Terence Love, owner.

Terence Love, owner.

In 1994 an enterprising jazz fan named Terence Love opened Steamers Jazz Cafe in downtown Fullerton. Serving coffee to local students and music fans, it quickly earned a reputation as a music venue that respected both musicians and their audience, where live jazz could be heard every night, somehow, in Orange County.

In a 1998 story about the club, the Los Angeles Times called Fullerton’s downtown “a neighborhood that goes dark before the sky does.” Times changed soon enough with the adoption of a Restaurant Overlay District that removed the responsibility of new restaurants to provide parking for patrons. Suddenly it became easier to open a restaurant or a bar, and the rush was on. With a seemingly endless supply of liquor licenses, rents increased. Soon Steamer’s neighbors went from being pawn shops, antiquarian bookshops and sporting goods stores to delicatessens, bars, and other eateries, some of them featuring live bands themselves.

Steamers, however, went on being what it had always been, a cool, classy refuge where Poncho Sanchez, Diana Krall, and other luminaries could play in a venue dedicated to their art in front of fans who couldn’t believe they were seeing such acts in an intimate club setting anywhere, let alone in Fullerton. College ensembles and other young musicians were also welcome to play in front of its luxurious red curtain backdrop, enjoying the chance to hone their craft before live audiences. The club’s location had been chosen for its proximity to Fullerton College, where a strong jazz program existed, and owner Terence Love was supportive of young musicians throughout the club’s lifetime.

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Local favorite Nancy Sanchez

Steamers was a host venue for Ragfest’s memorable productions by pianist and songster Brad Kay, who filled the stage with his Syncopating Songbirds. Everyone had their favorite band or singer, from Hedgehog Swing, to Nancy Sanchez, to Ron Eschete to Kristin Korb to Barbara Morrison to Gina Saputo. Strolling down Commonwealth Ave. at night, it was always tempting to drop into the doorway without thinking too much about it. No matter how much I got used to the slender room with the cafe chairs, the long bar and the high ceiling, the black and white photographs of jazz luminaries that lined the walls, I always felt lucky to be there.

Steamers eventually began serving alcohol—including fine craft cocktails—but it didn’t turn them into just another bar on the circuit downtown. They were always a music club that also served food and drinks, never just a bar with live bands. Now it is the fate of Steamers to itself become another beer hall, as owner Terence Love retires the business on July 30, and moves on from being the most unlikely of professions, the jazz impresario in North Orange County for a club that gained fame and respect far beyond the borders of our city.

Nothing lasts forever, but we can hope that the memory of Steamers will not fade away so fast, and that the legacy of inspiring musical experiences and the respect paid to those who create them will find a new home somewhere else in Downtown Fullerton someday soon…

550,000-Lawsuit

Last week Fullerton’s contracted City Attorney Dick Jones announced during the Closed Session Report of a City Council meeting that financial settlements and been reached in two legal cases against the City of Fullerton.  The Rag has been waiting for some news about the  first case, Castaneda vs. the City of Fullerton, since we wrote about it last September.

New Lawsuit Against Fullerton Police Department Alleges Forcible Sex by Detective in 2013, September 16, 2014.

The suit alleged that a now former Fullerton Police Detective named Ronald Bair had demanded sexual favors from a woman in exchange for favorable testimony in her child custody case. The details of the case were very disturbing. The plaintiff reportedly felt compelled to comply with demands for sex by Det. Bair, who had investigated a breach of restraining order against her, because he had also offered to testify on her behalf in her child custody case. She later filed an anonymous complaint with the FPD, but claimed that FPD officers mishandled it by inappropriately informing Det. Bair:

“Shortly thereafter, detective RONALD BAIR called the plaintiff and threatened her and said that she was going to die.  It was obvious that he had been told, by the other defendants, about her ‘anonymous’ complaint about his conduct.  He told the plaintiff that he knew that she had a court hearing coming up and that the plaintiff would never see my daughter again.  He told the plaintiff that his police buddies would come after her.”

With a four vote majority, and one abstention, the Fullerton City Council agreed to pay the plaintiff $ 550,000.00. No details were offered about why one member of the Council chose to abstain from the vote, and since it occurred in Closed Session, there are no notes available to public to explain this strange action by a City Council member in a decision that involved over half a million dollars.

On July 23 the OC Register published a story about the case, written by reporter Lou Ponsi.

Fullerton is paying $550,000 to settle lawsuit involving cop accused of sex-for-testimony trade

In the article, Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz makes the claim that the “encounters” between Det. Bair and the plaintiff were “consusual,” and occurred while he was “off-duty.” Off duty or not, does it seem like a good idea for a police detective to be having sex with a crime victim whose case he had investigated and for whom he has provided testimony in a child custody case?

Mr. Ponsi then reports:

‘The police “fully investigated” Castaneda’s accusations against the former detective and then submitted a report to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the city manager said.’ And then, ‘The District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges because of insufficient evidence…’

Well, there you have it. The police, who are alleged to have improperly informed a detective about a serious complaint made against him, filed their own report with the DA, who couldn’t find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In the next paragraph of the Register’s report, Mr. Felz first states that the ‘“alleged inappropriate relationship” between Castaneda and Bair involved “two mutually consenting adults,”’ before crossing an ocean sized gap in logic behind settling a case for over half a million dollars to “to minimize legal expenses.”

If there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and the relationship was consensual, why is the city afraid to continue fighting the civil suit? Sure, lawyers cost money, and in the real world cities settle lawsuits to save taxpayers money all the time, but this time there is a $ 550,000.00 payout. That’s a large sum of money for what is effectively claimed to have been a non-issue.

$ 550,000.00 should also be more than enough to fund a Citizen’s Independent Police Commission. As we noted last September, an oversight board would have received the plaintiff’s disturbing complaints when they were filed, and investigated any alleged mishandling of it. Just having such a commission in place might alone discourage such behavior. Instead, a majority of the Fullerton City Council chose a periodic and incomplete independent audit model, citing the alleged cost of commission investigations.

(The Police Oversight Proposal Committee’s plan for an independent oversight commission can be found at this link:

http://fullertonrag.com/proposal-for-a-fullerton-police-commission/)

As it now stands, we have no independent civilian oversight, and we have to pay over half a million dollars to settle a lawsuit over acts between a crime victim and a Fullerton Police Detective the City Manager claims were consensual. I wonder how the members of the City Council whose campaigns were backed by the police union, and later voted against a Civilian Police Commission, will explain that one to the people of Fullerton?

At press time Police Chief Dan Hughes has yet to weigh in publicly on the case, and it doesn’t seem to have made Behind the Badge’s Fullerton page…

Your tax dollars at work.

Your tax dollars at work.

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

—George Orwell

It is no accident that our modern author most revered for his insights into authoritarianism also supplies the best ever quote about newspapers. George Orwell was himself a journalist prior to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, his chilling and depressingly relevant masterpiece about a totalitarian state where the government exercises complete control over printed information. Prior to adopting his now famous pseudonym, the author, whose real name was Eric Blair, was also a police officer in what was then the British colony of Burma, a position that gave him direct experience with armed authority over a subjugated population.

The title of OC Register columnist David Whiting’s recent story about police public relations firm Behind the Badge should recall Mr. Orwell’s definition of journalism.  His June 20 column,  Revealing what’s ‘Behind the Badge': Paid for by police and taxpayers, but how much does that matter? is undoubtably a reaction to a story from the Voice of OC website by Thy Vo, published on June 1, entitled Website Blurs Line Between Journalism and PR.

OC Register columnist David Whiting ponders whether or not paid public relations is any different than what his newspaper does for free.

OC Register columnist David Whiting ponders whether or not paid public relations is any different than what his newspaper does for free.

The Rag, of course, brought this issue to light way back on December 12, 2013, in a post entitled The OC Register and Fullerton Police, Partners in Propaganda. We pointed out that the Fullerton Police Department was paying a public relations company called Cornerstone Communications, who publishes a website called Behind the Badge OC, to write positive stories about the FPD, and that the OC Register was uncritically publishing those stories with inadequate acknowledgment to readers that they were generated by a paid PR firm led by former OC Register reporter Bill Rams.

Even the Register’s own David Medzerian later called for the Behind the Badge website to carry “a more prominent disclaimer so readers know who’s paying for it” in a March 29, 2015 column called What’s hidden ‘Behind the Badge’?

And why should we taxpayers be funding a public relations firm to write stories about our own police department, when that department’s union actively funds the campaigns of candidates for Fullerton City Council?

This brazenly political effort to improve the image of the FPD goes back to a 2012 report produced by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) about the state of the Fullerton Police Department in the wake of the beating death of the schizophrenic homeless Kelly Thomas the previous year. In that report the OIR recommended that the Fullerton Police Department communicate better with the public following “incidents”. Was hiring a PR firm to do nothing but write rosy stories about police what they had in mind?

Some may agree that using a PR firm might be a good example of outsourcing specialized skills to private sector professionals, but one has to question the intent of the contract with Cornerstone Communications and the results of their work. Shouldn’t the purpose of the PR work be to better inform Fullerton residents about their police department’s actions? At the very least, we should feel like we know something more about how police operate in our community.

David Whiting’s recent column quotes Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes as justifying the expense: “The community wants to know their police department better,” and “These stories are an extremely effective way to communicate.”

Communicate what?  Readers of Behind the Badge won’t find valuable insights about how police work in their city. Instead, the site’s Fullerton page is loaded with stories about remembering a long dead officer, a  profile of a volunteer senior citizen, the Special Olympics, and (no kidding) the FPD being honored at a kickball match. These stories are grouped under the “features” heading, but dominate the page, with accompanying pictures, while the “news” section has only one story that might actually qualify as news. Nowhere to be found, for example, is a report on the annual audit of the FPD by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, which would make a really good news story that would be of great interest to Fullerton residents.

Behind the Badge’s Fullerton page also has a link that is supposed to lead directly to the FPD’s own website, but at press time it led here:

We're sorry we don't use the money you pay us to fix broken links...

We’re sorry we don’t use the money you pay us to fix broken links…

The link (perhaps repaired by the time you read this post) is supposed to lead  to the FPD’s own website, replete with more Behind the Badge generated pabulum for your consumption.

David Whiting’s recent column asks, pointlessly, whether or not what Cornerstone Communications produces is journalism. Columbia University Professor Susan McGregor  has an answer for him: ‘“It sounds like the structure is designed to skew in a direction,” McGregor allows. “Then it’s just another way of doing public relations.”

Thy Vo’s Voice of OC story quotes USC journalism Professor Marc Cooper as saying “what you’ve got here is a cereal commercial, a piece of uncritical advertising that is going to convince absolutely nobody who isn’t already convinced.” Which is exactly why Bill Rams and his cohorts find it necessary to place their PR stories in actual newspapers (ok, we’ll call it that) like the OC Register, where Mr. Rams is identified only as a “guest columnist” who owns a “communications company” with specified police department clients. Any reputable newspaper would simply run the story under the heading “Paid Advertisement” unless they weren’t being paid, in which case they shouldn’t run it at all, and leave writing about the police to their staff writers—those who haven’t already fled to write for PR firms like Cornerstone.

It’s also why the taxpayers of Fullerton are being ripped off. Even if anyone thought the FPD spending between “$ 2,000 and $ 5,000” a month to have positively-skewed stories about their own police department regurgitated back to them was a good idea, they might reasonably question the effectiveness of the whole enterprise in the first place. The Voice of OC has Prof. Cooper doubting that Behind the Badge will have “any impact at all.” But perhaps Prof. Cooper misses the point of the whole endeavor.

The goal of the FPD outsourcing public communications was never to improve communication between the police and the public they serve. The goal was to keep the Fullerton City Council from creating an Independent Police Commission that might foster actual communication between the FPD and the public. In order to achieve that goal the FPD had to wipe the mud from its name following the death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of FPD officers and other ugly revelations about the department so that their union endorsement would register as a positive in the minds of enough voters to back their candidates in City Council elections. They managed it barely in 2012 with their endorsed candidate Jan Flory’s 29 vote finish ahead of police critic incumbent Travis Kiger, who had been elected just six months prior in a recall election that was all but disastrous for the FPD. Their strategy proved to be effective when the trio of Jan Flory, Doug Chaffee, and Jennifer Fitzgerald* (joined by Greg Sebourn) utterly rejected a citizen-produced plan for actual oversight in favor of hiring the Office of Independent Review for periodic and incomplete audits of the FPD.

(The Police Oversight Proposal Committee’s plan for an independent oversight commission can be found at this link:

http://fullertonrag.com/proposal-for-a-fullerton-police-commission/)

For the combined money spent on paying Cornerstone and Michael Gennaco’s OIR, the city could hire the investigators who only might be required by an Independent Police Commission. Instead, precious taxpayer dollars are paid to a PR firm to serve the interests of the police department itself, contributing nothing to public safety.

In his column, David Whiting acknowledges that “as with other public relations specialists, Rams has suggested column ideas to me and I have pursued some.” Journalists are always being courted by PR specialists to write stories benefiting their clients. What’s remarkable about Mr. Whiting is that he evidently listens to them, demonstrating the kind of relationship with a PR firm that we should find unacceptable with a politician, and unprofessional in a journalist.

“Regardless, the backers of Behind the Badge are right about the need for better connections between police and public,” concludes David Whiting, who doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that those connections might otherwise come from honest journalism in a newspaper or on a news website instead of a one-sided public relations website. Readers of the OC Register should expect the former, while Fullerton taxpayers should be outraged that they are paying for the latter. Hucksters of “hybrid journalism,” as Behind the Badge’s Bill Rams calls it, can make a living as best they can, but you and I shouldn’t have to support them. The City Council should act to end this contract with Cornerstone Communications as quickly as possible and simply require the Fullerton Police Department to be honest, timely, and transparent in communications with the city’s residents.

*Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Fitzgerald, who is herself Vice President of the public relations firm Curt Pringle & Associates, routinely supports the police department without any funding from the Fullerton Police Officers Association, thereby keeping them from opposing her campaigns while simultaneously preserving her Republican anti-union funding credentials.

 

Note: This post was updated on June 11 to correct typographical errors and to add an image of David Whiting’s recent column.

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