Santana: Can Local Government Operate in Total Secrecy?

Happy Sunshine Week!

Leaders across the nation will spend this whole week focusing on the importance of open government to our democracy.

Indeed, it’s a great time to reflect on the sacrifices of our forefathers as well as those of so many veterans, citizens and activists over the past 200 years to keep our government accessible and hold it accountable.

It’s also a great time to recommit ourselves to open government.

Here in Orange County, the Voice of OC newsroom will mark the holiday in court.

About a year ago - again ironically during Sunshine Week - we filed suit for a series of emails between County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and a county public information officer about a bizarre incident where Spitzer handcuffed an evangelist while armed at a Wahoos’ restaurant on Easter Weekend.

When Sheriff’s Deputies showed up, they let the man go.

Yet questions regarding Spitzer’s judgment and actions remain.

The evangelist, who has avoided the press, was later also mysteriously let go from his job at Boys Town, coincidentally just as Spitzer held up contracts for the non-profit county contractor, eleven days after the incident.

And in an abrupt departure from standard policy on public records, county officials aggressively fought a series of straightforward Voice of OC requests about official email correspondence between top county executives and Spitzer concerning the incident and the Boys Town contract.

Looking into the emails was part of a due diligence process to ensure we as investigative journalists had taken every opportunity to examine independent documents that could shed light on this odd incident.

Keep in mind that Spitzer is a leading candidate to become the next District Attorney of Orange County.

Yet when Voice of OC asked for internal email traffic about Spitzer’s Wahoos incident – something we have done in the past and continue to do with success on other issues – county officials balked.

In this case, county executives, prompted by Spitzer, have developed an argument that internal email communications between county supervisors and taxpayer-funded public workers are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

Total secrecy.

That’s the new standard that County of Orange lawyers – funded with your tax dollars – want to enshrine here locally in their public arguments before Judge Walter P. Schwarm on Tuesday.

Yet note that the preamble to the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs the transparency of our civic life in our state, says it all about what the intent was in California back in 1953 when the law on access was enacted.

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Also keep in mind that voters also hardwired our right to know, right into our state constitution with the adoption of Prop 59 in 2004.

While Donald Trump’s loud attacks on the media have drawn significant concern on the national stage, here at home Orange County supervisors continue to wage a more discreet battle against freedom of the press and disclosure of public records.

If not overruled, the County’s position on the secrecy of internal email communications between elected officials and public employees could become the default position of all public agencies in California.

The California Supreme Court recently upheld public access rights, in its important case deciding that even records stored on private devices by public officials are disclosable public records.

In doing so, justices noted the great importance of the right to access public records.

“It is no answer to say…that we must presume public officials conduct official business in the publics best interest. The Constitution neither creates nor requires such an optimistic presumption. Indeed, the rationale behind the Act is that it is for the public to make that determination, based on information to which it is entitled under the law. Open access to government records is essential to verify that government officials are acting responsibly and held accountable to the public they serve.”

As journalists, we trust in this principle, and Tuesday, we will get to see whether it holds up under fire here in Orange County.