In 2010, as newsrooms in Orange County and across the country were slashing budgets and staff in the face of the Great Recession, a small band of journalists launched Voice of OC with the clear and simple goal of restoring the accountability and explanatory reporting that make news organizations a crucial part of a fully functioning democracy.
Our hunch was that if we ignored the fluff and concentrated on providing nuts-and-bolts municipal and neighborhood health coverage with an investigative focus, local governments would end up more transparent and residents more empowered.
We were right.
Before Voice of OC hit the scene, many city halls in Orange County functioned a lot like the Wild West, with long-time elected leaders and powerbrokers willfully ignoring laws and policies designed to allow the public to keep watch on how the business of government is being conducted.
That doesn’t happen so much now. And, as evidenced by our growing readership (we’ve surpassed 65,000 unique monthly visitors and 12,000 Facebook followers) and the number of policy changes that have come about due to our reporting, it is bound to happen even less in the future.
Here are a few examples of the impact our reporting has had on Orange County public policy:
When Voice of OC first launched, Santa Ana City Council members violated California’s open meetings law every time they held a regular council meeting by opening the meeting in private. We ended that practice in 2011.
And in the ensuing years, our consistent watchdog coverage helped usher in a new sunshine ordinance that, among other things, requires city officials to make their calendars public; requires public hearings on the city’s ongoing strategic plan; and gives residents real-time input on city budgets.
Our reporting also uncovered a real estate deal between the mayor of Santa Ana and a city auto parts contractor that has led to multiple investigations by local and state authorities.
In Anaheim, we showed how powerful business interests that controlled the city council majority routinely pushed through policies that benefited Disney and local hoteliers at the expense of working-class neighborhoods. This reporting influenced the ACLU’s approach toward a lawsuit, which in turn triggered a ballot initiative that created a council-districts system that gives low-income communities more equal representation on the city council.
And when the council tried (ultimately without success) to push through a new team-friendly stadium lease deal for the Angels over a Labor Day weekend, we responded quickly and showed how our nimble approach to monitoring the civic calendar informs the community on important issues in real-time, rather than after it is too late. As a result of our reporting, the original framework of the proposed lease was scrapped and the community is having a greater say in the terms of a future deal.
Our daily presence at the county Hall of Administration building has all but ended a tradition of patronage that saw influential political aides to county supervisors move back and forth into civilian jobs within the county bureaucracy – many times avoiding competitive recruitments for jobs and increasingly politicizing agencies.
We also filed a lawsuit, under the California Public Records Act, against the county after officials refused to release documents that shed light on how a top OC Public Works executive was allowed to resign quietly just before the District Attorney charged him with multiple felony sex crimes against subordinates. Our suit ultimately forced officials to release some of the documents and secured a $120,000 judgment against the county for attorney fees.
In addition to our beat reporting, Voice of OC regularly produces in-depth projects that focus on how neighborhood environments impact public health. Our award-winning projects have included:
A series that exposed the dire health consequences suffered by the crowded living conditions that many people in Santa Ana endure.
A project that explored Orange County’s immigrant health paradox, in which second-generation immigrants to the U.S. have significantly higher rates of diabetes and other Western maladies than their parents.
A series that highlighted disparities in park space in Orange County cities showed how residents of park-poor neighborhoods faired significantly worse on a variety of community health indicators.
This one-two punch of daily accountability reporting and in-depth public health journalism has served to significantly strengthen Orange County’s media landscape and inform the public policy debate, which together make for a better democracy. Please support Voice of OC as we continue to fill this vital role in the community.