more than protect his own interests and enhance government secrecy.

Press attacks – in the form of attempted depositions of me for challenging the county on a public record denial, a direct assault on California’s Shield Law – also became part of Spitzer’s defense to disclosure.

Schwarm clearly stood up for press rights and rejected the County’s legal arguments for the unprecedented, not to mention bizarre, action of attempting to depose a reporter on a public records case.

The saddest part of this lengthy affair is that Spitzer’s colleagues on the County Board of Supervisors helped him shield disclosure – knowing that the costs to taxpayers could easily be a six-figure amount.

What kind of fiscal stewardship is that?

Even more stomach turning is the fact that Orange County’s Board of Supervisors are on the record officially backing the troubling concept, that their communications with government bureaucrats should be shielded from the public.

What must they all be hiding?

It’s a sad standard for our county and something that every civic leader should be questioning them about.

To save civic leaders the time, county supervisors should take out time at the next public meeting during their board comments and tell the public what motivated their vote to waste taxpayers’ money. Now that Judge Schwarm’s decision has been filed, it would also be nice for supervisors to let the public know whether they agree with his reading of the law.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, to his credit, publicly spoke out against Spitzer’s attack on free press rights – unlike the rest of his colleagues – calling the action fundamentally Un-American.

Yet Nelson did stand by his colleagues’ vote to defend the case, essentially allowing Spitzer to rent out County Counsel Leon Page and his staff to advance lame legal theories and recklessly run up taxpayers’ legal bills.

So in case you didn’t know it, just add free lawyers for lame cases to the mountain of pay and benefits – like the Cadillac car allowances and platinum pensions – that every county supervisor is currently entitled to.

All funded by Orange County taxpayers.

Yet thanks to our strong courts, the Orange County Board of Supervisors are not our Kings and Queens.

We as citizens can challenge official stupidity.

And win.

We just have to stand up and fight.

After seven years at this, I can report back to you that my own commitment as Publisher, as well as that of our board of directors and our entire newsroom and legal team is as strong as ever to hold our politicians accountable.

We will continue to aggressively and effectively defend our collective First Amendment rights as a newsroom, and work to ensure that access to public records in Orange County is guaranteed for not just reporters but all members of the public.

Yet it’s not just Judge Schwarm who is taking Voice of OC’s side.

This past Monday night, I was humbled to receive the OC Press Club Award’s David McQuay Award for Best Columnist across all mediums, for my series highlighting the homeless crisis at the downtown Santa Ana civic center and the establishment of the Courtyard Transition Center in what was an abandoned bus terminal.

Our county reporter, Nick Gerda, also earned a second place in Public Affairs over his story on skyrocketing suicide rates in Orange County and Tracy Wood earned a third place in Investigative coverage for her campaign finance coverage.

When I took over a county Metro column two years ago after assuming the mantle of Publisher, I swore to myself that I would use this civic space to call out bullshit as forcefully as I could and to hold our local governments to the highest standard.

I had never written a column before but just tried to stay focused on connecting the dots for readers on government fraud, waste and abuse as best I could and find a voice.

As I saw the homelessness situation exploding at the civic center, as well as the inaction of our county supervisors, I wrote to expose the situation.

You responded as citizens. You called on them to address change. They did.

Today, nearly 500 sleep under the roof of the former bus terminal each night. Many have transitioned into permanent supportive housing.

This past Monday, the judges all agreed.

We all won.

Yet many challenges still remain.

Just on homelessness, consider that today, large homeless communities are still camping out at the riverbed near Angels Stadium and out in front of Orange County’s Superior Court complex.

County supervisors keep ignoring the immediacy of this crisis in front of them.

Time to get back to work.

  • Daniel Lamb

    I would like to know more about the legal controversy surrounding Todd Spitzer’s rough draft document regarding his citizen’s arrest. What did you all hope to gain from obtaining the document and related documents? This strikes me as something that helps the Supervisor. And was not Roberto Santana advising Spitzer on that front? A lot of money was dished out for this “controversy”. Could it be that it was a highly inappropriate PR stunt to benefit the Supervisor at the expense of taxpayers and the contributors (such as they are) to this blog? I guess inappropriate is a relative term here in Orange County, where the corruption fighters are the most suspect.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Also, Congrats on great reporting of OC Homeless Issue and the BOS (GOP) appalling INACTION for last 20 years that I had to work at the civic center.

    Norberto’s journalism is the ONLY reason the BOS was SHAMED into doing…something. Thank you!

  • OCservant_Leader

    Congrats Norberto & VofOC!

    You are the REAL public servants. Thank you. Please Appeal the good Judge’s wrong decision to keep the Contract email traffic secret.

    The only reason OC fights every public record request is because they are hiding their own corruption.

  • Jasenn

    Re: Supervisors.
    Something that seems to elude me. We elect them to serve us, not the other way around where they are elected to exploit us taxpayers, right? Or am I deluded? When will county politicians realize their correct and legal place in this political system?

  • Bob Brock

    So to be clear… Norberto and VOC lost on every count except a couple of emails and the op-ed and yet he claims victory? Kind of like the Cleveland Browns claiming a victorious season after going 1-15… but at least they won a game! That must be deserving of a parade down Lakeside Ave.
    This is truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Try not to break your arm patting yourself on the back.

  • Jackie Cordova

    THANK YOU so much for what you do!! Common sense will eventually reign Supreme, but in the meantime, in all of this chaos, thank you for standing firm in the belief and pursuit of TRUTH! 🙏

  • LFOldTimer

    God bless ya for not only standing up for the First Amendment, the Ralph M. Brown Act and demanding government transparency – but actually putting your own skin in the game to make it happen, Norberto.

    Most journalists (and their bosses) would have rolled over and played dead. You didn’t and that deserves a Standing O, my man. Most Americans have lost their fight. Slowly, over time, they’ve been conditioned to shut up and to go along with the program.

    Is the county going to pay your legals costs? If so, could you let us know the amount of that bill? The taxpayers should have a right to that information as well and know exactly what it cost us for a flimsy frivolous defense of a government attack on the First Amendment and the Ralph M. Brown Act.

    Hopefully Kelly Aviles is reviewing the court ruling to keep the Boys Town emails and/or documents concealed from the public’s view. Many of us on your board found that ruling confusing. If you decide not to appeal the ruling it would be nice of you to provide us with an explanation of the discrepancy between Ruling #1 and Ruling #2 and the reason for not moving forward. The taxpayers fund the county contracts. If there are secret communications behind closed doors between the county and the contractors that result in a material change in the terms of the contract – it seems we should have a right to know about it. My guess is that the details found in the concealed Boys Town communications would put the emails between Spitzer and Pasco to shame.

    Thanks again for standing up for honesty in government. The county and the nation are in decline. Civil liberties are under attack by those who are supposed to be our elected servants and who laughingly purport to be advocates of government openness and transparency. ha. Liars. Imagine how Spitzer would behave as our DA. Scary. Without fighters like you we would be at their mercy.

  • David Zenger

    Unfortunately, Hizzoner Schwarm seems to give credence to some cooked-up nonsense called the “privileged deliberative process” of a Supervisor. Fighting this baloney is the real battle. Under the aegis of this theory, each request for information that is denied would have to go to a judge to see if it can pass the smell test, a real defeat for transparency.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Yes -The “Deliberative Process” is about TIMING. Once the contract is awarded – all communication (SHOULD) become Public.

      VOfOC – YOU MUST APPEAL!!

  • Village Idiot

    Voice of OC, Norberto, Nick, Tracy and all the other Voice of OC reporters and contributors deserve the heartfelt thanks of the public, both here in OC and elsewhere. The First Amendment means nothing without its vigorous exercise by the citizenry. Government secrecy and lack of transparency curbs free speech by restricting speech to only those topics government officials want us to know about and talk about. Whether in D.C. or Santa Ana, government executives who work so hard to spend public tax monies to hide their actions MUST have something to hide. Every rank-and-file government worker at every level knows that when their bosses hide stuff from the public it is for the purpose of hiding wrong-doing. Currently in D.C., many valuable leaks by courageous government staffers are assisting our free press to disclose wrong-doing at the highest levels, including the White House. I encourage all OC County employees to do their civic duty to protect the Constitution and the OC public by whistle-blowing about OC government waste, fraud and abuse.

  • M. M.

    HA! What a joke! VOC acts like it cracked Watergate or something

    • David Zenger

      “The guy DOESN’T walk away from a weird situation with a strange dude in a public place?”

      I’m a bit confused. Are you referring to Spitzer or Bible Boy?

    • LFOldTimer

      “He used his police training lawfully until cops arrived”

      WTH are you speaking of? Spitzer doesn’t hold police credentials. He has no more authority to handcuff a non-violent citizen in a public place than you or I do. I don’t give a da*n if he USED to be a plastic reserve cop. Those days are long gone.

      Had another citizen replicated Spitzer’s actions at Wahoo he would have been hooked up and transported to county lockup on some very serious charges.

      This only reinforces my belief that there are 2 separate and distinct books of law in Orange County. One for us and one for them. TOTALLY UNAMERICAN!!!! 🙁

      • Jasenn

        Isn’t it against the law for one citizen to restrain another in handcuffs for no reason other than his opinion? Why wasn’t Spitzer charged with unlawful restraint or other appropriate charge?

        • LFOldTimer

          Trust me. I wouldn’t cuff or hogtie another citizen unless he had just committed a violent felony in my presence, continued to perpetrate violence on those around him and was an active danger to the general public.

          IMO (FWIW) a citizen with no police powers walking to his vehicle to obtain a set of handcuffs to cuff a proselytizer in a private business for purportedly glancing at fast food tableware utensils while preaching on Jesus is way over the friggin’ line.

          If he was really scared of this Jesus advocate he would have called the police from outside and waited 5-10 minutes for them to arrive to do their thing, as opposed to pretending to be John Wayne. That is the common sense and sound judgment that we would expect from a former state assemblyman, former DDA and current OC Supervisor.

          This is not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination. It’s pure horse sense that even a country boy would follow.

  • verifiedsane

    “The public is in charge of our government. It’s not the other way around.” Tell the BoS this….they seem to believe it’s the other way around….The citizens are being treated like sheep being lead to the cliffs edge “the Orange County Board of Supervisors are not our Kings and Queens.” And yet they act as if they are…

    “We as citizens can challenge official stupidity.” hopefully, as often as possible with all due diligence and indifference to what ever political stripes the ruling oligarchy may happen to be wearing at the time…

    Keep up the good fight Norberto Santana Jr.