A top Orange County official’s recent criticism of reporters’ requests for public records has reignited scrutiny, namely among the local press corps, over the public’s ability to access the government agencies that are supposed to answer to them.

Historically, that relationship in Orange County is marked by friction — most recently when county Supervisor Andrew Do in February publicly bemoaned the amount of public records that Voice of OC reporters sought in connection to pandemic-related contracts his agency secretly approved.

Voice of OC is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan and nonprofit organization built to be a real-time check on local government. Our work is dependent on open meetings and public records. During Sunshine Week we celebrate being called the “Noise of OC” for making abundant public records requests. While we encourage civic engagement year-round, this week we are offering extra guides on how to follow and participate in local quality of life debates. LEARN MORE»

In criticizing the records requests, Do nicknamed the news agency “Noise of OC” in public — a banner the news agency published under, at the request of readers, during this year’s Sunshine Week, an effort to draw awareness around government transparency.

On Thursday, a panel of local reporters will convene to talk about Orange County’s current state of government meetings and records openness, as well as how accessible they are for reporters and the general, tax-paying public.

The OC Press Club — an association of local journalists covering the county — is hosting the panel, and will broadcast it online via Facebook Live at 5 p.m. Click here to access the Facebook page.

The scheduled panelists are San Clemente Times reporter Shawn Raymundo, Voice of OC Publisher and Editor-in-chief Norberto Santana, Jr., and Orange County Register reporter Ian Wheeler.

It’s a unique showcase of reporters, who often compete with each other for stories, uniting around a common cause of ensuring the public’s right to know, said OC Press Club President Hannah Fry and her spouse, Daniel Langhorne, who is a press club board member and who will moderate the event.

Fry, a Los Angeles Times reporter covering the county, also said it’s a time to bring all types of local reporters to the table — not just those who cover the entire region, but also those who come from hyperlocal community newspapers.

“We’re at a time where newsrooms are rapidly shrinking. We saw that with the shuttering of OC Weekly, which was a horrible loss to the county. We all have a common goal,” Fry said.

“Even though we are competitors at times, we’re all rowing in the same direction when it comes to government transparency,” said Langhorne, who is both the engagement editor for The War Horse, a military news outlet, and is managing editor of the Laguna Beach Independent.

Voice of OC Digital Editor and OC Press Club board member Sonya Quick said it’s “more essential than ever that journalists band together on some of the core principles important to the media.”

“It is not often for journalists to be given a seat at the table to discuss the current practice of covering government,” Quick said. 

By design, the event coincides with Sunshine Week, a nationwide annual awareness effort honed around this very topic.

It also comes after the OC Press Club issued an open letter denouncing Do’s remarks about Voice of OC’s public records requests. 

“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,” the letter reads. 

Fry said “public transparency is something that should always be talked about, and is something that isn’t discussed enough — not just in Orange County, but across the country.”

“If our goal as journalists is to shine lights in dark places, we need to have an idea of what our government is doing, and public records are a cornerstone of that job,” Fry said. “Whether or not Orange County has a good relationship with the press or a bad one varies depending on who you ask, but the fact remains that public documents are public and are meant to be inspected.”

Langhorne said he looks forward to “hearing stories from other journalists that might otherwise go untold because it’s part of the job.” 

“It’s nice to know we’re not alone, that there are other professionals out there who are determined and committed and won’t be bullied,” he said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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