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.