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Voice of OC was established in 2009 as a community nonprofit newsroom that would ensure robust coverage of the complex challenges facing our local governments, with an aim toward spurring investigation, analysis and conversation.
Throughout 2012, Voice of OC journalists showed why such an asset matters to residents interested in keeping a close eye on those who control the institutions of democracy.
The wheels came off Orange County government in July after District Attorney Tony Rackauckas unveiled a dozen felony sex crime allegations against Carlos Bustamante, a top executive at county Public Works and a Latino rising star in the local Republican Party..
Questions about how Bustamante, also a Santa Ana city councilman, could have had so many inappropriate sexual relationships at work for so long led to a mass shakeup of the county leadership.
Voice of OC led much of the news coverage of the unfolding mess.
County CEO Tom Mauk resigned in the wake of the scandal while Public Works Director Jess Carbajal was fired and Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis came forward publicly as a whistleblower against county supervisors before ultimately being placed on paid administrative leave.
By late fall, county officials were overseeing nearly a half dozen investigations into elected officials and high-ranking department executives. Questions arose about of how county supervisors’ political aides maneuver for jobs inside the $6-billion county bureaucracy and about how lobbyists jockey over lucrative contracts, such as a planned $200-million computer system upgrade.
Voice of OC also led news coverage when the county found itself in a heated argument with state officials over more than $70 million in property taxes. Both sides have since gone to court and are expected to head to trial next month.
County Chief Financial Officer Bob Franz took over as interim CEO while supervisors searched for a replacement. The search is expected to end sometime next month.
The county also finds itself trying to fill numerous vacancies as the ranks of elected county positions have been thinned. A new Board of Supervisors confronts labor negotiations with just about every union at the county in an environment of rising pension costs and flat revenues.
Duin the year long-simmering tensions between Anaheim’s political power structure and its majority Latino population erupted on several levels.
In January, Voice of OC’s reporting of a proposed $158-million subsidy for hotel developers led to a deep split on the City Council and vocal opposition from local community members, activists and labor unions.
In the end, the subsidy deal passed and activists were unsuccessful in an attempt to place an initiative on the November ballot that would have required hotel subsidies to be approved by voters. Activists also sued, and a judge ruled that the City Council’s vote on the subsidy violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, and therefore was invalid.
A revote will likely take place in 2013.
In July, anger over a series of police shootings in the city’s largely Latino Anna Drive neighborhood erupted into protests that eventually led to a riot outside City Hall after demonstrators were denied entrance to a City Council meeting.
One tangible result of the events in Anaheim was a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city. Activists hoped the result would be more candidates of color and public agendas that are more community-minded.
During the election season, Voice of OC reported heavily on record-setting campaign spending by the Disneyland Resort, which has led to fundamental questions being raised about the company’s influence at City Hall.
Voice of OC reported on the so-called “Santa Ana Spring,” a movement among council members to challenge the longtime dominance of Mayor Miguel Pulido in City Hall decisions.
Activists and Santa Ana Spring council members celebrated the adoption of a sunshine law to increase transparency at City Hall. During November’s elections, voters also adopted a mayoral term limits initiative, and council members are now changing how appointments are made.
Our postelection coverage had statewide impact by focusing on the story of Latina Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva’s surprise upset of incumbent Republican Chris Norby in the 65th Assembly District. Voice of OC reporting was the first to note that Quirk-Silva’s victory gave Democrats their first supermajority in the Assembly since the 1800s.
Voice of OC also was a leader in press coverage of the ongoing criminal case against Fullerton police officers in the beating death of homeless transient Kelly Thomas. The nonprofit newsroom was the first in the nation to run an unedited video released by prosecutors of the beating death.
In addition to analyzing open government issues, Voice of OC also focuses its coverage on how government policies and neighborhood environments contribute to the overall health of communities.
Voice of OC’s coverage examined many key public health issues, including homelessness, crowded living conditions, valley fever, ambulance service and how some school districts fight to deny services to autistic children. Voice of OC also covered the continuing drama at CalOptima, the county’s health program for the poor.
Our coverage on homelessness ranged from the lack of progress made by the county’s homelessness task force to the struggles faced by homeless teenagers who no longer receive benefits as children but can’t qualify for help as adults.
We delved deeply into the problem of crowded living conditions, an especially acute issue in Santa Ana, which has 10 times as many people living in crowded conditions as the national average. Our stories included a gripping account of how a teenage girl struggles in a crowded apartment and a first-person perspective from a journalist in our youth media program.
Voice of OC journalists also took part in a statewide project that focused on the rising valley fever epidemic. The groundbreaking six-month effort showed how the disease, which is caused by fungal spores in soil, is ravaging California’s Central Valley and how little is being done about it.
Our reporting also showed how Orange County’s system for regulating ambulances is woefully inadequate, allowing even those with criminal records licenses to provide emergency services.
Voice of OC tackled the issue of special education funding and how some school districts fight parents seeking services for their children. A series of stories revealed a little-known agency that funds lawsuits against parents.
The infighting at CalOptima, which serves more than 400,000 low-income and elderly residents in Orange County, continued in 2012, and Voice of OC was there to document the power plays and defections that rocked the agency.
Because Voice of OC was established to help strengthen the connection between residents and their local governments, one of our strongest efforts is to enable residents to challenge their government through the exercise of First Amendment rights.
And in 2012, addressing the lack of transparency across the county’s cities and mega agencies was a challenge.
We began the year in January with an Anaheim city official ordering staff to purge records in the wake of Voice of OC investigative exposes on the city’s ousted city manager Tom Wood, amidst questions about the outsourcing of the city building department.
With the help of CalAware public records expert Terry Francke, Voice of OC published stories and warned legal action, causing city officials to eventually adjust their policies. Nonetheless, by the spring, city officials were using state exemptions to request more than $30,000 to produce email records. It’s a similar argument used by county officials in connection with our requests for emails on other sensitive topics.
By the summer, county leaders began rejecting legal public records requests by Voice of OC in connection with numerous internal corruption probes related to county supervisors and issues with top officials.
The lawsuit is still active with Voice of OC and CalAware contending that the county’s redactions are illegal.
Voice of OC also deepened its community roots this year by launching an opinion page completely fueled by influential community members from all sides of the political spectrum.
The Community Editorial Board members contribute regularly, and the board meets as a whole with newsmakers on a monthly basis. The board also sponsored a series of forums during the election season.
A youth media program also was launched in 2012 that will train and equip a half dozen young journalists to tell the stories of their own neighborhoods. During the November elections, Voice of OC worked with youth groups from several Santa Ana-based nonprofit groups to organize a mayoral debate where young activists moderated the forum and asked questions of candidates.