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.

  • Natali

    i am sure that Todd Spitzer is doing a good job they are trying to make him look dirty but the reality is Tony is the one questionable.

    • verifiedsane

      Another Toad Spitter for DA fake supporter campaign account……Does this complete moron believe he’s fooling anyone using these sleazy tactics…Toad is just a bad T-REX clone, lacking any integrity, ethics, character, or moral substance…

  • Cynthia Olalou

    Shame on voice for wasting tax dollars. If they had the docs they should’ve released and moved on.
    Again. Norberto needed to create a govt secrecy crisis to claim hero status for fundraising purposes and to elevate his own self importance.
    Clear example of fake news AND fake journalist

    • verifiedsane

      Another fake endorsement Toad Spitter campaign account…the depths of debauchery and unethical methods this sleazy political animal will stoop too; thoroughly demonstrates to everyone the lack of character, honesty, and integrity Todd Spitzer would bring to the DA’s office..

  • Minorca Wagi

    The county was right all along. This was just a fundraising ploy to aid a financially struggling news blog. Santana made this all up as a fundraising hoax.
    He now reveals the emails were leaked from the outset. He always had them. And they showed nothing.
    Spitzer didn’t even know who the person was until 8 months after the incident.
    He had nothing to do with the termination.
    Clearly the individual was beyond unstable which led to his own termination.
    Too bad liberal journalists don’t believe in personal responsibility.
    Santana is not a real journalist so no wonder he was asked to leave the oc register.

    • verifiedsane

      Yet, another fake endorsement Toad Spitter campaign account…Does Toad stay up nights making this foolishness up? The depths
      of debauchery and unethical methods this sleazy political animal will
      stoop too; thoroughly demonstrates for everyone the total lack of character,
      honesty, and integrity that Todd Spitzer would bring to the DA’s office..

  • Daniel Lamb

    How did Noberto Santana go from advising Supervisor Spitzer on this “scandal” to suing the county for records (when he presumably could have just asked the Supervisor, his ally-in-fact), and now asking the Supervisor’s competitors (mas o menos) to foot the bill? Please explain.

    This raises the specter of embezzlement. The real winners here are Voice of OC’s attorneys, Voice of OC’s paymasters and Noberto Santana. (you were compensated bro; this is what you are paid to do lol)

    Nevertheless, you raise an interesting issue. Do you have an indemnity clause in your employment agreement? Are you saying the county should do away with them?

    • verifiedsane

      That’s a interesting new angle that hasn’t been considered….do you have any evidence to share that would validate these claims/allegations?

      • Daniel Lamb

        I don’t believe I made any claims. I just feel it is essential that we entertain the possibility that the parties at issue are not operating in good faith. For me, it comes down to two facts: Supervisor Spitzer’s contacts with Noberto Santana and this organization’s funding/purpose. I believe it is more than appropriate to label the situation a specter.

        And yes, I am quite curious about the indemnity issue and the… distribution… of liability among county officials, employees, contractors and agents.

        The fact that taxpayers are forced to pay for these shenanigans is, frankly, obscene.

        • verifiedsane

          Noberto Santana was the one that brought to light the OCR editor’s shenanigans with Todd Spitzer http://voiceofoc.org/2016/03/how-the-oc-registers-editor-bowed-to-pressure-from-a-prominent-politician/ so I’m just wondering how you derived this statement “How did Noberto Santana go from advising Supervisor Spitzer on this “scandal” to suing the county for records (when he presumably could have
          just asked the Supervisor, his ally-in-fact), and now asking the
          Supervisor’s competitors (mas o menos) to foot the bill?”

          • Daniel Lamb

            That’s not how I recall the unfolding of events. But it should be noted that this organization’s use of the information it collects, whether through misfeasance or malfeasance, is selectively misleading. Perhaps Mr. Santana will get the chance to set the record straight during a deposition or something.

          • verifiedsane

            The suit had already been ruled upon & settled…there is no appeal….so there won’t be a deposition or something…I guess you could ask nicely for Norberto to explain his actions or lack there of here…he has occasional responded it the past!

          • Daniel Lamb

            This is Orange County; there will always be occasions suitable for depositions! Eventually, we will stumble upon the truth.

          • verifiedsane

            I’m just not buying into your non-evidenced speculation….it just makes no rational sense with what we do already know as fact. There also appears to be no dots in your reasoning that can be connected together that would substantiate the argument that you are presenting at this time.

  • Cynthia Olalou

    The county was right all along. This was just a fundraising ploy to aid a financially struggling news blog. Santana made this all up as a fundraising hoax.
    He now reveals the emails were leaked from the outset. He always had them. And they showed nothing.
    Spitzer didn’t even know who the person was until 8 months after the incident.
    He had nothing to do with the termination.
    Clearly the individual was beyond unstable which led to his own termination.
    Too bad liberal journalists don’t believe in personal responsibility.
    Santana is not a real journalist so no wonder he was asked to leave the oc register.

    • verifiedsane

      Thank you Toad Spitter dress wearing imposter & campaign headquarters puppet drone…your shared non-sense and silly lunacy have been duly noted, and filed under the campaign propaganda heading in the electronic round bin storage vessel… 🙂

  • Cynthia Olalou

    Spitzer is a hero. You don’t like admitting it. But he was honored by wahoos owners and employees for his calm and trained action

    • verifiedsane

      Toad Spitter received the plastic stale taco award for criminal brutality of innocent citizens (previously known as the skinny burrito cowardly bully award)…an honor with no doubt Toad now proudly displays in his tax payer funded den of political ill-repute…

  • Paul Lucas

    Im surprised T Rack didnt try to press charges on Todd over this incident of cuffing a guy while he was armed.

    • LFOldTimer

      Good point.

      That’s another enigma that will never see the light of day.

      A perfect opportunity (and a legitimate one at that) for T-Rack to take Todd down. Instead he let’s him off the hook. Hmmm.

      Very strange.

      Consider an ordinary citizen (w/o connections) in the same situation. He’s sitting in a fast food restaurant. Some Jesus freak approaches him and starts preaching. Of all the stuff on his table he imagines the preacher is looking at his plastic knife and infers he has evil thoughts of using it in a violent manner. The preacher appears groomed (clean shaven, normal haircut, bathed), is wearing normal clothing, is NOT talking to himself in the back of the patrol car, appears docile and totally cooperative with the responding officer. How did “mental illness” even enter into the discussion? To my knowledge preaching Christianity alone has not been deemed to be a symptom of mental illness in the psychiatric journals.

      Suddenly the ordinary citizen somehow believes the preacher is a danger to the community. He calls the police then retrieves his gun and handcuffs from his car. Instead of waiting for the police to arrive he returns to the restaurant and arrests (handcuffs) the preacher.

      The police officer arrives and determines the preacher broke no laws and sets him free.

      Is there any rational person out there who believes that an ordinary citizen (w/o connections) would NOT go directly to jail and get prosecuted for arresting (handcuffing) a man who a sworn police officer determined broke no laws?

      Dirty system.

      • verifiedsane

        Todd and T-REX are twin faces that both represent the same entrenched criminal oligarchy…There are no substantive differences…they both are little more than cleverly planted politically District Attorney’s office tools, representing a BoS criminal corruption insurance policy for the ruling oligarchs …all the nasty campaign rhetoric is mere illusionary window dressing and a diversionary propaganda tactic employed upon an ignorant and apathetic citizenry to make them believe they have some real choice, or that there are some actual fundamental differences between these two political hack clowns …while in reality there is none…they are both cut from the exact same corrupt batch of cloth..

        • LFOldTimer

          That’s why I’ve said over and over again:

          A vote for Todd is a vote for Tony.

  • zz

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I truly believe if BOS are held financially responsible this may curb their desire to be secretive…

  • David Zenger

    “However, we have other battles to fight.”

    Yes you do. And unfortunately because of the tepid Schwarm ruling you (and anybody else who makes a PRA request) will have to perpetually run the legal gauntlet of “privileged deliberative process”, an untested pile of BS cut out of whole cloth by County Counsel, and now given the stamp of approval by a judge.

    The fact that no documents about Boys Town might be responsive isn’t the point. The point is that almost any government embarrassment can now be defended as “privileged” and it will be up to a judge (a public employee) to pick and choose what gets disclosed – and you’ll have to sue the government to get that far.

  • verifiedsane

    Come on Norberto….this isn’t some balloons dropping from the ceiling victory…the real story and dirt was withheld by the court from the public….yet no appeal……tough journalist chase a story to it’s ultimate conclusion like a hungry dog going after a bone, not quit after a shallow and hollow victory…you may of got your legal fees back…but the people lost while being taken to the cleaners once again…I wouldn’t say this would be a time of boasting, and more of a time for serious self reflection. A partial victory, is really no victory at all. You may have just stepped to the side, and welcomed another sociopathic political animal into the DA’s office. Now that is the real story here after all.

    • LFOldTimer

      While I thank Norberto for challenging the county – I agree that the outcome was not very productive as far as exposing dirt on Spitzer. I believe the real dirt lies in the Boys Town communications that were withheld by the court. And I too am very disappointed that VOC failed to appeal the ruling that, according to the county spokeshole Carrie Braun, withheld 26 of the 30 emails that were originally requested by VOC.

      “County spokeswoman Carrie Braun noted in May that the judge “mostly agreed with the county’s position,” by releasing only four of the 30 emails Voice of OC had asked for.”

      http://www.ocregister.com/2017/08/09/orange-county-to-pay-news-publication-121k-in-lawsuit-over-spitzers-emails-about-citizens-arrest/

  • LFOldTimer

    Thanks for taking the county to the mat, Norberto. If nobody challenges the county when they violate the rights of the media and the public to access government documents it will only embolden them to do it more often and with greater resolve.

    The only way this problem gets solved for good would be for legislation to hold elected representatives personally & financially accountable for their decisions that violate the rights of the public. Since the politicians always circle the wagons for one another, the chances of that happening are about the same as the sun rising in the west tomorrow morning.

    Spitzer and the supes withheld the documents because they knew if they lost that only the taxpayers would get billed. Same with the public safety agencies. The cops violate the rights of others because they know the chances of getting fired for their wrongdoings are slim to none and that the taxpayers would have to pay for any negligence or malfeasance on their part. It’s a dirty system.

    Could you investigate how much the county spent on defending the lawsuit and report it? Hopefully you won’t have to file another lawsuit to get that information. But the public should know the TOTAL cost. Not just the cost awarded to VOC, After all, we paid it.

    I’m confused about the Boys Town communications. The county spokeshole said that the judge only released 4 of the 30 emails requested. Is that true? I assume that some of the emails were County-Boys Town communications. I think that’s where the smoking gun is hidden. The preacher boy was fired after the incident and after the County contacted Boys Town to discuss the contract outside the purview of the public. Very suspicious. I’m disappointed that VOC did not appeal the ruling to withhold documents related to the contract. Taxpayer money was used to fund that contract. If we paid for it – we should know all the details that were involved in the negotiations that culminated in the execution of the contract. That is CERTAINLY in the public’s interest.

    Any chance of tracking down the preacher boy and getting his reaction to the termination of his employment at Boys Town?

    Finally, this county is in a world of hurt if Spitzer is elected to be our DA. We are in desperate need of a viable 3rd candidate for that job.

    • David Zenger

      “Could you investigate how much the county spent on defending the lawsuit and report it?”

      Oh, dear me. That’s “attorney-client privilege” doncha know. More privilege for the government, less transparency for the folks who pay for it.

      • verifiedsane

        In OC, not a chance…..you are grossly underestimating the reach and scope of this ruling oligarchy….bible boy was threatened into silenced, and then ran out of town on rails by a powerfully employed political intimidation machine….

      • LFOldTimer

        “BTW, don’t you find it peculiar in the extreme that Bible Boy never hooked up with a lawyer?”

        Sure do.

        This story doesn’t pass the stink test on so many levels. None of it makes sense. I suspect there were so many secret deals cut behind closed doors that it would make Boss Tweed blush.