Santana: We Won!

Nick Gerda, Norberto Santana, Jr. and Tracy Wood show off their awards from the OC Press Club awards contest. Photo by Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC

We won.

We all won.

These past few weeks, Voice of OC achieved some really special wins.

Out on the front lines of First Amendment defense, our amazing litigator, CalAware’s Kelly Aviles earned us all a key victory in Orange County Superior Court after a lengthy and costly public records lawsuit.

Soon, we will get to see an aborted Op-ed written by County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and the email traffic between him and former County Public Information Officer Jean Pasco that ultimately killed it’s publication.

The Op-ed was Spitzer’s take on his bizarre handcuffing and citizens’ arrest of an evangelist while armed on Good Friday back in 2015 after walking the stations of the cross. Sheriff’s deputies ultimately freed the evangelist yet questions remain about Spitzer’s actions that day.

Voice of OC sought public records about the incident. County officials scrambled, as they usually do, to protect their own and withheld documents using flimsy legal arguments.

We stood up to them and challenged their denial in court.

Thanks to Aviles’ effective legal briefs as well as her inspiring advocacy in front of Judge Walter P. Schwarm over the course of more than a year, our newsroom was able to defend a fundamental notion of California’s open records laws.

The public is in charge of our government. It’s not the other way around.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer has led his colleagues and the County of Orange through a reckless and ruthless legal strategy designed to do nothing more than protect his own interests and enhance government secrecy.

Press attacks – in the form of attempted depositions of me for challenging the county on a public record denial, a direct assault on California’s Shield Law – also became part of Spitzer’s defense to disclosure.

Schwarm clearly stood up for press rights and rejected the County’s legal arguments for the unprecedented, not to mention bizarre, action of attempting to depose a reporter on a public records case.

The saddest part of this lengthy affair is that Spitzer’s colleagues on the County Board of Supervisors helped him shield disclosure – knowing that the costs to taxpayers could easily be a six-figure amount.

What kind of fiscal stewardship is that?

Even more stomach turning is the fact that Orange County’s Board of Supervisors are on the record officially backing the troubling concept, that their communications with government bureaucrats should be shielded from the public.

What must they all be hiding?

It’s a sad standard for our county and something that every civic leader should be questioning them about.

To save civic leaders the time, county supervisors should take out time at the next public meeting during their board comments and tell the public what motivated their vote to waste taxpayers’ money. Now that Judge Schwarm’s decision has been filed, it would also be nice for supervisors to let the public know whether they agree with his reading of the law.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, to his credit, publicly spoke out against Spitzer’s attack on free press rights - unlike the rest of his colleagues - calling the action fundamentally Un-American.

Yet Nelson did stand by his colleagues’ vote to defend the case, essentially allowing Spitzer to rent out County Counsel Leon Page and his staff to advance lame legal theories and recklessly run up taxpayers’ legal bills.

So in case you didn’t know it, just add free lawyers for lame cases to the mountain of pay and benefits – like the Cadillac car allowances and platinum pensions – that every county supervisor is currently entitled to.

All funded by Orange County taxpayers.

Yet thanks to our strong courts, the Orange County Board of Supervisors are not our Kings and Queens.

We as citizens can challenge official stupidity.

And win.

We just have to stand up and fight.

After seven years at this, I can report back to you that my own commitment as Publisher, as well as that of our board of directors and our entire newsroom and legal team is as strong as ever to hold our politicians accountable.

We will continue to aggressively and effectively defend our collective First Amendment rights as a newsroom, and work to ensure that access to public records in Orange County is guaranteed for not just reporters but all members of the public.

Yet it’s not just Judge Schwarm who is taking Voice of OC’s side.

This past Monday night, I was humbled to receive the OC Press Club Award’s David McQuay Award for Best Columnist across all mediums, for my series highlighting the homeless crisis at the downtown Santa Ana civic center and the establishment of the Courtyard Transition Center in what was an abandoned bus terminal.

Our county reporter, Nick Gerda, also earned a second place in Public Affairs over his story on skyrocketing suicide rates in Orange County and Tracy Wood earned a third place in Investigative coverage for her campaign finance coverage.

When I took over a county Metro column two years ago after assuming the mantle of Publisher, I swore to myself that I would use this civic space to call out bullshit as forcefully as I could and to hold our local governments to the highest standard.

I had never written a column before but just tried to stay focused on connecting the dots for readers on government fraud, waste and abuse as best I could and find a voice.

As I saw the homelessness situation exploding at the civic center, as well as the inaction of our county supervisors, I wrote to expose the situation.

You responded as citizens. You called on them to address change. They did.

Today, nearly 500 sleep under the roof of the former bus terminal each night. Many have transitioned into permanent supportive housing.

This past Monday, the judges all agreed.

We all won.

Yet many challenges still remain.

Just on homelessness, consider that today, large homeless communities are still camping out at the riverbed near Angels Stadium and out in front of Orange County’s Superior Court complex.

County supervisors keep ignoring the immediacy of this crisis in front of them.

Time to get back to work.