Santana: Public Wins, Politicians Lose on Secrecy in OC

JEFF ANTENORE/Voice of OC

Wahoo's restaurant in Foothill Ranch.

County officials directly challenged me nearly two years ago to litigate their ridiculous notion that elected county supervisors get to communicate in secret with taxpayer-funded government bureaucrats.

So we did just that.

We stood up to official bullying and spent nearly two years in court pushing for the release of important public records in a controversy involving Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s handcuffing of a preacher at a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos restaurant in Foothill Ranch.

We won access to those records earlier this summer thanks to a favorable ruling by Judge Walter P. Schwarm.

This Tuesday, county supervisors also voted unanimously to pay our legal fees in the matter, which totaled more than $120,000.

It’s a shame that Orange County taxpayers have to pay this cost.

It should come out of the campaign coffers of each county supervisor, equally.

They all endorsed the reckless notion that they should be able to run our local governments in private.

They were wrong.

They should pay. Not the taxpayers.

I would challenge county supervisors at the next public meeting to offer a motion where they could voluntarily opt to reimburse the County of Orange for these types of legal costs – ie: when they lose a public records case.

State legislation also has been discussed that would levy a $5,000 fine on local governments when they are found guilty of illegally holding back legitimate public records.

It sure would be nice to be compensated for my time over the past years addressing this records issue as well as the hassle of litigation.

Taking into account the attorney costs of the County of Orange, taxpayers have probably spent more than a quarter million dollars on this litigation.

It’s the second case we’ve been forced to fight against the County of Orange as a newsroom since our founding in 2009.

It’s our second win.

Sadly, it probably won’t be our last.

Now, some have questioned why we didn’t challenge the court’s ruling preventing the release of email traffic about Supervisor Spitzer’s role in the holding up of a non-profit provider’s contract where the preacher also happened to work.

County officials crafted together some lame statement celebrating the fact that those records were kept secret, portraying their loss as a win by arguing that only a few of the records we sought were released.

I guess that’s how they want to define victory – after having taxpayers shell out a six-figure sum for our legal fees because their reckless legal theories got pummeled in court.

To be clear, we believe those withheld records are public and are confident we would win on appeal.

However, we have other battles to fight.

Most importantly, the emails in question – about the holding up of a Boys Town contract – have already been leaked.

Those emails clearly show that whatever conversations occurred - about holding up the Boys Town contract before Orange County supervisors voted for approval back in 2015 - they were done over the phone, old-fashioned style.

Now while county supervisors may not care about wasting local taxpayers’ money, I do.

We secured the documents that we filed this litigation for, an Op-ed where Supervisor Spitzer explained in his own raw and unedited words why he detained a preacher with handcuffs.

We also got the email traffic we sought between Spitzer and former County of Orange Public Information Officer Jean Pasco where she told him that his statements regarding the preacher could put him and the County in legal jeopardy.

We did our job.

We proved our point.

These kinds of communications are clearly public.

We have limited funds and many other legal battles to fight.

Right now, in Westminster we are challenging the city council’s laughable position that a claim filed by a former police chief alleging corruption is not a public document.

And regarding the County of Orange, we are nowhere near done.

We are currently considering filing litigation on county officials’ ridiculous notion that they get to keep all claims against the County secret.

Claims are clearly a public document under our state law.

Yet County of Orange officials are fighting that long held tradition.

They now hold back public claims – something I used to be able to look over raw as a reporter just a few years back – making it much more difficult to review them in real time.

It’s the kind of tactic designed to buy politicians time to respond when they’ve stepped in mud, usually of their own making.

For example, when several DA investigators recently filed a claim against their boss – again alleging official corruption – county attorneys redacted huge portions of the document, which we believe is clearly illegal.

Attorneys for the investigators later just gave reporters the same documents, which included the raw allegations.

This prompts the notion that the redactions made by county attorneys were driven much more by politics than law.

I think a judge would easily arrive at the same conclusion.

County supervisors are also attempting to keep secret a video that shows how they cleared a public hearing room after a few homeless activists challenged public comment rules earlier this year.

We are also considering challenging County officials’ position that reporters should be forced from a public room when an elected official wants the room cleared.

Under state law, we believe that reporters are allowed to document how people are treated leaving a room as long as they are not interfering with law enforcement personnel doing their job.

It’s critically important for our democracy that we have a press corps that isn’t just spoon fed information.

That means we have to look into what local officials actually do, not just what they say.

Raw documents allow us to do that, which is precisely why politicians fight disclosure.

It buys them time.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer insists that his actions on Good Friday 2015 – handcuffing a preacher who looked at him funny – were textbook law enforcement.

Sadly, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – whose budget is decided by Spitzer – backed him up publicly on that odd notion.

Her deputies also treated the preacher like he was wrong to talk publicly about God.

Yet public documents simply don’t back up that kind of approach toward the preacher.

Spitzer on the Sheriff dash cam recorder we heard isn’t clear on his thinking about his actions. His Op-ed on the issue also raises troubling questions about his judgment in the incident as well as his views toward the use of deadly force.

His own public information officer tells him he doesn’t have a very good public case for what he did.

In fact, her best advice is to buy the preacher coffee.

Now, it’s our job as journalists to stand up where others won't.

That’s especially why we exist as a non-profit newsroom in this era, to take on the tough battles and be consistent about civic accountability.

I don’t have any personal issue with Supervisor Spitzer and his actions here are best judged by each individual taxpayer and ultimately, voter.

At least now they have every public document they need to fully assess the judgment used in this incident by Spitzer, who is vying to be our next District Attorney.

We did our job.

We will continue to do so.

Vigorously.