Santana: OC Supervisors Wage War on First Amendment

Orange County supervisors have unleashed a frontal assault on the California Shield Law, which protects journalists from disclosing unpublished information and is vital to the news gathering process in our democracy.

Their tactic is to depose me next week in an ongoing public records lawsuit.

We went to court against the County of Orange this past March, seeking emails and memos between County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and county spokeswoman Jean Pasco about an April 2015 incident during which Spitzer handcuffed a preacher while armed at a local restaurant.

The county’s apparent reasoning for needing to take the highly unusual step of deposing me in this case is to glean information regarding conversations and text message exchanges between Spitzer and me during the course of my reporting on the story.

This rationale is not only ridiculous but ominous.

Any conversation I had with Spitzer during an interview for a story is completely irrelevant to our request for a public document. And not only that, my interviews in the course of news gathering are protected by the California Shield Law and my First Amendment reporter’s privilege.

Breaching this pillar of the news gathering process would have a chilling effect, not only here in Orange County, but in newsrooms across the country.

However, trust that Voice of OC and our attorneys with Californians Aware will mount a vigorous fight against this crass effort to erode constitutional freedoms here in our backyard.

Spitzer, and County Counsel Leon Page, have both argued those kinds of email communications and documents – showing how officials make their decisions – must remain secret in order for our government to operate.

We disagree.

We went to court earlier this year under the state’s Public Records Act to ask a judge to analyze our legal arguments and decide.

Now, lets be clear.

Deposing me has nothing to do with the narrow legal question of whether these documents are public or not.

It’s pure bullying and an attempt to divert attention from the real issue.

You see, county supervisors want to establish a legal precedent that the $6 billion dollar public safety, health and human services agency funded by our taxes as the county government is really an authoritarian dictatorship.

They want all their communications between their offices and civilian staff to be totally shielded from disclosure.

A secret government – where county supervisors are free to wheel and deal as they see fit.

Where do taxpayers fit into this model?

They are only clued in later, when it’s time to pick up the check.

Orange County Supervisors’ Calendars Off Limits

This week, I also learned that supervisors want their office calendars kept private as well – arguing that even a basic listing of who visits their offices on the fifth floor of the county Hall of Administration is secret.

It’s funny how there is a public sign-in sheet on the third floor of the Hall of Administration for the CEO’s office, ostensibly for security purposes, but no similar approach two floors up at county supervisors’ offices.

Why would that be?

Well, this month for example, they want to hide the fact that folks like Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs President Tom Dominguez has been working the fifth floor in recent weeks to prepare the way for a pay raise for deputy sheriffs.

County supervisors don’t want you to know about public business until they are done politicizing it for perks and campaign contributions.

It’s ironic that even though county officials argue in our case that a county supervisor’s email traffic to county departments is secret, the same officials have released salary negotiations materials about the deputy sheriff’s contract (offers and counter offers) to Republican activist Jon Fleischman under a simple public records request, right in the middle of ongoing negotiations.

They didn’t even have to depose him.

In fact, they gave a passionate defense of the public’s right to know in court when the deputies’ union tried to block release of the records.

In their legal pleadings, county officials argued:

“The County maintains that the public interest served by disclosure is paramount. In order to have transparency and openness in government, the County believes that the public has a right to know what transpires during contract negotiations with its employees. The law does not prevents the County from making such records available for that purpose.”

The same standard should apply here on the back and forth between a county supervisor and a public employee, the county’s top public information officer.

Under California law, our elected and appointed officials are actually supposed to help us secure public records.

I just wish the County of Orange had a more steady reading of the law – one that isn’t connected to who is asking for public records.

Ironically, the county’s authoritarian tactics with Voice of OC come just on the heels of national celebrations over the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act and significant reforms last month.

One key point made by the legislation signed into law by President Obama (who himself also has targeted the press corps in the courts) is the government should operate from a presumption of openness when it comes to public records.

Unfortunately, Orange County politicians have a lot of company across our nation and internationally when it comes to politicizing access to records.

Scores of local governments are increasingly targeting news agencies when they seek public records in a variety of ways, some even filing lawsuits against requestors of public records.

Politicians want to shut down your ability to have independent public records so you can’t judge them and hold them accountable.

“Transparency brings accountability,” said Colombia Journalism School Professor Sheila Coronel earlier this summer at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) annual conference where she was the keynote speaker.

“That’s why they (politicians) fight it,” said Coronel, who herself confronted the Marcos regime in the Philippines and whose reporting is credited with the fall of President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

This year with the publication of the Panama Papers, which showed how corrupt officials move money around the world, the halls of IRE were buzzing with reporters talking about the democratizing power of harnessing data and public records to connect the dots on what our governments and special interests are really doing.

“We’re living in a golden age of global muckraking,” Coronel told reporters during her speech.

Orange County supervisors want to turn back that clock – ensuring that their private business stays private.

We won’t let them without an epic fight.

Will you?