Santana: The County of Orange Isn’t Transparent or Open When it Comes to Coronavirus

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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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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I like Orange County CEO Frank Kim and respect his work but was floored last week when he insisted the County of Orange has been transparent and open about its handling of the Coronavirus.

Far from it.

I would have challenged Kim directly at last Thursday’s press conference on this misstatement but the county media PR-machine he declared as fully dedicated to openness doesn’t allow reporters to ask follow up questions.

So much for transparency and openness.

Here’s what Kim said when I challenged him about county officials’ handling of the crisis and the lack of public information – which continues to fuel confusion and division among residents.

“I completely disagree with your assessment that we have not provided good information to the public. I think we absolutely have. In fact, we are here at these press conferences answering your questions. We provide regular updates at each of our board meetings. Our board has kept all of our board meetings open the public, which I know that many large counties have refrained from. We have done our best to be open and engage members of the media as well as members of the public. I’m quite proud of the work (Health Care Agency Director) Dr. Chau has done along with his team to ensure we are always transparent.”

Fair enough.

Let’s look at the record.

Open meetings.

As this column goes to publication, according to sources close the matter, Kim is reportedly asking county supervisors about their schedule availability to hold a special meeting – potentially on Friday – to allow County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett to schedule a controversial item extending supervisors’ term limits, for the third time this month.

Keep in mind that under the state’s open meeting laws, the Ralph M. Brown Act, supervisors aren’t supposed to be debating public policy in private.

Two times this month, I’ve written a column about the quiet jockeying to extend county supervisors’ term limits by the incumbents currently in office.

Each morning the column ran, supervisors pulled the plan as votes evaporated once the public was put on notice.

Yet it keeps coming back.

Mind you, we’re not talking about a thoughtful process asking county voters what’s the best way to revamp county supervisors’ office structure – say like turning them into part-timers with no benefits.

Those kinds of comprehensive reform plans have been on the shelves since the 1994 county bankruptcy. No county politician will go anywhere near them.

Instead, we are just looking at a nice, trim extension of terms.

Reportedly, Michelle Steel – who is running for a coastal seat in Congress – and Andrew Do, who is currently up for re-election in the First District, are no votes on the measure.

Supervisor Don Wagner is apparently the swing vote here, with Bartlett – who is eyeing an end to her second term – pushing for the reform.

And where’s the public in all this?

Nowhere to be found.

Sometime today, they will potentially only get short notice of a so-called emergency that requires an immediate public meeting to tinker with their future…if the effort survives this third column.

Does this process look transparent and open?

Since we are on the topic of public meetings, which Kim so ardently defended in his speech about the commitment to openness by county supervisors, let’s talk about how unevenly county supervisors enforce their public comment rules.

We just reported today that an Orange County Superior Court concluded there was little doubt about the uneven way that current chairwoman Steel conducts meetings, creating grave constitutional deficiencies for public participation.

If Steel likes your point of view or position, you get extended time to speak. If she doesn’t, you get held to the time limit, which is often times shortened from three minutes to two in recent meetings.

In addition to the uneven handling of public comment, there’s the whole structure that supervisors’ adopted during the outbreak of the pandemic to only encourage in-person commenting – at a time where public health advisories asked people to refrain from being indoors without masks.

So any member of the public that wanted more mask enforcement or education had to come down to the county board meeting and stand next to activists who don’t wear masks or practice social distancing to make their voices heard.

The result was an uneven indication of public comment regarding the mask issue, one which ultimately muddied policymaking by supervisors to the point that it led to the resignation of the Public Health Director, Dr. Nicole Quick.

Was that transparent and open?

At the most recent public county supervisors’ meetings, in recognition of that clear deficiency, supervisors now ask County Counsel Leon Page to read comments aloud that are emailed in from people who cannot physically be present at the meeting.

It’s not just at their public meetings where county supervisors have fostered a thin-skinned environment.

The Covid-update press conferences touted by Kim have generally been an unproductive mess.

For reporters, most of the time, we are forced to listen in on a phone line that sounds jumbled, as if someone is holding up a phone up to the conference. Meanwhile, there’s often loud typing in the background mixed with the bad audio.

The concerns have been raised again and again with no change.

The conferences always start with Steel coming out and basically being granted a free campaign stump opportunity.

In most cases, she leaves immediately and reporters are not allowed to ask any questions of her.

In recent weeks, Steel’s remarks haven’t even centered on Covid but instead focused on her resolutions regarding public safety appreciation.

After Steel’s stump speech, technocrats – like Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau – offer some general announcements on hot topics of the day.

Complex issues – like Covid testing efforts, contact tracing and sheltering in urban environments, hospitalization numbers – are all covered in just a few minutes.

Then, reporters – usually numbering about a dozen – get one question each with no follow ups.

When we ask questions about complexities, we get general answers.

Even more insulting is when Chau or Kim ask reporters to follow up with county Public Information officers that in many cases don’t return calls for days or in some cases at all.

Keep in mind that virtually every public health order that the County of Orange has issued – about the March shutdown, about the Memorial Day reopening, about masks – all have been rolled out to huge confusion and in just about every case had to be re-written and re-issued.

Data reporting on Covid – despite fancy press releases from the county about their new website, months into the crisis – is often times not reliable and again, there’s virtually no public information effort to back it up. State data and county data often tell a totally different story on any given day.

As reporters, we are constantly getting emails from residents and taxpayers bewildered by the constant problems and inconsistencies in the county published data.

Reporters also were among the first to publicly call on the county to release infection data by city – a crucial piece of data people wanted to see.

Until public pressure and media attention mounted, Kim admitted that he kept those numbers from the public after being pressed by city managers to keep it secret.

Is that transparent and open?

Since the CARES Act funding arrived, how has the money been spent?

To date, there’s not been much describing what’s happening to the $75 million allocated by county supervisors to local cities.

Is that transparent and open?

For months, reporters asked daily questions about what was being done about Covid outbreaks at local jails, homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants…

We heard very little.

Until the outbreaks started.

Last Thursday, Kim took credit for being up front about outbreaks.

That made me recall one recent press conference where Social Services Agency Director Debra Baetz went up the podium and announced to reporters that the agency had taken all kinds of precautions to protect workers as they came back to work.

There were hand-washing stations, booths and all kinds of protections.

At that time, there had also been outbreaks among workers.

Yet Baetz didn’t say a word about that.

In fact, to this day, county officials won’t say much in public about how their workforce is being impacted by the virus.

Indeed, it was only after I questioned Kim at last week’s press conference that it came out that there’s at least 200 Covid positive cases already in the county workforce – a number I see as potentially lowballed.

Again, only after questioning by reporters does the public hear that forty percent of the public workforce is telecommuting.

Is that transparent and open?

Lastly, let’s talk restaurants.

During Kim’s presentation last week, he told reporters the OC approach to restaurant inspections regarding Covid was focused more on engagement and education rather than hard enforcement.

Fair enough.

Yet I keep reading about restaurants having Covid-related closures (kudos to the OC Register’s Anne Valdespino for her solid coverage of the restaurant outbreaks).

At last week’s press conference, I asked Kim if he could show taxpayers how HCA is doing that kind of vibrant restaurant outreach meant to protect consumers.

I asked for details like how many pamphlets have been passed out, how many restaurant owners have been contacted, what kinds of resources are most requested by restaurants who need help?

I was told there would be follow up.

I am still waiting.

Based on the agenda circulated yesterday for today’s press conference, the answers will apparently be presented at today’s public press conference, this week scheduled for 1 p.m. on the County Facebook page.

A week to get basic stats on restaurant inspection outreach – in the midst of Covid outbreaks at restaurants.

Is that transparent and open?