Orange County cities are getting more transparent.
As voters enter the final day of the election season, it’s getting easier for residents to track who exactly is helping finance their incumbent elected leaders – and their challengers – across the region.
And regardless who wins on Tuesday, residents can now more easily check up on the financial interests and donors backing their new local elected officials.
Over the course of several years, Chapman University students have been working with Voice of OC to evaluate all 34 Orange County cities’ websites and assess how easily users can figure out who’s financing their elected officials.
Candidates are required by state law to complete specific forms with financial information about their campaign and personal business interests.
But how accessible is the information?
Chapman students searched city websites across Orange County, attempting to find two key government forms for the 2022 city council candidates — Form 460 and Form 700 — to measure how easy each Orange County city makes it to find information about candidates.
Click the image below or here to see the full graphic, including links to see officials’ financial disclosures.
Form 460s includes candidate information about campaign donations, making sure that donors and candidates are following the law.
Form 700s display an elected official’s economic interests, including their income, businesses, stock and real estate ownership.
For Form 700s, many cities direct users to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), a state government website that provides economic interest forms for cities across California.
Students checked whether these two sets of forms were easily accessible on the city’s website. Last year, a separate group of Chapman students did a similar project measuring the city’s transparencies for these same points.
Since the 2021 report came out, many of the city’s transparency levels have improved.
What Cities Scored the Highest?
Cities received a green rating if both the forms were on the website and easy to locate.
This year, 19 cities received a green rating: Aliso Viejo, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Irvine, La Habra, Laguna Beach, Lake Forest, Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Orange, San Clemente, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Tustin and Westminster.
Last year, 14 cities had a green rating.
Most other green cities have their forms linked either on the city clerk tab or an election tab online.
Cities received a yellow rating if their campaign contribution forms were on their website and provided a direct link to the FPPC website for the economic interest forms.
Ten cities were ranked yellow: Brea, Buena Park, Cypress, Dana Point, Fountain Valley, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, La Palma, San Juan Capistrano, and Stanton.
In 2021, eight cities had a yellow rating.
The reporting for this article has already prompted a city to become more transparent.
La Palma, a yellow city, was ranked red during an initial review since the forms were only available through a public records request. Kimberly Kenney, the city clerk for La Palma, originally told Voice of OC in an Oct. 25 phone call that they did not post these forms on the website and she could not provide a reason why.
Then, days before publication, Kenney reached out with the link to a newly-updated elections webpage on the city’s website that includes all city council candidates’ campaign contribution forms and a link to the FPPC website.
“Because of our discussion and interaction, we now have made it more efficient for everyone thanks to your call and I hope this will help anyone with the same inquiry in the future,” Kenney wrote in an email sent to Voice of OC on Nov. 2.
Cities received an orange rating if their campaign contribution forms were on their website but they did not provide a direct link to the FPPC website for the economic interest forms.
Three cities were ranked orange: Placentia, Rancho Santa Margarita and Yorba Linda. In 2021, 10 cities had an orange rating.
Aliso Viejo and La Habra were ranked as an orange city in 2021 but improved to a green city this time.
Mitzi Ortiz, the director of government services in Aliso Viejo, said that the city implemented a new electronic filing system within the past year.
That change came after Ortiz spoke with Chapman students about their low ranking and how she was looking into uploading the forms in the future.
“Of course we want to increase our transparency and make sure we are compliant with state law,” Ortiz said. “To make it even easier for our candidates and our filers, we chose to implement the e-filing system.”
Cities received a red rating if they do not post either form on their website, providing them only by public records requests or not linking to the FPPC website for the economic interest forms.
Two were red: Laguna Woods and Villa Park. In 2021, two cities had a red rating.
Laguna Woods was the only city ranked red for both years.
Yolie Trippy, the city clerk for Laguna Woods, said that the forms are only available for review through a public records request. When asked why the city does not post the forms on the website, she said she had “no information” on the topic.
Steve Franks, city manager for Villa Park, failed to respond to multiple inquiries from Voice of OC about why the city does not include these two forms on its website.
Why Are These Forms Important To Disclose?
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, emphasized the importance of having these forms readily available and accessible for residents.
“Particularly in a polarized system when you have the non-partisan races for city council where you don’t know if they are Republican or Democrat, you’re often relying on who’s donating,” Balma said in a phone interview.
“Who’s supporting them? Those campaign finance disclosures are crucial information that voters don’t have easy access to. They don’t know they are available and they’re not publicized.”
She said that since the forms are often difficult to find, it can create barriers that prevent residents from looking in the first place. To top it off, lots of cities aren’t motivated to change their systems because people aren’t paying attention.
“They don’t really have an incentive to make it transparent and bring attention to it, so usually it gets nested deep inside the city website and it’s hard for people to find,” Balma said.
“And that includes even knowing it’s there… Unless there’s media looking at these forms or the opponent is drawing attention to who’s donating, the average voter has no idea.”
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Brea as an orange city when it should have been ranked yellow because the website features the 460 Forms and has a link to the FPPC website. We regret the error.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.