Santana: People Are The Future of Civics & News

People make a difference.

They force politicians to listen, even adjust…

That’s the beauty of our system.

When people show up.

This past week, Orange County residents and the ACLU gave the board of supervisors a chance to quickly reassess a really bad idea – shooing a homeless encampment with public works crews and tons of boulders – by filing a lawsuit.

Thankfully, supervisors took the chance to reset.

Even though it’s only a week’s rest, the real threat of a lawsuit bought us all some time to think through how best we can make our $6 billion county budget accommodate a few hundred desperate people – who need to be relocated.

A different kind of reset was forced in the business sector, where private sector business people stood up to the board of supervisors – in the name of airport safety – and forced their own blink from the dais.

County supervisors seemed poised last week to abruptly move a low-ranked bidder with political connections into providing airport fuel to private jets at John Wayne Airport.

The incumbent, Signature Air – which was criticized for over-charging private jets on fuel and did change its practices – rallied to its own defense.

Issuing a public complaint through its lawyers to the Federal Aviation Administration, the company argued that supervisors’ actions threatened public safety at the airport. In addition, the executives at the company – who I am told do not contribute to supervisors’ campaign coffers – also turned out their workers to the board of supervisors meeting last week to publicly argue for a reset.

They got it.

This week, Signature Air stepped it up by arguing in a formal letter that the board of supervisors’ attempt today to have a private chat about the issue in closed session is illegal.

I think they are right.

The closed session listing – creating the appearance of legal cover to allow supervisors to talk about this issue privately – is dubious.

To be clear…I don’t care who gets the “lease” or contract to provide airport fuel at John Wayne Airport as long as taxpayers get good value in a manner that is safe and users get the best deal.

Process is what protects us all.

Under state law, supervisors can talk about a public lease in private session but it’s a very, very narrow exemption: only to talk about price and terms of payment of a real property asset.

I spoke about this situation with our First Amendment advocacy partners at CalAware and they were also suspicious.

“This sounds like more than a service contract or a license than a lease,” said our Public Records Consultant and CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke. “What real property interest is being bargained for?”

As usual, Terry asks great questions.

For those interested in the specific language of California’s Brown Act, here’s the relevant exemption language, which notes “a legislative body of a local agency may hold a closed session with its negotiator prior to the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease of real property by or for the local agency to grant authority to its negotiator regarding the price and terms of payment for the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease.”

I’m not sure how this qualifies for closed session as it’s really a service contract.

If county supervisors want to dump Signature Air, they should do it in public.

Transparency and accountability doesn’t just apply to people in jail cells or living near riverbeds.

The rule of law affects us all.

This was the message I took to a prestigious national gathering of media leaders last week in Miami, convened by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on the future of media.

The 10th annual gathering of the Media Learning Seminar – focused on how media can better connect to civics – featured the Voice of OC model as a leader in the area of non-profit news.

“Voice of OC is delivering strong local reporting that is keeping government and officials accountable to the people at a time when traditional reporting resources have been dwindling,” is how Knight’s Vice President for Journalism, Jennifer Preston, describes our efforts to national audiences.

Last week, upon returning from Miami, I also had the pleasure of engaging about accountability with the most talented local political, neighborhood and economics analysts you’ll ever find – local realtors.

Addressing Orange County’s new political reality at the great luncheon sponsored by the Association of Orange County Realtors at the Center Club in Costa Mesa, I was struck by how well local realtors understand and are involved in many of our county’s most challenging problems, such as addressing housing, homelessness and the systemic problems of property tax inequity for our county.

Realtors outwardly cheered the statement that our government has more than enough money but needs much more engagement and direction on how to spend it.

They get it. We all have to stay involved.

You know more than politicians about your communities and have a much truer stake in your future than they ever will.

Yet you need reliable information to get and stay involved.

Today, we’ve got a great example of engagement on our Op-ed pages with both Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker and Democratic Party Chairwoman Fran Sdao writing Op-eds on the future of our local political parties.

This week, Voice of OC also will continue to expand our civic training efforts working with County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery,  State Senator  Josh Newman and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Cal State Fullerton moderating a workshop, Accounting for Activists, on how to delve into public budgets to answer your most pressing questions about where your tax dollars are being spent.

And Thursday morning, I’ll be attending Chapman University’s annual conference on the future of Orange County, where a series of great political scientists and smart influentials like Emile Haddad will once again tackle the problematic structure of our county government.

More and more, influential people across the political spectrum are arguing for the formation of some sort of super city to spur better, more engaged, government here in Orange County.

For the record, I am a big fan of county government as a regional leader – even though I have written in the past that county supervisors could be made part-timers given their lack of interest in the job and penchant for secrecy.

Yet when I spoke to Chapman Political Science Professor Fred Smoller about the conference, he reluctantly advised me that county supervisors had refused several invitations to come talk about the future.

It’s one sad state of affairs, when county supervisors consistently prefer to meet in private to talk about business, avoid engaging with the press or public and only show up for very scripted public interactions like ribbon cutting that are directly connected to their campaign coffers.

You’d think in a place like Orange County, they wouldn’t be so afraid of stepping outside into the sunshine.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Norberto, I call you out. In the last seven years, no fewer than a half dozen employees of HCA and SSA have come to you and your reporters, with boxes of documents, telling you of gross misconduct and fraud going on using privately owned Long Term Care and mental health facilities. They have shown you donations by these unscrupulous owners, federal lawsuits with proof of violence, abuse and fraud in these facilities, as well as harassment and forcing out of employees who spoke up and tried to stop this. They have shown you emails and other proof of falsification of federal reports and other documents intended to illegally obtain funds that the county was not entitled to. They gave you proof of misconduct and disbarrable offenses by County Supervisors, to avoid testifying under oath. They showed you articles written by legitimate news sources, giving proof of facilities being bought up by criminals linked to organized crime. This isn’t the word of a couple of disgruntled ex-employees, this has been proven. You ignore it. The reason is clear…you don’t mind swishing the waters around, but you are not about to rock the boat enough to have anyone really mad at you. You don’t want to ask the tough questions, like asking T-Rack and his guy Zimmons why the Grand Jury refused documents proving misconduct by County Supervisors. You didn’t want Toddykins or SeanBoy to refuse to chum up and talk to you. You want to look like a crusader, but you don’t want to really light any fires. Over and over and over and over, the fraud, misuse of tax dollars, violations of law and bar regulations, abuses and insane nepotism has been shown to you, and you look the other way. You don’t even ask the hard questions of anyone! So, no, cupcake, I’m sorry, but you don’t get to act like some kind of cultural renegade hero. Those who refuse to see, and who have the means to speak but are too scared to do so? Yeah, that is called cowardice. VoC is no news source…it is a tool used by the powers that be, to cover up their criminal conduct. Shame on you for letting that go on.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    With regard to the Supervisors going against the evaluation committee’s ranking of bidders for supplying fuel at OC Airport, there used to be a clause in the County Procurement Manual that required Supervisors to publicly state their reason (at the same time they voted to award)for going against the committee’s recommendation. To my disgust, I believe this stipulation has been removed from the current County Procurement Manual. Its removal allows the Supervisors to override the professional evaluation committee’s recommendation without having to publicly justify their reason for overriding the recommendation. What this allows the Board to do is award the contract to either 1)the bidder with the most influential lobbyist (who also raises campaign funds for the Sups), or 2) the company that makes frequent campaign contributions to them. One guess as to why this clause has been removed.

    • OCservant_Leader

      This ain’t brain surgery.

  • kburgoyne

    Not really the main thrust of your comments, but I couldn’t help but wonder why the BoS is even directly involved in who provides fuel to private aircraft at John Wayne. It seems like a decision that airport managers, who presumably know something about managing airports (as distinct from managing, for example, a museum), should be the point for.

    If airport managers cannot be trusted to decide on the best source of aircraft fuel for private aircraft at John Wayne, why do they even have the job? Why don’t we just have the BoS report to John Wayne every day to start handling day-to-day operations? (Ut oh, that could actually mean having to do some constructive REAL work.)

    The managers should be ultimately accountable to the BoS, and so they should report their decision to the BoS. The BoS can then start expressing “concerns” about the decision. Maybe put it on hold while they investigate it further. However since the managers are presumably the experienced professionals, it really should be the obligation of the BoS to present some detailed analysis of why the decision would be wrong before injecting themselves.

    Then if it actually is wrong, certainly retaining the managers or replacing them would be the next thing up for consideration. If the BoS makes all the decisions about airport operations, how precisely does one go about deciding if the airport managers are worth their pay or not?

    The president of UPS doesn’t concern himself first-hand with where the truck fleet gets its fuel from. The president delegates that duty and then reviews the decision. And in that case, the president of UPS knows a LOT more about operating a fleet of trucks than does the BoS know about fueling aircraft.

    This all is very suspiciously about how politicians want to retain control over decision making that can result in soliciting campaign bribe money.

    I remember reading a few years back about an interesting little thing that happens in the US congress, often regardless of which party is in control. When it comes to new rules and regulations, often even if the party in control is typically favorable toward enacting or repealing or whatever, the rule or regulation, the enactment or repeal will still only be done for a limited time period.

    Why wouldn’t the party that favors the change want to just make it permanent? Because they know they can solicit more campaign bribe money from that industry when the time comes for the enactment/repeal to be renewed. Basically, why sell a new law to your campaign bribers when you can lease the new law to them instead?

    Now I’m not saying that is or is not what’s happening in the case of the fuel. I’m only saying the very fact the BoS has itself in the middle of a decision like this immediately raises the question: Why isn’t it delegated, reviewed, and typically just rubber-stamped if the airport managers are doing their job?

    As an additional note, why didn’t somebody just ask the main customers (those operating private aircraft out of John Wayne) what they want IN THE FIRST PLACE? There are PLENTY of reasons why those customers might not actually want the lowest bidder. Two of which would be fuel grade reliability and quality of service delivering the fuel to the aircraft. If you’ve got enough money to own and operate an aircraft, your first concern is not necessarily about pinching the last penny. Paying for service and reliability probably ranks a bit higher on your list than for somebody who can barely make their car payments.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Ah – you have stumbled on the joys of being a Manager at the OC. They will pull the rug out from under you and back the bus over any silly “professional ethics” you may have faster than you say “organized crime”.

      If you don’t enjoy getting a phone call from the 5th floor at the eleventh hour telling you to reverse your “professional judgment” – and make it look good- then you won’t last long at OC. There are plenty of swarmy GED types who are happy to fix procurements as you exit.

      • Jacki Livingston

        Ah, but the GED kids all take classes with University of Phoenix, so they can look edumacated, nonchaknow? *eyeroll* I remember an email I got from one such superstar darling of the elite, who sold cocaine out of his office, when I asked why we were ignoring blatant evidence of fraud in Food Stamp applications. I told him we had a responsibility to the taxpayers of the county to protect their money and not waste it, and to stop fraud, and he said that the taxpayers of the county were no concern of County employees, and that they would pay what they were told. Charming…he is now making six figures and I was forced out.

        • LFOldTimer

          I bet the welfare fraud in OC has gone viral. The GJ did a report on it a few years ago and it was a real eye opener. I suspect nothing has changed. Most or all of it is Federal or State money – so why would the county supervisors care? IF they can show a need (even though it may be a fraudulent need) it means more revenue coming in – and bigger budgets for their departments.

          • Jacki Livingston

            Precisely. Managers have their pay and bonuses tied to the federal funds that pour in. We used to be told every month what numbers to cook up, for our monthly and quarterly reports. It was fiction…at its best. Now that the nursing homes are kicking back money to the County bigwigs, and obviously the DA, it is a real cash cow. Nursing home care is 5-35 grand a month, and if a nursing home can double or triple bill for each patient? Big bucks. Not to mention, nursing home care is one of the three forms of Medicaid that illegal immigrants can get. In fact, I had tons of cases where families brought granny or gramps up or in just to put them in a nursing home, because the state will pay for it, even if they are illegal, and we were encouraged to tell families that. Biiiiiig bucks, there, kids.

  • Rose Tingle

    Wow! Unfortunately truer words were never spoken “It’s one sad state of affairs, when county supervisors consistently
    prefer to meet in private to talk about business, avoid engaging with
    the press or public and only show up for very scripted public
    interactions like ribbon cutting that are directly connected to their
    campaign coffers.”
    For eight years, the county representatives have been meeting monthly on site at the county’s 75 year old animal shelter with contract city representatives, mostly assistant city managers while all the while the Orange County Grand Jury was issuing damning reports about the conditions and services of the shelter. No minutes were taken and the public was banned from attending. These “secret” meetings are still operating. Over a year ago, animal activists requested oversight at the shelter and requesting public admittance to the “secret” meetings and have been denied. We need a coalition, committee or board, made up of city and county representatives AND animal activists who know about animal welfare and care about animals to allow collaboration so that the disgraceful conditions at the county animal shelter will never happen again and animals are cared for properly. Orange county is so far behind on this issue it is embarrassing and a disgrace.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Not surprising. A senior manager at SSA told me that the County Supervisors did the same with SSA, handling issues with the agency in secret monthly meetings onsite. Used to be done at the CRO office, but since that is the one that primarily deals with homeless populations, they moved it to the new office on Katella, because no clients are allowed there. Seems that Spitzer couldn’t handle the smell.

  • LFOldTimer

    Norberto – why isn’t Susan Price mentioned in any of the blogs that reference the homeless problem? Wasn’t she anointed as our Homeless Czar? Is she on Leave of Absence or something? Why don’t you interview her on this latest scandal? Maybe you could arrange a 2fer by doing a duo interview with Price and Rusty Kennedy. Are they even returning your phone calls? We are paying very generous compensations to those 2 people to find solutions to problems affecting the homeless. Is it possible for our media to put some pressure on them? Thanks.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Because he just might get answers he has to actually print? Nothing scares him more than an answer to a question he doesn’t want to hear.

  • David Zenger

    “The closed session listing – creating the appearance of legal cover to allow supervisors to talk about this issue privately – is dubious.”

    The item may very well have included a lease of some real property at JWA (I have no idea although I suspect it’s a service agreement that includes a license), but even if it were a lease, the issue wasn’t negotiation, the issue was choosing a lessee – and that discussion should have taken place in public.

    P.S. if it is a lease I certainly hope Signature has been paying their Possessory Interest Tax all these years.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Everything these corrupt clowns do is dubious…at best. They will go out of their way for their own war chests, and will do nothing for the benefit of citizens. Bottom line, the taxpayer is the last concern that they have.