Santana: Phantom Government

Supervisors' Chairwoman Michelle Steel (left) speaks with a sheriff's special officer just before issuing her order to clear the board room. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Since winning office in 2014 the only thing I’ve seen Orange County Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel really do on her own is clear a room.

Last week, when publicly challenged by homeless advocate Mohammed Aly about the Board of Supervisors’ response to homelessness in Orange County from the public speakers podium, Steel chose to shut down the whole meeting – even apparently ordering  journalists be cleared from the room, clearly violating the state’s public meeting laws in our opinion.

Reporters have the right in California to record someone being removed from a meeting. It’s there to protect both the government agency and the protestor because it allows an independent set of eyes to observe and record what is happening.

Yet that independent set of eyes is increasingly coming under attack, mainly from nervous politicians trying to insulate themselves from accountability.

For example, Orange County officials are denying public access to video of the confrontation between Sheriff’s deputies and Aly, again in flagrant violation of the state’s open meetings and public records laws as we see them.

Our reporters tried to have the Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors explain the rationale behind having reporters threatened with arrest for doing their job on Tuesday but, as usual, Steel declined to engage.

It’s the latest in a disturbing trend amongst Orange County elected officials, one that is fueling a phantom local government, operating in the shadows — most often those cast by campaign contributions from special interests.

Today’s professional politicians, like Steel, often avoid press interaction or issuing any kind of official statements at all.

They largely stick behind county counsel secret opinions, opting to hide public records wherever and whenever possible. Their aim seems to be avoiding triggering any kind of public record at all…while collecting tons of lucrative government benefits and preaching wonderful fiscally conservative values, at least in Orange County.

In the case of Steel – who has hardly any connections to her district – the strategy should catapult her straight into Congress, where she is expected to replace Dana Rohrabacher.

Now I totally get why politicos like Steel, who is apparently very nice on a one-to-one basis but doesn’t have much to say in public, would prefer to skate by.

Yet as a local news agency, Voice of OC journalists are committed to holding our local elected officials accountable, no matter the cost, even when it means risking being arrested as our county correspondent, Nick Gerda, had to deal with last week when Steel decided to clear the room of activists, and apparently reporters.

Note that it was just a few months ago that Supervisor Todd Spitzer was trying to have county lawyers depose me in court because Voice of OC challenged an official denial of public records related to his citizens arrest of an evangelist while armed at a local Wahoos restaurant.

Judge Walter P. Schwarm effectively quashed that bullying attempt on Voice of OC and upheld the California Reporters Shield Law (which protects sources) last December when he ruled against the County of Orange.

Today, Voice of OC is headed back into Schwarm’s court to fight the County of Orange over their notion that they can conduct government in secret.

Spitzer is essentially championing the concept that politicians are like rock stars and they need to be able to riff, be creative, with county (ie: taxpayer-funded) staff and resources in private in order to produce the best policy.

Thus, Spitzer and county attorneys argue the email exchanges Spitzer had with a county public information officer – about the incident where he handcuffed an evangelist while armed – should remain totally private.

We disagree.

We believe our state constitution’s transparency protections, recently strengthened by voters through Prop. 59, stand in steadfast opposition to Spitzer’s notion.

Indeed, the preamble to the state’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, says it all.

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. 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 governing bodies they have created.”

In a previous hearing on the issue, Schwarm indicated he was likely to grant a series of public records to Voice of OC but asked for more time to consider briefings on recent California Supreme Court decisions that were aimed at making politicians’ private emails accessible.

Again, the key conflict here is simple but age-old.

Politicians often want to make official policy but be shielded from public criticism.

Once again, we disagree.

County supervisors – who are paid six-figure salaries plus Cadillac-style health care plans, gold-plated retirement benefits and luxurious car bonuses – should be able to stand in front of the public that pays their salary and engage.

Yet in order to truly facilitate that engagement with the public, local government needs to offer a real inside peek at how the sausage is made, which is what the state’s open meeting laws intended.

That might often turn up ugly stuff, and offend people like Steel or Spitzer.

Yet accepting anything less is embracing phantom government.