Orange County’s regional association for journalists is calling on the county’s top official to apologize for criticizing Voice of OC’s questions and public records requests about secretly-approved contracts during the pandemic.
In an open letter Monday, the Orange County Press Club expressed concern about recent complaints by county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do that too many questions and too many public records were being requested by the news agency – which he called “ignorant” and “the Noise of OC.”
“We are writing to express our deep disappointment with Supervisor Andrew Do’s recent comments on the number of public records requests submitted to the county in recent months,” the press club wrote.
“The documents requested by news organizations, including Voice of OC, are owned by the public. County officials are obliged by hard-won state laws to produce these records for public inspection,” it continued.
“Journalists use public records to uncover facts that taxpayers deserve to know even when it’s uncomfortable for public officials to address. Supervisor Do’s belittling of these requests as an annoyance erodes public trust in journalists and the work we do at a time when our profession is under attack.
“Supervisor Do’s comments were a disservice, not only to the journalists who cover the county, but also to the public he was elected to serve.
“We were also disturbed by the supervisor referring to the award-winning, nonprofit Voice of OC as ‘noise.’ In the midst of a pandemic, the need for accurate and timely information has never been more critical. The men and women of Voice of OC deserve to be treated with professionalism by Orange County’s top elected officials. We expect more from our elected representatives and urge Supervisor Do to apologize.”
Do didn’t return phone calls and messages for comment.
The news agency’s records requests have revealed over $200 million in secretly-approved contracts, using a behind-the-scenes process Do and other supervisors approved last year.
Voice of OC obtained a list of those contracts, and the contract text of dozens of the largest agreements, and published them Monday.
Among the secretly-approved contracts was one for $1.2 million to create the county’s vaccine scheduling app Othena, which faced widespread complaints about glitches and outages after it was launched in mid-January.
In response to the press club letter, one of Do’s colleagues said the reporters are simply doing their job to get basic information – and he called on the county to start proactively disclosing the secretly-approved spending.
“An elected official should never vote for a contract he or she is unwilling to see on the front page of the paper. The press is doing its job trying to get routine information; government does neither itself nor the public a service making that job harder,” Supervisor Don Wagner told Voice of OC.
“I believe it would be better to turn over documents routinely without the need for and expense of [public record requests].”
Voice of OC’s publisher and editor in chief, Norberto Santana Jr., thanked the press club for taking a stand for transparency – adding that accountability requires a constant effort.
“We appreciate our colleagues from the Orange County press community making this kind of important statement, that our community stands behind transparency,” Santana said.
“This kind of approach to journalism makes for more accountable communities and ultimately better quality of life. As journalists, we all realize that freedom of expression is not free, and that we have to constantly defend those rights.”
Two of the leading candidates for a vacant county supervisors’ seat agreed with Wagner, saying the press is doing its job and the county should be regularly disclosing its secretly-approved contracts.
“Under the current circumstances, if speed is of the essence, then transparency must accompany it,” said John Moorlach, a former county supervisor who is the Republican Party-endorsed candidate in the 2nd District race.
“I agree with Supervisor Wagner,” he said. “I would add COVID related extraordinary expenditures as a required report at every [supervisors’] meeting. Speed with transparency.”
Moorlach added that when he served as a supervisor, he doesn’t remember county staff ever unilaterally approving contracts secretly nor allowing large-scale contrast to be approved without disclosure and public votes by supervisors.
Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, who is the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for the seat, said it’s “bizarre” to see Do criticize the public for wanting to access government records.
“He’s complaining about the public wanting access to their government’s documents? That’s bizarre,” Foley said.
“I know personally that many Mayors have been denied our requests for the plans for vaccine distribution sites. If he wants to reduce the workload then start by sharing more information automatically instead of only when pressured through a formal process,” she added.
“But I’m not surprised by Do’s annoyance with the press, public and anyone questioning the decision making by the County because the Chairman won’t even approve the health officer to report to our city council to update us on the vaccine distribution and answer questions. We deserve better.”
As for transparency around contracts, Foley said “all contracts should be available to the public for review and comment.”
“Most cities and school districts now have hyperlinks to all contracts subject to review and vote on their websites. The County must change the culture that discourages transparency of information,” she added.
The other candidates and supervisors didn’t return messages for comment.
The press club serves as the leading association of journalists in Orange County, and its statement was approved by its board of journalists who currently or formerly work at a range of different publications in Orange County.
Voice of OC’s digital editor, Sonya Quick, serves on the press club’s board but abstained from discussing and voting on the letter because of her role at the news agency.
It’s not the first time Do has faced pushback for how he’s handled the public’s right to engage their government.
Earlier in his tenure as a supervisor, Do tried to restrict the public from making comments he found offensive at Board of Supervisors meetings.
“Week in, week out, every time we have a meeting, it seems like the berating is getting more intense,” Do said after a speaker criticized county officials while citing a sex joke from the TV show Seinfeld.
“I know freedom of speech is something that’s very difficult to curtail or to define,” Do said. “But there has to be, I think, something that we need to put in place, because I’m just getting fed up with the kind of comments that I hear nowadays.”
That prompted immediate pushback from one of his colleagues, who pointed to a training on First Amendment protections for the public when addressing their elected representatives.
Voice of OC will continue to press for records and public disclosure of what’s happening in local government, Santana said.
“In order for us to stay as free people, we must be sure that the government institutions that we have created serve us – and not the other way around. And the only way to know if that’s really happening is to be able to check raw records, as opposed to what officials are telling us,” he said.
“It’s heartening to see in Orange County that Voice of OC is not alone in that,” Santana added.
“We cherish these rights, and will not deter in defending them.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.