Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Nothing seems to bug Orange County supervisors more than being forced to listen to regular folk.

Sitting at a comfortable meeting dais, twice a month, and actually listening to a handful of taxpayers, in person, droning on and on about their government or God forbid actually complaining for a few minutes, here and there throughout their public meeting, really irritates them.

Indeed, after covering the board of supervisors for more than a decade, I can objectively say they truly hate public comment.

In recent years, supervisors have continued to fiddle with the public comment period, placing one restriction or adjustment after another, moving it all over the meeting – all with the aim of getting the pesky public out of the way as fast as possible.

They’ve seemingly put much more attention and energy into restricting public comment in recent years than their homelessness policies, which shows by the sea of people still camping out at the civic center and the Santa Ana riverbed.

This past week, newly inaugurated Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do gave his chairmanship it’s own new mark by immediately going after…you guessed it, public comment.

Now, instead of having the public come to the meeting at a time certain – the start of meetings at 9:30 a.m. – Do moved the comment period back to the end of the meeting, which is nearly impossible to plan for given that supervisors break in the middle of the day for a closed session and it’s virtually impossible to know when they come back for open session.

I bet general public comment takes a dive.

And I’m sure that’s the goal, sad as that is to report.

The most ironic part is of this change is that the handful of public gadflys who regularly attend every meeting, and irritate supervisors, will still be there.

They will always be there.

But the regular public, they will likely get lost in the shuffle.

Ironically, last fall, supervisors moved public comment to the start of the meeting – also ostensibly to get it out of the way – but an analysis by the county clerk found that the time-certain placement of public comment at the start of the meeting did actually result in more public comment.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer publicly challenged Do on this aspect of the change last week, mentioning the clerks’ study and noting it was the main benefit seen in last year’s changes. Spitzer’s questioning visibly irritated Do.

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Again, it seems public comment is the last thing county supervisors want to listen to.

I understand why.

It’s totally unscripted and often messy.

It’s the same reason reporters love it.

Heck, I never leave a meeting before public comment.

Take for example, a meeting of the county supervisors this past month where homeless activist Mohamad Aly got up and directly challenged Spitzer over his public statements regarding the homeless encampments along with riverbed.

Now at the end of his speech, Aly paused, looked right at Spitzer and said, Fuck you.

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The video buzzed all around Orange County political circles.

After Aly uttered his profanity, Do really got irritated, saying those kinds of comments would not be tolerated.

This week, Do came back and imposed his restrictions.

Now, courts have upheld local bodies’ rights to limit time periods for public comment and have even backed rules of conduct.

But come on.

The public should always get a wide lane when it comes to speech and the courts have also been pretty clear about that.

There’s a reason the very first thing the founders did was to declare that Congress would make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.

That’s the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

It’s important to have the common person have their fair say in front of their government, even if it isn’t always stated in perfect grammar.

Hey, even experienced politicians sometimes lose it in the midst of debate.

Take again, Supervisor Do.

This past week, after a visibly shaken Do had finished a nasty public debate with Supervisor Spitzer over public comment, I could swear that he could be heard on his microphone, letting one rip before moving on to the next item.


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