Santana: Most Popular News Columns on Orange County

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Reporter Norberto Santana Jr. interviews Supervisor Don Wagner.

While Voice of OC celebrated its decade anniversary in 2019, our biggest story of the year came from our readers, who this fall became donors in record numbers.

In all, our year-end Newsmatch fundraiser engaged about 350 donors, who altogether raised a record-breaking $131,000– well above our ambitious goal of $125,000.

These are savvy and civically-connected Orange County residents, who are also becoming the most forward thinking funders of nonprofit journalism in our nation, helping forge a new model of news coverage – focused on engagement not entertainment.

These residents understand the impacts that come from living in America’s largest Metro news desert – a landscape made even starker this past Thanksgiving when the OC Weekly was abruptly shut down.

Less reporters means less local news coverage on key quality of life issues like police accountability, homelessness, housing, traffic and the environment.

Yet judging from our rising readership and social media story share counts, our readers insist these issues remain high on their priority list.

Indeed, a look back at the most intense reader reactions to my Metro news column this past year clearly shows readers want a newsroom that can cut through official spin – getting them the feedback and information they need to protect their local quality of life.

One area where my columns have kept a popular focus is on homelessness, or more specifically on the official mishandling of the issue, with my most popular columns this year delving into mental health programs and quick re-housing efforts for people on the streets.

Yet my most popular columns continue to be the systemic oversight problems that keep challenging Orange County law enforcement.

Just as 2019 began, we were challenged as journalists to stand up for Orange County taxpayers and residents in the midst of a statewide debate over making police accountability records available for public review.

We did just that – successfully leading a media coalition in court to check an unprecedented effort by the Deputy Sheriff’s union – the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs – to shield law enforcement misconduct records.

Numerous news columns on the issue and legal advocacy had a real impact, not only winning on the issue but also securing attorney’s fees within months.

Had Voice of OC not been there in court, Orange County residents would be the only people in the state without such access.

By the end of the year, readers also really responded to a column on the widespread problems associated with an ongoing evidence booking scandal inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which raises disturbing questions about how well District Attorney Todd Spitzer and his predecessor Tony Rackauckas check law enforcement misconduct.

Many of the most popular columns of the year also came from the cities.

Readers connected with my early breakdown of Anaheim stadium negotiations, indicating the very one-sided approach from council members that went soft on the Angels and hard on taxpayers.

Our ensuing news coverage on stadium negotiations has ensured residents had useful, real time policy-focused coverage on a fast-tracked billion dollar land sale – a process that will continue to dominate headlines in 2020.

Out in Westminster, another popular column looked at whether city council dissidents were being unfairly targeted as communists.

Over in Brea, my column on questionable water dealings by city officials with a shadowy private/public water agency, Cal Domestic, also hugely resonated with readers.

In Newport Beach, readers totally connected with my campaign-finance breakdown of controversial bidding efforts to spike private air traffic at nearby John Wayne Airport.

Over in Santa Ana, my most popular column of the year looked at a pair of conservative city council members who have drawn a recall from a police union for blocking questionable salary hikes based on squishy math.

It looks as if the recall of City Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias was certified over the holidays and will move forward so I’ll get a chance to revisit that issue soon.

Now when Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery abruptly died later in the year, Voice of OC was the only newsroom to reveal that Woolery, a popular conservative activist elected official who co-sponsored numerous Accounting for Activist seminars with Voice of OC on public budgets, actually led a mystery life in Kansas for most of the year after county supervisors cut his budget and staff.

Readers hugely responded to my ensuing column noting that this is precisely why the calendars of elected officials should be made public – something that county supervisors continue to fight to this day.

Here are my most shared and most read editorials from last year — in chronological order.

Santana: Anaheim Stadium Deal Goes Easy on Angels, Hard on Taxpayers

Jan. 14 Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu is proposing this Tuesday to let the Los Angeles Angels out of a bad move this past November when owner Arte Moreno opted out of his stadium lease with nowhere to go. As a result, by this October, taxpayers will be sitting on a $1 billion asset with no restrictions on developing the 150-acre parking lot area around the stadium. Yet a proposal this Tuesday before the Anaheim city council would erase that potential and lock taxpayers into another lopsided, long-term negotiation with the Angels – who are probably leaving for Los Angeles anyway as their recent controversial renaming clearly implies. Read the Column »

The Orange County Sheriff seal.

Santana: Sheriff’s Union Seeks to Block Public Access to Misconduct Records

Jan. 17 Today, Voice of OC, Southern California Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times will go into court together to oppose a request by the Orange County Deputy Sheriff’s union to block release of misconduct records on use of force, sexual assault and lying while in office. Read the Column »

Santana: Orange County Touts New Community Model for Treating Mental Illness

Jan. 30 Orange County leaders this week unveiled a $40 million, 60,000 square foot mental health campus in Orange aimed at radically shifting regional homelessness spending away from local police and more toward mental health treatment. Read the Column »

Santana: County Supervisors Order Stand Down on Public Right to Know

Feb. 4 After County Counsel Leon Page takes a public stand on defending the public’s right to know about police records, county supervisors order a stand down. Media representatives such as the LA Times and So Cal Public Radio, led by Voice of OC, head back into court this Thursday to oppose the action. Read the Column »

Santana: California Publishers Gear Up for Battle Over Public Records Access

Feb. 7 Today, Voice of OC leads a media coalition in Orange County appearing before Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott to oppose a deputy sheriff union request to block public access to police misconduct records. While State Attorney General Javier Becerra and local elected officials have largely given way to local police unions fighting against the implementation of SB1421, this week news publishers from across the state attending the California News Publishers Association capital conference in Sacramento reasserted their strong support for the myriad of public records lawsuits being waged across the state as a media coalition. Read the Column »

Santana: New OC DA Wants To Make a Deal with Feds Ending DOJ Jailhouse Snitch Probe

Feb. 25 District Attorney Todd Spitzer is calling on federal authorities to end the DOJ probe into use of jailhouse snitches in Orange County and instead make a deal to institute reforms. Read the Column »

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department in Santa Ana.

Santana: Judge Orders Release of Deputies Misconduct Records

Feb. 28 Thanks to a decision by OC Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott, the people of Orange County can truly hold their law enforcement agencies accountable by having access to select misconduct records as authorized by state law. Voice of OC led a media coalition including the LA Times and Southern California Public Radio in the legal battle to protect Orange County citizens’ right to public records. Read the Column »

Santana: Let Them Play

Feb. 28 This Sunday, County of Orange officials plan to pull the plug on a five-year field agreement with a youth football and cheer team called the Fullerton Bears, which has drawn concern and protests from team parents and supporters. City of Fullerton officials are now in charge of the sports park on Rosecrans Avenue. Read the Column »

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Democrats watch results come in on election night for the March 2019 third supervisor race.

Santana: Has Orange County’s Blue Wave Crashed?

March 21 Orange County’s Blue Wave officially crested and crashed earlier this month during a Third Supervisorial District special election that actually saw Republicans outdo Democrats in terms of getting their voters out to the polls on Election Day. Read the Column »

Santana: Quick Housing Options Needed to Spur OC Homelessness Efforts

April 1 Federal District Judge David O. Carter checks in with the County of Orange and local cities this week to gauge progress on homelessness. Carter declared a public emergency earlier this year following the news that more than 200 homeless people died over the last year, just ahead of a scathing ACLU report on conditions at county shelters, which are overcrowded because of the lack of progress on establishing permanent supportive housing. Read the Column »

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Residents against expansion of John Wayne Airport attend the May 7, 2019, Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Santana: Given Campaign Cash for OC Supervisors, Newport Beach Residents Right to Worry About JWA Expansion Plans

April 22 Newport Beach residents are wary of expansion plans at John Wayne Airport to open a new private, executive jet terminal. While county officials says executive jets are a small part of revenues, a Voice of OC analysis of campaign filings shows a different nexus: campaign contributions to county supervisors from private jet contractors and their business associates. JWA expansion plans are up for approval next month by Orange County airport commissions on May 1 and by county supervisors on May 7. Read the Column »

Santana: Stage Set For ACLU Vs. County of Orange Fight Over Public Comment Rules

April 29 After years of protest, the ACLU heads into superior court next month against the County of Orange seeking a court injunction against restrictive public comment rules. The hearing is scheduled for June 12 at 10 am in Dept. C25 in front of Judge Sheila Fell. Read the Column »

Santana: Conservative Latino Elected Leaders in Santa Ana Earn a Recall They Can Be Proud Of

May 13 Independent Juan Villegas and Republican Cecilia Iglesias want more community investment from their city budget, opposing a police union push for a $25 million pay raise package. All of the Santa Ana Democrats on the city council back police pay raises. Villegas and Iglesias now face recall. Read the Column »

Santana: OC Sheriff Don Barnes Moves at Sloth Pace to Release Deputy Misconduct Records

May 20 Barnes, who benefited from more than $600K in campaign cash from the same OC deputy union that fought disclosure of SB 1421 police misconduct records, has put a tiny staff on the biggest public records challenge ever, likely ensuring that Orange County taxpayers – who have paid out nearly $100 million in legal payouts from Sheriff’s Department misdeeds since 1990 – remain in the dark along with any kind of potential reform. Read the Column »

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr.

Santana: Voice of OC is Ten Years Old Today

June 3 An odd idea back in the summer of 2009 – a nonprofit, online newsroom covering local civics in a frank, nonpartisan, real time manner – has taken root in Orange County. Read the Column »

Santana: OC Deputy Union Pays Out $50K in Failed Bid to Seal Misconduct Records

June 10 The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs paid out nearly $50,000 to Voice of OC, the L.A. Times and Southern California Public Radio this past month after deputies lost their bid in court earlier this year to seal deputy misconduct records. Read the Column »

Santana: State Assemblyman Bill Brough Under Fire For Alleged Harassment of Women

June 24 Brough has reportedly withdrawn his request for a re-election endorsement from the OCGOP after several women, including Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, come forward to complain about harassment. Read the Column »

Santana: We Are Not Ready

July 8 This weekend’s earthquake, centered in the community of Ridgecrest, is a stark reminder that we are all behind in terms of being ready for the big quake. Voice of OC has been working on a disaster page project this summer, with the aim of providing readers with solid coverage and resources on disaster prep and response across Orange County. Help us source and fund the page. Read the Column »

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A resident speaks during public comment at the May 7, 2019 Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Santana: The Pesky Public

July 15 Keeping the public out of the loop has become an extreme sport for our elected class as well as the greatest threat to our democracy. In recent times, we’ve seen efforts here in Orange County to illegally restrict public comment, destroy public documents, squash dissenting council members, delay release of police misconduct records along with the murky process of monitoring state harassment investigations or changing federal regulations. Read the Column »

Santana: Fishing Comes Back to Irvine Lake

Aug. 5 A defunct but popular Orange County fishing spot comes back to life on Saturday, Aug. 17 after Supervisor Don Wagner – who is up for re-election next year, successfully leads negotiations with two neighboring water districts to reopen Irvine Lake, which has been shut down since 2016. Read the Column »

Cal Domestic Water building in Whittier

Santana: Brea’s Private Water Woes

Aug. 12 Brea City Treasurer Rick Rios along with Brea resident activist and downtown developer Dwight Manley keep pressing uncomfortable questions about the city’s main water wholesaler, Cal Domestic Water. Their probe, which has already drawn a DA review and state sanctions over past dealings, may soon be headed to OC Superior Court. Read the Column »

Santana: Death of OC Auditor Controller Underscores Why Public Access to Elected Officials’ Calendars Matters

Sept. 9 After having his department largely defunded last year because of an active watchdog approach, it now seems that deceased Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery was transitioning his life to Kansas. Orange County taxpayers had a right to know that Woolery was super-commuting to his local office from out of state and might be transitioning to a new life. Access to an official public calendar would have allowed for that kind of accountability, something that County of Orange officials keep fighting. Read the Column »

Santana: Commie Hunting in Westminster

Sept. 16 City Council members in Westminster adopt an ominous resolution encouraging all residents of Westminster to raise their voices against individuals who fit the profile of an “aider and abettor” of the communist government in Vietnam. Read the Column »

Panther News Rack at Chapman University. Norberto Santana, Jr.

Santana: Chapman Student Newspaper Triggers Sparks

Sept. 23 With congressional campaigns across Orange County intensifying for 2020, Chapman University Dean of Communications, Lisa Sparks – who is running as a Republican in the 45th Congressional District against incumbent Democrat Katie Porter – triggers a slew of questions about accessibility by avoiding interviews with her campus newspaper. Read the Column »

Santana: Orange County’s Key Organizing Group Gets Disorganized

Sept. 30 With key debates over the future of Anaheim’s stadium and public lands in Santa Ana intensifying, Orange County’s premier progressive organizing group, OC Communities Organized for Responsible Development, OCCORD, is reeling from the resignations of Executive Director Shakeel Syed and a slew of organizers in recent months. Read the Column »

Santana: Columbus, Indigenous Peoples’ Day Engages Around Equity

Oct. 14 The debate over recasting Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day offers a chance to consider equity in society and how best civic leaders can address inequity. In San Juan Capistrano, the historic debate is in many ways still playing itself out in the effort to preserve one of the last original indigenous villages in Orange County. And on the modern policy front, one recent study about inequity in Orange County is challenging local policymakers to confront a stark opportunity gap between geographic areas of the county – split along largely racial, ethnic and income lines. Read the Column »

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer points at Sheriff Don Barnes at a January 2019 Orange County Supervisors meeting.

Santana: Can DA Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes Survive The Evidence Booking Scandal?

Dec. 2 A disturbing OC Sheriff’s Department Audit of late evidence bookings finds that 30 percent of evidence booked by deputies over the last two years didn’t comply with policy. While photos and videos are the majority of late bookings, there’s also cash, drugs and guns among the items booked into evidence late, sometimes by as much as a month. The audit, kept secret until recently, raises a host of issues for Sheriff Don Barnes and District Attorney Todd Spitzer and could affect thousands of criminal cases across Orange County. Read the Column »