Access Democracy

Access Democracy is Lookout Local’s initiative to increase the amount of investigative and accountability watchdog journalism in Santa Cruz County and beyond.

In this initiative, we partner with the First Amendment Coalition, the Bay Area-based, award-winning, nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to advancing free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in civic affairs. The Lookout Santa Cruz newsroom and First Amendment Coalition meet regularly on ways to unearth public records and do deep reporting for the Santa Cruz community.

Among those stories:


San Lorenzo Valley High School in Felton.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY NICK IBARRA | ‘This is a pattern’: At least five people now raising misconduct allegations against SLV High teacher: Two former San Lorenzo Valley High School students are telling Lookout about their experiences with Eric Kahl, one of two veteran teachers placed on paid leave by SLVUSD. The allegations are part of a larger investigation into inappropriate behavior by district staff that is underway by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.


‘Inappropriate and shameful’: SLV superintendent apologizes, promises full probe of misconduct allegations

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PVUSD Trustee Georgia Acosta (left), the school board's former president, and Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
PVUSD Trustee Georgia Acosta (left), the school board’s former president, and Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
(PVUSD and Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY NICK IBARRA | Were shaky finances behind PVUSD superintendent’s firing? Hastily deleted post reveals tension: Documents obtained by Lookout and interviews with district and county education officials reveal how a gloomy — but improving — financial forecast for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District came to a head the week Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez was abruptly fired.


Two PVUSD trustees cited ‘death threats’ amid Michelle Rodriguez saga. Days later, none reported

Pajaro Valley Unified refuses to pay $16k in legal fees authorized by former board president

Health Care

Watsonville Community Hospital
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY MALLORY PICKETT AND PATRICK RILEY | Watsonville Community Hospital under new management, but veil of secrecy surrounds who’s really in charge: The company that bought Watsonville Community Hospital in 2019 abruptly stopped managing it last month. The new manager has a troubled history and is under congressional scrutiny. A third party owns the hospital’s building and land. So who’s really calling the shots?


• Watsonville Community Hospital suffered financial losses, ‘could have been in trouble’

Local Government

The still-under-construction Capitola Library.
The still-under-construction Capitola Library. Electrical wiring that ran along the library site had to be restructured so the facility wouldn’t enter “no-build buffers” set by regulators.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY ISABELLA CUETO | Six-figure mistake: Flaw in Capitola Library plans cost taxpayers at least $580,000: The architecture firm hired by Capitola to design its new library made a critical mistake by setting the building too close to high-voltage wires next to the property line, officials say. Now, records detail how that error occurred and what it is costing.

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A Watsonville police squad car. Like other cities, Watsonville is grappling with calls to 'defund the police.'
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY ISABELLA CUETO | Watsonville committee on police transparency, accountability takes meetings behind closed doors: A police reform committee created by the Watsonville City Council has voted to have all of its meetings closed to the public. The decision was far from unanimous, with one member saying it could create the appearance of discussions being ‘nefarious and sneaky.’

Environmental Justice

The Pajaro River near Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY PATRICK RILEY | Decades in making, Pajaro River levee project might finally right an environmental injustice, officials say: For more than half a century, the communities of Watsonville and Pajaro have lived in the shadow of a levee system that can’t protect them from devastating floods. Now, a proposed $400 million federal project to improve the system is finally taking crucial steps that could lead to righting that longstanding inequity, officials say.


A homeless encampment along the side of Cabrillo Highway in Santa Cruz. The area must be cleared out by April.
A homeless encampment along the side of Cabrillo Highway in Santa Cruz on Feb. 11, 2021. The area must be cleared out before a major grant-funded highway widening project can begin.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

• BY ISABELLA CUETO AND PATRICK RILEY | With ‘no relief in sight,’ Santa Cruz leaders seek Newsom’s help on homelessness amid Highway 1 snafu: As a major CalTrans construction project that would displace 100 unhoused people looms, city and county leaders are writing Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to free up state money — or even use of the National Guard — in the clearing of the large encampment near Highways 1 and 9.

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ABOUT LOOKOUT’S FIRST FIRST AMENDMENT COALITION CONDUIT: Supporting Lookout’s work from the First Amendment Coalition is attorney Sherene Tagharobi.

Sherene joined the First Amendment Coalition as a legal fellow in June 2020. An attorney and Emmy-nominated former journalist, she is passionate about FAC’s mission of promoting and defending the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press through her work with Lookout.

Sherene Tagharobi

She previously worked for the law firm Nixon Peabody, where she represented individuals and businesses in complex litigation and government investigation matters. She earned her J.D. from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and a dual B.A. from the University of Southern California in Broadcast Journalism and International Relations, as well as a minor certificate in Spanish.

Before law school, Sherene spent six years working as an on-air television news reporter and producer, starting at WILX-TV in Lansing, Michigan, before stints at WWMT-TV in West Michigan and KNSD-TV in San Diego. She then worked as a field producer for ABC News, covering the San Bernardino terrorist attack, the 2016 killing of five Dallas police officers, and the “Stairway to Heaven” copyright trial. Her reporting earned an Emmy nomination and a first place award in the investigative/enterprise category from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Pro Chapter.