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.