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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The Blue Wave that crushed the GOP’s historic dominance of Orange County’s civic life this past November was easily the story of the year.
The wave, which actually arrived in sets, each day, over the course of several weeks just after Election Day, took out longtime GOP stalwarts like 30-year incumbent and now former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher along with former Congresswoman Mimi Walters and former state assemblywomen Diane Harkey and Young Kim.
In their place, meet your new members of Congress, Harley Rouda, Katie Porter, Gil Cisneros and Mike Levin – all Democrats.
Yet, as I wrote in my column just after Election Day, the results weren’t just about party, they were about hustle.
Candidates, like our new District Attorney Todd Spitzer, that got out there and connected with voters, they won. Incumbents who sat back and relied on the inside game, endorsements, slate mailers and mail…they lost.
Voice of OC journalists – led by our Civic Editor Tracy Wood and including staff writers like Nick Gerda, Thy Vo, Spencer Custodio and intern Brandon Pho – were ahead of the story all year long, starting back in the primaries. We even partnered with the New York Times to publish polling on the congressional races – polling which turned out to be pretty accurate.
When the wave hit in November, our newsroom was ready – with daily updates along with solid enterprise stories on results and trends.
Check out the Election Archive, which chronicles the newsroom’s amazing reporting journey this year.
Our Involvement Editor, Theresa Sears also had our Opinion section ready for the election, with a steady outreach effort to every campaign in Orange County, which ultimately offered our readers very diverse perspectives to consider during the election season.
You can check out this year’s great conversation about OC civic life on our Opinion page.
We also had a great response to the On OC podcast from candidates and listeners, with every single winning campaign in the congressional races showing up for an interview on our election podcast series.
Our Development Director, Meg Waters, also pitched in on engagement, helping organize a really popular event with Chapman University and the New York Times in late October that gathered top journalists, academics, students and the public to talk through the coming elections and issues that would play out.
And our Digital Editor, Sonya Quick pioneered many of the pages I’ve been pointing you toward as readers, archiving our entire election coverage and assembling all sorts of daily and enterprise graphics on everything from voter turnout to campaign finance, along with working with our amazing photographer Julie Leopo who captured truly iconic images of a historic election process.
As reporters, we knew the focus this year had to be on Election Day.
We were right.
This election cycle, our website traffic exploded, with a 180 percent increase in visitors from the last election season in 2016.
All of our planning and preparation in 2017 as a newsroom paid off.
Now, that’s largely thanks to our donors, who have really put us in position as a news staff to focus like a laser – every day, every week, every month, every year – on Orange County’s civic life.
Yet watchdogging civic life means much more than just covering elections.
As a newsroom, we really push ourselves to focus on stories that matter as opposed to those that generate web clicks.
That’s why we exist as a nonprofit newsroom.
We tackle tough, difficult issues, like homelessness, on a consistent basis in a way that other news outlets can’t.
Voice of OC is all about impact.
And this past year, our newsroom has been acknowledged from every corner – including from the dais of federal court – as a leader on homelessness coverage that has led to real action.
Our enterprising county beat reporter, Nick Gerda, set the county agenda on homelessness early this year, publishing an astonishing enterprise story in March that informed Orange County that county supervisors were sitting on more than $230 million tax dollars that could have been used to combat the explosion of homelessness.
At the same time that homelessness was exploding around the county.
Days after Nick’s story was published, Judge David O. Carter was pointing to his article from the dais of the federal district court in Santa Ana, asking tough questions about why the County of Orange was stockpiling funds aimed for the streets.
Minutes after Carter’s questioning, County Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do publicly admitted that county government leaders had failed the public and committed to steering more than $70 million to permanent supportive housing, something his colleagues later endorsed in a formal vote.
Gerda’s story, one of the most read of the year, really set the stage for a much-needed public conversation by elected officials, a re-examination of where public resources are being invested to help vulnerable people.
Our entire staff has jumped into the homelessness crisis all year long, publishing regularly throughout as Carter oversaw the evacuation of makeshift tent towns along the Santa Ana riverbed and continued prodding Orange County leaders to follow the U.S. Constitution throughout the entire process.
It’s been a tough year, watching failed experiments in housing people in motels and a lack of progress – especially in South County – around direct relief for people who find themselves on the streets.
While county supervisors have done more than ever to redirect funds toward issues like mental health and social services, they still have a long way to go.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the absolute lack of relevance of the board of supervisors – when it comes to county operations, raising the question whether they should go part-time, especially since they only meet part-time these days.
Their absence on their main job – social services and health care – is the central reason for the explosion in homelessness.
On this same front, earlier this year, I publicly raised the question whether it was time to consider a different agency for administering housing funds for vulnerable populations.
County supervisors just haven’t historically steered their attention into social services and health care. I think it’s largely because they haven’t seen a campaign connection. Political endorsements from Deputy Sheriffs and Firefighters, in turn, almost always win elections for candidates as they often come with large amounts of supportive election mail.
That’s why, within a matter of months earlier this year, activists and business leaders – led by the efforts of the Association of California Cities, Orange County and activists like Mohammed Aly – coalesced around the idea of AB448, which sets up a housing trust that, as I see it, diverts money away from the board of supervisors and keeps it dedicated to permanent supportive housing.
I see the bill, which was adopted faster than anything I’ve ever seen in legislative circles especially for something as radical as creating a new public agency, as a direct rebuke of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
It’s an acknowledgement by state legislators that county supervisors just won’t move fast enough to deal with the human drama that’s been developing right outside their front door over the past decade.
Note that more than 200 people died on the streets this year, awaiting a solution.
Check out our full archive of our homelessness coverage.
The homelessness crisis also has really put a focus on the deep skew in public funding toward law enforcement as opposed to treatment and housing – especially when it comes to dealing with people who are mentally ill.
A UCI study concluded that local politicians in Orange County had totally overspent on homelessness by hundreds of millions – mainly by overspending on police agencies while simultaneously avoiding investments that would spur a civil society infrastructure capable of treating and housing vulnerable people.
At the same time, the spiraling costs of public safety pensions is beginning to force a re-examination of public sector budgets – with another one of the most popular stories of the year focusing on how numerous cities opted for sales tax increases to keep up with their rising pension obligations.
Another one of the year’s most read stories revolved around the City of Irvine and plans to exit from the Orange County Fire Authority – set up after the 1994 bankruptcy to provide regional fire services. After decades in existence, Irvine’s exit could cause the system to collapse.
While the soaring costs of law enforcement continue to draw scrutiny, this year headlines in Orange County also continued to focus on ethical breaches by Sheriff’s and District Attorney officials regarding constitutional violations in the jail system.
Last year, it was the illegal use of jailhouse snitches – an issue that resonated in this year’s District Attorney’s race given that serious criminals went free because of ethical breaches by Sheriff’s and DA officials.
Mid-year, it also came out that the local jails have been improperly recording inmate phone conversations with their attorneys – creating another instance of systemic constitutional violations by the Sheriff and DA.
Throughout all of these scandals, our reporters have stayed in the trenches – often times the only ones monitoring key hearings, listening to key testimony, writing down and publishing what they see.
Without their work, many of us would have never known as much about the jailhouse snitch scandal or the ongoing controversy over illegal recording of inmate phone conversations with attorneys from inside the jails.
Just this month, Gerda posted a story from a court hearing where Sheriff and DA officials acknowledged that department officials knew earlier than they’ve said publicly about the illegal recordings.
Thy Vo also sat through a multitude of day-long hearings throughout the jailhouse snitch scandals, publishing critical detailed coverage that allowed residents and key oversight agencies to stay informed.
Fraud, Waste, Abuse
Often times, our reporters are also called on to confront powerful institutions, question powerful people.
Even question the Auditor himself.
One of our most popular stories this year revolved around Auditor Controller Eric Woolery and allegations by a former employee that public workers were asked to babysit his kids and drive them around town, a charge that Woolery vehemently denied. In another one of our most popular stories, county supervisors went after Woolery as well, removing a host of auditors from his direct supervision, a move Woolery protested.
Our reporter, Spencer Custodio, also drew the ire of an Anaheim police officer this year, in another one of our top stories, when he photographed the officer conducting a traffic stop involving homeless people.
Yet Anaheim officials declined to discuss specifics of how the incident was investigated or what conclusions were reached.
So much for the happiest place on earth.
Note this is the place that literally lights up working class neighborhoods on most nights with huge smoke plumes engulfing residents’ homes and public areas around the fabled resort.
Earlier this year, after I wrote a column about complaints in the neighborhood, city council members ordered a study. With a new, Disney-friendly, council majority, it will be interesting to see where the study of fireworks goes.
Another issue that triggered fireworks from the civic dais this year was immigration.
The Trump Administration’s approach to immigration triggered a reaction from California legislators, who sought to restrict local public agencies level of cooperation with federal immigration authorities in legislation known as SB54.
One of the most popular stories of the year came from the effort at many OC cities to adopt policies resisting state efforts to limit how local cities and the county cooperate with federal agencies on immigration.
In another popular story, reporter Spencer Custodio chronicled the tough family separation issues that arise in cities like Santa Ana impacted by federal policies on immigration.
I also directed a podcast on the issue with local elementary school kids, who participated in a summer-long reporting boot camp this past year, and were passionate about being heard on the intense national debate on immigration nation.
Quality of Life
Top ten lists can often be misleading but our collection of most popular stories tells you something very clear about our model, readers and impact.
Our coverage helps residents directly impact their quality of life.
And it’s free.
Keep in mind that readers can really help spur this kind of reporting this week by becoming donors – as any contributions before Dec. 31 get doubled by a national foundation effort to bolster local nonprofit news, called Newsmatch.
Here’s the top ten most-read and most-shared stories for 2018.
Top Viewed Articles
1. The Election The most-read aspects of our election coverage include: the four competitive Congressional districts, the district attorney race between Tony Rackauckas and Todd Spitzer, campaign finance investigations – especially in dark money, the OC sheriff contest, election guides and the council races in Santa Ana and Anaheim.
2. Homelessness Another intensely-read aspect of our coverage revolved around homelessness, including the public discussions about where to build shelters including protests, each step of the Judge Carter hearings, bans on RV parking and interactions between police and the homeless.