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Why Do OC Police Departments Use Drones Blacklisted by Federal Government?

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The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is looking to purchase drones from a company blacklisted by the federal government over concerns the drones can be used for spying by the Chinese government. 

And they’re not the only law enforcement agency in the county using those drones.

A Voice of OC review found almost every police department in the county has at least one drone from Da Jiang Innovations, more commonly known as DJI, one of the global leaders in drone production.  

Some local police officials say they don’t fly drones near sensitive areas and that they’re cost effective in helping search for missing people compared to helicopters. 

Questions about DJI’s drones have been mounting for years, with the company currently blocked from receiving many US exports by the federal Department of Commerce and black listed by the Department of Defense as of 2022, which said the company was aiding the Chinese military. 

“The Department of Defense (DOD) position is that systems produced by Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) pose potential threats to national security,” wrote Department of Defense officials in a separate memo in 2021. “Mitigating the threats posed by small (unmanned aircraft systems), including DJI systems, remains a priority across the Department.”  

DJI has denied that any of its drones transmit data to the Chinese government, saying the latest efforts to ban their use in the United States are just an effort to suppress foreign investment and benefit domestic drone companies. 

“The lawmakers driving this legislation continue to reference inaccurate and unsubstantiated allegations regarding DJI’s operations, and have amplified xenophobic narratives in a quest to support local drone manufacturers and eliminate market competition,” company representatives wrote in a blog post.   

In an article published late May, the Associated Press reported that federal officials allegedly fear DJI is feeding critical infrastructure information to China’s government.

There’s currently a bill with bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives to outlaw the use of DJI drones nationwide, and they were already outlawed for use by government agencies in Florida last year. 

Orange County Police Expand Drone Usage

Despite the mounting concerns, Orange County’s various police departments use DJI drones more than any other company. 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which serves as the police department for 13 of the county’s 34 cities and unincorporated areas, has the largest drone fleet, 87% of which are DJI drones. 

The department used drones 145 times last year according to its annual disclosure report released last month, and has already spent nearly $137,000 acquiring DJI drones. 

The department is also planning to purchase another $60,000 in drones over the next year from the company, but that might not move forward according to county Supervisor Doug Chaffee. 

“It makes no sense to buy drones if you can’t use them,” Chaffee said when asked about the issue on Friday. “I will look into it more when it comes back to the board.” 

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has not experienced any issues using our drones,” said Sheriff Spokesperson Sgt. Frank Gonzalez. “If at some point the state of California chooses to make any changes to the use of DJI drones, then the Orange County Sheriff’s Department will have no problem adhering to those changes.”  

They aren’t alone.

A majority of police departments throughout Orange County – 18 out of 21 – use DJI drones, according to state-mandated military equipment disclosures. 

Only the cities of Garden Grove, Brea and Placentia claimed to have no drones from DJI.

Altogether, the combined worth of police department drones throughout OC is at least $400,000, but it’s difficult to get a precise number because not all departments disclose what they spent on the drones or how much their annual maintenance costs are. 

Despite their widespread use, most cities haven’t spent time talking about drone usage – except for Newport Beach, where city leaders discussed surveillance options last month and are developing a drone program with policies to address security and privacy concerns. 

“We’ve worked up a drone policy that will be implemented once we have a drone program,” said Mayor Will O’Neill at the meeting, noting they would be implementing reviews to ensure data collected by drones or security cameras isn’t misused. 

While the city currently owns a DJI drone, it’s rarely used according to city spokesman John Pope, and city staff plan to only purchase American-made drones going forward. 

Departments Don’t Want to Give up Drones

Despite some of the national security concerns raised around DJI’s drones, local police departments say they’ve been nothing but a great success for them. 

“I can’t think of a reason why we would get rid of them,” said Orange PD Lieutenant Phil McMullin. 

He said the drones helped them find a missing woman who’d fallen in the hills near her own house, and that without the drone they may not have been able to track her down. 

“I think without the drones we wouldn’t have been able to find her cause we can’t afford a helicopter,” McMullin said. “We plan on utilizing them for operations when needed.” 

Jennifer Carey, spokesperson for the city of Huntington Beach, issued a statement on Thursday saying the department “places an emphasis on purchasing equipment best suited for the job,” and that DJI drones were a great help to the department. 

“There are currently no restrictions at a state or federal level regarding the purchase of DJI products,” Carey said. “The HBPD will continue to monitor the situation and adjust purchasing processes if restrictions are put in place.” 

Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Tustin offered similar statements, with Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard noting that the drones are a great help, but would be shut down if they were outlawed. 

“As of today we plan to continue our usage with sUAS technology,” Lumbard said in a statement. “The use of a drone system allows us to mitigate risks to our personnel, as well as getting real time information to officers to de-escalate and resolve high-risk situations.” 

Voice of OC Fellow Gigi Gradillas contributed reporting to this story. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
31 days ago
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Orange County, California
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What Are Santa Ana Officials Hiding in a Claim Alleging The Police Union Runs City Hall?

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A brewing controversy over city redactions to a legal claim by a long time, well known, experienced former city manager in Santa Ana is shedding new light on the grip the police union – which routinely spends big on local elections – has on elected officials in the heart of OC.

Former City Manager Kristine Ridge’s claim alleges a hostile workplace created by Mayor Valerie Amezcua and paints a general picture of a pressure campaign by elected officials on behalf of the police union to get her to boost former union president Gerry Serrano’s pay and pension. 

A campaign that was apparently so intense it led her to file a claim against the city threatening a lawsuit. 

Former City Manager Kristine Ridge during a Santa Ana City Council meeting in 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana City Council members opted to pay ridge over $600,000 and settle that claim quietly in October rather than fight it in court amid an increasing leadership vacuum, a looming budget cliff and public safety concerns.

[Read: Why Did Santa Ana Pay Out Over $600K to Settle a Claim Alleging the Police Union Runs City Hall?]

Amezcua has resisted calls for public comment on the issue, repeatedly ignoring press calls, once again not returning requests for comment on Friday or Monday.

Voice of OC reached out to the Santa Ana Police Officer Association on Friday and a representative told a reporter that they would have someone return his call but they never did as of publication.

From left, Gerry Serrano, former president of the Santa Ana police union, attends Phil Bacerra’s (right) election night watch party in 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The city tried hard for about six months to keep the details and explosive allegations inside the claim a secret from the public – ignoring public record requests from outlets like Voice of OC and Knock LA. This month, after legal threats from Knock LA, the city released a redacted version of the claim. 

Officials have since released the 3-page claim with sections of it heavily redacted – raising questions as to what exactly was blacked out.

A majority of council members are staying quiet including David Penaloza, Phil Bacerra and Thai Viet Phan who also did not return requests for comment this week.

Meanwhile, one councilman says the city is investigating Ridge’s allegations and the County’s District Attorney’s office has launched investigations into his own allegations that Amezcua violated the state’s open meeting law – the Brown Act.

Keeping Quiet: What Was Blacked Out? 

Santa Ana City Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

City Councilman Johnathan Hernandez told the Voice of OC Thursday that the redactions have to do with a complaint he filed last April — months before the city manager made her claim — alleging Mayor Valerie Amezcua violated the Brown Act amid efforts to fire Ridge and former Police Chief David Valentin.

In his complaint – which he shared with Voice of OC and also features redactions –  Hernandez accuses Amezcua of having improper discussions with himself, Councilmembers Penaloza and Bacerra in an effort to remove both Ridge and Valentin.

To read Hernandez’s complaint, click here.

Hernandez said the redactions in his complaint are to protect non-related city employees and details of a closed session meeting that he shared with the DA’s office.

From left, Santa Ana Councilmembers Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza during a Santa Ana City Council meeting in 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Brown Act forbids a city council member from having serial meetings where an   individual meets one on one with a majority of the council to discuss the same issue and build a consensus on an official action outside of the public view. 

David Snyder, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition, said he doesn’t see why allegations of a Brown Act violation would be a valid reason for redactions unless there was a lawsuit.

“If what they’re redacting is mere allegations of violations of the Brown Act, It’s hard for me to see why that would be legitimately redacted,” he said.

City Spokesman Paul Eakins in a Tuesday email pointed to exemptions in the state’s Public Records Act regarding labor negotiations and personnel matters for the redactions in Ridge’s claim.

Santa Ana City Public Affairs Information Officer, Paul Eakins. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Snyder said labor negotiations are exempt by the Brown Act but just because words on a document discuss a closed session meeting doesn’t mean it’s exempt from the public records act.

“They may be over-applying the rule that applies in the Brown Act context,” he said. 

“It’s not necessarily the case that just because something can be discussed in closed session, that any mention of that closed session or its substances, is redacted under the Public Records Act.”

Councilwoman Jessie Lopez said in a Monday phone interview that every city council member has read the unredacted version and that it was a policy choice by council members to black out parts of the claim.

Santa Ana City Councilmember Jesse Lopez. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“It’s seven people making this decision – so what gets shared and what doesn’t get shared and in what format,” she said. “I don’t have any legal concerns about the redactions, it was a policy choice to make those reductions.”

Councilman Ben Vazquez said he was unsure if he had seen an unredacted version of the claim in a Monday phone interview.

“I forget if I saw it or not, it was a while back,” he said. “I don’t know who the city or the city attorney is protecting from the redactions.” 

Hernandez said he supports an unredacted version of the claim being published on the city’s website and that Amezcua is trying to keep the truth from coming out.

The Mysterious Investigations into City Hall?

City Hall in Santa Ana.

Hernandez said members of the District Attorney’s office have met with city staff and former members of the city’s executive management.

“I can’t go into detail as to who those individuals are but we do know that the district attorney has reached out to the city of Santa Ana, and has formally begun their investigation,” he said.

Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney, said Friday that the DA’s office does not confirm whether investigations are ongoing.

Orange County DA Todd Spitzer rarely takes any public action on Brown Act violations.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer during the pledge of allegiance at the OC Board of Supervisors meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

[Read: OC District Attorney Rarely Prosecutes Political Crimes]

Meanwhile, the city has launched its own investigation into Ridge’s claim after officials decided to pay her over $600,000 and settle it.

Hernandez said that Eakins and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho have advised the council not to speak about the city’s investigation other than it’s underway and funded by the council.

In a Q&A with the Voice of OC in 2012, Carvalho said that all levels of government in Santa Ana are focusing on transparency.

“I would love to see the day when Santa Ana is looked to as an example of a city who can demonstrate that, you know what, transparency is the best way to always do work with the citizens and the community,” she said at the time.

Santa Ana’s City Attorney Sonia R. Carvalho during a city council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Carvalho on Monday directed questions about an investigation and redactions to the public information officer, Eakins.

Lopez also directed questions about the city’s investigation to the city’s public information office.

Eakins refused on Tuesday to answer questions about who is conducting the investigation into Ridge’s claim and how much money is being spent on it.

The OC Register reported this week that Santa Ana officials agreed to expand a contract by up to $175,000 with Hanson Bridgett LLP, a law firm, to investigate working conditions at city hall.

The results are expected in the middle of 2025 – long after the upcoming November elections where Amezcua, Hernandez, Phan and Lopez are up for election. 

Who is Really in Charge in Santa Ana?

Former City Manager Kristine Ridge during a Santa Ana City Council meeting in 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

On Tuesday, Santa Ana officials held their first public meeting since the claim surfaced and not once brought up the allegations made in it.

That night they appointed Alvaro Nunez as acting city manager – the second temporary city manager to fill the role since Ridge’s departure.

Prior to Nunez, Tom Hatch, a former Costa Mesa city manager, served as interim city manager since November.

Eakins said that Hatch was a retiree and that he was reaching his limit of hours he could work in the position under state law.

Under California Public Employees’ Retirement System rules, Hatch can only work 960 hours in a fiscal year.

A group of Santa Ana Police Officers stand guard outside city hall in 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Regardless of who is at the helm of the city’s top executive position, Hernandez said the Santa Ana Police officer’s Association grip on city hall is undeniable and points to Voice of OC coverage for shedding light on the issue over the years.

“The POA isn’t just endorsing these elected officials and paying for their campaigns, the POA is very much looking like organized crime and they’re spending taxpayers’ money to do their bidding when things don’t work out to their favor,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is corruption unfold in front of our eyes at the highest level.”

Correction: A previous version of the article said Councilmembers Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Ben Vazquez were up for reelection in November. Councilmembers Johnathan Hernandez, Thai Viet Phan and Jessie Lopez are the ones up for reelection this year. Voice of OC regrets the error.

Julie Leopo contributed to this article.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

•••

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You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
98 days ago
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Orange County, California
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Orange County Approves $3 Million Homeless Prevention Pilot Program

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Orange County Supervisors are moving forward with a new pilot program to help stop people from getting evicted or pushed into homelessness by giving them extra cash that they say could help 200 households. 

While evictions almost completely stopped during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic due to a statewide ban on evictions, they dramatically increased in 2022 according to a study by the nonprofit OC United Way. 

That report showed over 3,000 people were evicted from their homes in Orange County in 2022 alone, with cities like Fullerton, Anaheim and Placentia seeing more than 1 in 100 of their renters evicted in just that year. 

But the new county program wouldn’t be aimed at people already on the street, instead sending financial assistance to people “at risk of homelessness or experiencing a housing crisis,” if they fell behind on rent, utility bills and other similar expenses. 

To qualify, residents must be making less than 30% of the county’s average median income, which would be around $36,000 a year per household according to the US Census Bureau, or show they’re in the process of getting evicted, with seniors and single parents getting priority registration. 

The new program was put forward by county Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, who also agreed to fund half the program’s $3 million cost out of the discretionary spending he receives for his district as a county supervisor. 

By the end of the county’s fiscal year in June, nearly $1 billion will have been spent on homelessness in just the last seven years according to a report from Sarmiento’s office.

He also said it’s time to start doing to stop people from entering homelessness. 

“The goal of the Homelessness Prevention and Stabilization Pilot Program is to keep individuals and families in their homes,” Sarmiento wrote in a memo to the rest of the board. “The expected program enrollment for households will be twelve-months, based upon need and evaluated on a quarterly basis.” 

The money would be split up between 200 households, with a cap of nearly $11,000 that each person could receive over the next year for late rent and utility bills along with other support like purchasing groceries. 

Robert Morse, a member of the county’s Commission to End Homelessness, said programs like this could’ve saved him from losing his home years ago. 

“If this plan had been in effect when I went homeless for 10 years, it would’ve saved the taxpayers of this county over $1 million,” Morse said to the board during Tuesday’s public comment period. “That’s all I’m going to say. Save some money.”  

Currently, the program is only funded for one year, but Sarmiento said he hopes to make it a permanent offering and use the data from the first year’s results to change how it looks going forward. 

But there are still some big questions over what the future of the program would look like, including who would be hired to run it. 

Douglas Becht, director of the county’s Office of Care Coordination, said that while his office helped draw up the framework for the rental assistance program, they didn’t have the staff to run it and noted that they weren’t sure if it would work. 

“There’s been several studies that help us get an understanding of how households are falling into homelessness,” Becht said. “The pilot will help either validate that or show us that number might not hit the mark.”

Until a contractor is hired, it’s unclear how much of the program’s $3 million budget will be spent purely on administering the funds. 

County Supervisor Don Wagner, who approved the program along with the rest of the board, also brought up concerns on how the board would decide if the program was a success or not and raised concerns that the money might just flow into landlords’ pockets. 

“When government makes money available, it gets spent,” Wagner said. “I want to make sure this goes to help people rather than go to folks who go ‘Hey, there’s more money out in the system, I’ve got this niche, I can jack up my prices.’”  

“We’ve got to be careful just making money available for good reasons,” he continued. “If it doesn’t come with the close attention it gets sopped up and does not, to my mind, always serve the purpose it’s intended to serve.” 

•••

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You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
184 days ago
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Orange County, California
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Santana: Anaheim Offers Key Lessons on How To Clean Up a City Hall

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This past year, city politicians in Anaheim offered up a clinic on how to clean up a city hall.

Largely by avoiding it. 

Yet paying attention to what the local elected class fought during the year offers key insights into what goes into a clean city hall.

It’s something for residents to consider for the New Year – especially after a civic awakening of sorts, which saw scores of residents and different activist groups band together and demand reforms in Anaheim. 

Members of the newly formed non-partisan group, CUAC (Clean Up Anaheim Coalition) and residents of Anaheim meet at the steps of Anaheim City hall for a press conference on July 12, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

It comes in a city where investigators allege high-level Anaheim officials were on board to keep as much as $100 million out of the general fund once resort bonds are paid off in a town where nearly half of the residents are on a public health plan

[Read: How Disneyland Resort Interests Planned to Withhold Tax Money from Anaheim’s Working Class]

Investigators say the plan, spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce, was presented in a secret December 2020 retreat attended by at least two council members, lobbyists, disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidhu and Disney’s chief representative to city hall – Carrie Nocella. 

Restricting Officials From Voting on Projects Connected to Donors

Right from the outset of the scandal arising out of an explosive FBI affidavit detailing how Disneyland resort interests exert undue influence at city hall, Anaheim City Council members were challenged to reign in campaign spending by special interests. 

In Anaheim, those interests overwhelmingly dominate local campaigns by flooding mailboxes and social media during elections, helping them consistently elect politicians who lean heavily their way.

The biggest spenders in the city? 

Political action committees financially supported by the resort – especially Disney. 

[Read: Will Mickey Mouse Continue to Cast a Big Shadow Over Anaheim’s Election Campaigns?]
Right after the FBI corruption probe was first made public, many residents demanded city council members to adopt restrictions on support from political action committees.

Residents, activists and community members rally for city hall reform in Anaheim on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Now, that presents constitutional challenges no doubt as restrictions can infringe on people’s – and corporations like Disney – ability to freely express their political opinions as protected by our cherished First Amendment.

However, Anaheim’s city attorney made it pretty clear from the outset that while city officials can’t restrict people from donating to campaigns, they can restrict officials from voting on projects where they have received support.

Despite that, Anaheim skipped any kind of campaign finance reform since the scandal kicked off in May 2022 –  instead kicking it several times, this most recent time to next year.

[Read: What Could Campaign Finance Reform Look Like in Two OC Cities?]

A simple, constitutionally consistent reform is restricting officials from voting for projects that benefit their donors for a certain period of time – like a year after receiving the financial support.

So far, city council members have resisted it like a choke hold.

That says everything the public needs to do about how effective that kind of reform could be. 

Implementing Gift Bans

Another key reform – already in place at the County of Orange – is to not allow city officials or local politicians to accept any gifts from those doing business with the government. 

County officials are under a $5 threshold, which pretty much keeps them to a cup of coffee.

Shirley Grindle, a principal author of the county’s 1978 campaign ordinance known as TIN CUP, earlier this year told Anaheim city council members that kind of reform would go a long way toward cleaning up city hall because it prompts an open government culture. 

Yet judging from how much Anaheim city council members love their thousands of dollars in free tickets to Angels games and events at the Honda Center, it’s pretty clear that the freebies have an impact. 

[Read: Anaheim’s Free Tickets Increasingly Go to Nonprofits, But Insiders Still Benefit]

The Los Angels of Anaheim play the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium Sept. 28, 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Monitoring Public Calendars

One of the only reforms that all Anaheim city council members seemed open to adopting this last year was publishing their calendars, showing who they meet with.

[Read: Anaheim Officials to Publicly Post Online Who They Meet With]

Yet with calendars, the main challenge is to have politicians actually fully fill out who they are meeting with. 

Making calendars public is something that no local city hall or the county supervisors do.

That tells you again that there’s something to that.

Registering Lobbyists

It’s not just tracking who city council members meet with to have an idea of influence peddling at your local city hall. 

Keeping an eye on paid, professional advocates and who they meet with can give the public a really good idea of what’s coming down the pike at city hall.

That’s why Anaheim officials fought increasing registration requirements at city hall all year.

One of the few reforms adopted – yet to be implemented – is requiring any employee of a company whose job includes the influencing of officials to register as a lobbyist. 

By most accounts that will likely apply to Disney’s governmental relations head – Carrie Nocella – at Anaheim City Hall in the New Year. 

It would be the first time Disney has had to register a lobbyist in the city.

[Read: Disney’s Representative Could Soon be Considered a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall]

Tracking Public Cell Phones

Anaheim City Spokesman Mike Lyster on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

An interesting twist that appeared in the wake of the FBI corruption probe in Anaheim was the use of private cell phones by city officials – like Public Information Officer Mike Lyster. 

When city-hired independent investigators wanted to find out what was really happening at Anaheim city hall, they asked to see Lyster’s text messages and inspect his cellphone records.

He refused.

City council members later that year adopted a rule that city employees had to start using cell phones publicly issued so when questions about city communications came up, it would be possible to measure what’s actually happening. 

[Read: Anaheim Tightens Electronic Device Policy After Probe Finds Disregard for Records Law]

While council members voted to approve the restriction, the use of personal cell phones seems to continue. 

Voice of OC this month asked for a record of text messages between Lyster and a city council member Natalie Rubalcava after he sent a statement on behalf of Rubalcava to questions about her private life, in this case the termination of her employment with State Assemblyman Avelino Valencia. 

[Read: Anaheim City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava Quietly Out as State Assemblyman’s District Director]

We’ll have to wait until the New Year to see if the public really has access to those conversations. 

Fueling Ethics Watchdogs

In one of their last meetings, Anaheim city council members did agree to appoint an ethics watchdog – someone who could keep track of lobbyist registrations, public record requests and campaign finance filings. 

[Read: Can an Ethics Officer Restore Trust in Anaheim After the FBI Corruption Scandal?]

Yet unlike the County of Orange, where the ethics watchdog comes under a commission appointed by supervisors, Anaheim kept their ethics watchdog on a leash held by the city attorney’s office. 

Anaheim city politicians resisted any effort to create a commission, ostensibly terrified by the potential of a political debate – much less the oversight – that one could trigger. 

While Politicians Sleep, Residents Wake Up 

While a majority of Anaheim City Council members were largely resistant – or downright against – many reforms, young people and various activist groups like OCCORD and Chispa have been coalescing to demand changes at City Hall. 

OCCORD, or Orange County Communities for Responsible Development, held a series of town halls after the city-commissioned corruption report was released over the summer. 

[Read: Can Anaheim Residents Really Turn Their City Hall Around?]

Throughout three panels, OCCORD gave a rundown on major findings in the corruption report – with residents like Cynthia Ward and Jeanine Robbins, along with former elected officials Tom Tait, Denise Barnes and Jose Moreno giving their insights on City Hall and how it could be fixed. 

Former Mayor Tom Tait (left), Activist Jeanine Robbins (center) and Former City Councilman Jose Moreno (right) speak at the OCCORD Sept. 21 forum on corruption in Anaheim. Credit: Hosam Elattar / VOICE OF OC

The entire city council was invited to the panels but only Councilwoman Norma Campos Kurtz showed up. 

The nonprofit also conducted an online survey amid the town hall sessions to get input on the type of changes and reforms residents want to see happen at city hall.

Read the findings of the survey and a report on the sessions here.

•••

Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
197 days ago
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Orange County, California
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Huntington Beach Nixes Black History Month, Other Ethnic Celebrations

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Huntington Beach City Council members are throwing out their recognition of many ethnic heritage celebrations and replacing them with what one state senator called a “whitewashed revisionist history” celebration schedule. 

Council members are removing celebrations of Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and other similar celebrations going forward with officials writing the celebrations should be free of identity politics, according to the staff report.

“I’ve been amazed to learn just how much of our rich history I was unaware of,” said Councilman Casey McKeon from the dais on Tuesday night. ​“We wanted to focus on 12 themes a year instead of dozens to help city staff get on the same page.”

State Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine) called the proposal “embarrassing and shameful,” in a statement Monday on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter.

“This is a disgraceful departure from the ideals we should be championing and once again illustrates that this particular HB City Council is more interested in earning cheap headlines than actually addressing the issues affecting the lives of Surf City residents,” he wrote.

The council’s Republican majority backed the changes Tuesday night, while the Democratic minority voted against the move.

What Stays & What Goes? 

The proposal will establish a new appointed panel to lay out a 12-month history program for the city.

Some of the potential themes include “the Revolutionary and Civil War” month in August and “Black Gold Jubilee – Honoring the Discovery of Oil” month in November.  

“All monthly themes hosted by the City must be included in this approved twelve-month program and will therefore repeal and supersede all such monthly themes/celebrations previously approved by Council,” reads the staff report.

The council’s minority questioned why those celebrations were being thrown out, and wondered why this was a focus of the city council. 

City Councilman Dan Kalmick said the proposal had nothing to do with public policy, called the calendar a “Eagle Scout project” and said it would effectively kill many celebrations geared towards minorities.

“We have deficits we’re going to need to address. We have a homeless issue that we still need to address.  We have a lot of big issues and this is the number one thing we came out with?” Kalmick said, comparing it to his child’s fourth grade project.

“This is not something we should be doing.”

Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton also questioned why the city couldn’t include their past celebrations with the council’s new ones going forward. 

“Why does it have to be either the proposed calendar or the existing commemorations?” Bolton asked. “The fact that those are being left out of this proposal says something. That sends a message to the community.”

McKeon and the Republican majority defended their proposal, saying it didn’t detract from their work on public policy and that events like Black History Month could always be reintroduced later on. 

“I totally think you’re over complicating it,” McKeon said. “That doesn’t preclude it from happening next year.” 

Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark called for a recognition of the Holocaust in January, but other months like Women’s History Month, Pride Month and Black History Month were ultimately left out of the 2024 calendar. 

Councilman Tony Strickland called for a recognition of Juneteenth.

The move also didn’t pick up support from the city’s Historic Resources Board, which wasn’t consulted about the new process and won’t be the governing body deciding what history months move ahead. 

Kathie Schey, the chair of the Historic Resources Board, resigned at Tuesday night’s meeting, saying the council’s decision was a “clear vote of no confidence.” 

“I was thunderstruck when I received a copy of the current agenda,” Schey said during public comment. “God knows I’m all about celebrating history, but this is just peculiar.”  

Previous Votes Raise Questions 

This is not the first vote the council’s Republican majority has taken that has sparked local outrage on what role cities should play in celebrating local diversity. 

The Huntington Beach City Council majority essentially banned flying the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag and a host of other flags on government property in February by restricting it to only city, state, national and prisoner of war banners.

The majority also voted earlier this year to disband the city’s Human Relations committee – aimed at combating hate crimes and incidents.

At a different meeting, they also voted to eliminate any mention of hate crimes in the Human Dignity policy.

[Read: HB City Council Majority Censures Natalie Moser; Removes Hate Crime Condemnation]

Tuesday’s decision comes months after a report by Groundswell – formerly known as the OC Human Relations Council – found an uptick in hate crimes and incidents across the county with the brunt of that being directed at the Black, Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities.

[Read: New Report Shows Hate Crimes and Incidents Continue Increasing in Orange County]

It also comes amid a national debate that is playing at local school districts on how U.S. and world history should be taught through ethnic studies courses.

Councilman Pat Burns pointed out that other more popular events, such as Women’s History Month and Pride Month, were already being celebrated elsewhere. 

“It is being celebrated,” Burns said.

Kalmick interjected:

“Just not by Huntington Beach.”  

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

•••

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You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
205 days ago
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Not a day goes by, it seems, where I am not reminded to be thankful I don't live in such a cartoonishly stupid city.
Orange County, California
freeAgent
199 days ago
I would be embarrassed to live in Huntington Beach. I'm happy to live in a normal city where only 1/3 of the city council are complete assholes and it's primarily just the cops who are racist.
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Disney’s Representative Could Soon be Considered a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall

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Disney’s Director of External Affairs, Carrie Nocella, could soon have to register as a lobbyist for the first time at Anaheim City Hall in the wake of one of the biggest corruption scandals to rock Orange County.

The Fall of Reform

Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?

A scandal that touches on Disneyland and a host of other resort interests.

The move comes months after city-hired independent investigators echoed in a corruption report released in July what FBI agents concluded in sworn affidavits last year: city hall is essentially controlled by lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests.

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, along with Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, spearheaded the reform, including applying it to in-house lobbying activity, which could mean Disney has to register Nocella as a lobbyist. 

“Whatever your title is, if you spend most of your time advocating and trying to influence public officials, I believe that you should have to register,” Aitken said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Anaheim City Council members voted 5-2 to bolster their lobbyist registration ordinance as part of a series of reform proposals they’ve debated this fall to address the continued fallout of a corruption scandal that surfaced more than a year and a half ago.

Councilmembers Jose Diaz and Natalie Meeks – both who benefited from independent campaign expenditures from a committee largely funded by Disney – opposed the reform. 

It’s one of the biggest overhauls elected officials have made to City Hall in the fallout of the corruption scandal.

So far, officials have decided to post their meeting calendars online, voted to create an ethics officer position at city hall whose responsibilities are yet to be finalized, and required city officials and staff to use government phones and devices to conduct city business.

Tuesday marks the third time Anaheim officials have debated reforming the lobbyist ordinance since the corruption report released in July, painting a picture of loose oversight of lobbyists at city hall – including potential criminal violations.

In all three debates, Disney and Nocella were never explicitly mentioned by council members.

[Read: Will Disney’s Representative Have to Register as a Lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall?]

“This is going to be an important step and it is going to be showing the residents of Anaheim that we take the lessons learned from the past several years seriously,” Aitken said.

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.

Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken speaking at the 2023 Anaheim State of the City address on May 23, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

Tuesday’s decision comes one day after the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) released the results of a community survey that showed 96% of about 100 respondents want city officials to reform the way lobbying is conducted in the city.

Pushback on Reform

Meeks and Diaz opposed the changes, arguing they were too complicated and that a newly approved policy this month to publish council members’ calendars online lets residents know who they’re meeting with.

“What more transparency are we getting from this lobbying provision that we’re not getting with making our calendars public?” Meeks said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I am just very concerned that we are duplicating efforts and costs for our residents, and then creating conflicts between those efforts, because they’re not structured the same.”

Meeks received over half a million dollars in campaign support from Disney’s chief political spending arm – the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee – in last year’s election.

Councilwoman Natalie Meeks during her inauguration on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Craig Steele, a former city attorney for Seal Beach who was brought in to help the council review its current policy, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the ordinance would only expand the current rules to in-house lobbyists who have to follow similar rules in other cities.

“Having dealt with this issue for a number of years in-house lobbyists know what the rules are,” Steele said. “Those people know how to comply and they won’t be surprised by any of the language that we’ve added.”

Steele also said that the new language helps clarify what lobbying looks like.

“I suspect you have been under-reported for a long time in this city, because the definition of lobbying was so vague,” Steele said.

Lobbyist Reform in Anaheim

Besides requiring in-house lobbyists to register, the proposed ordinance also requires an annual audit of at least 20% of lobbying activity in the city, as well as banning lobbyists from working as council aides for at least a year after they stop their lobbying activities.

The proposal also excludes labor union negotiators from having to report as a lobbyist.

Councilman Stephen Faessel pushed back on that exclusion, arguing that all lobbyists should be treated the same and threatened not to vote for the reform if it remained included in the ordinance.

“They do exactly what other lobbyists do,” Faessel said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the lobbyists. I don’t think it’s fair that we take one group and say no King’s X you get a pass and everybody else doesn’t. I don’t think that’s fair. We either look at lobbyists together completely the same, or we don’t.”

Residents, activists and community members rally for city hall reform in Anaheim on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Councilwoman Rubalcava said she would not support the ordinance if the exclusion for labor negotiators was not included.

“Our employee unions should be treated differently when it comes to their MOU’s,” Rubalcava said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I would hate for you to put me in a position that has me vote no on this lobbying ordinance because you’re going to go back on what the majority Council recommended.”

Faessel ultimately voted in favor of the lobbyist reform.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

•••

Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Voice of OC is Orange County's nonprofit newsroom. We rely on donations from people like you to sustain our news agency. Please make a contribution today: https://voiceofoc.org/donate

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mrobold
226 days ago
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Orange County, California
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