The Yorba Linda City Council, at least three of whom have had ethics violation complaints filed against them, discussed the possibility this week of limiting an ethics ordinance they say is flawed.
Council members on Tuesday night during their regular public meeting said legal costs for investigating alleged violations have gotten out of hand because of the way Measure Y, Yorba Linda’s 2010 voter-approved ethics ordinance, is written.
At least seven complaints have been filed in the four years since the ordinance was approved, including five since January. Legal costs for the last eight months total more than $90,000.
There are no public reports on what, if anything, any of the investigations discovered.
“All of us consider ourselves fiscally conservative up here, yet when it comes to those investigations, we throw our conservative credentials to the wind and say it doesn’t matter – but it does matter,” Mayor Pro-Tem Eugene Hernandez said. “It’s getting out of control.”
According to the ordinance, any complaint filed with the City Attorney’s office must be sent to both the Orange County District Attorney and independent legal counsel, with no questions asked.
City council members want any investigation that costs more than $5,000 and lasts longer than 30 days to get city council authorization before it can move forward.
Hernandez said special interest groups are abusing the ordinance and that many of the allegations are “frivolous” and do not warrant investigation.
Hernandez would not provide examples of those allegations, citing privacy concerns. Some cases are still being litigated, he said, but contended that in his two years on the council, no complaints filed under Measure Y have resulted in legitimate ethics violations.
Resident Earl Carbone filed two complaints early this year against Hernandez and Mayor Craig Young. Carbone is part of the political action group Yorba Linda Residents for Responsible Representation or YLRRR, which spearheaded a recall campaign this year against Young and Councilman Tom Lindsey. A special recall election is scheduled for Oct. 7.
Additionally, Ed Rakochy, the spokesperson for YLRRR filed a complaint Jan. 7 against Young for calling an “ad hoc meeting at City Hall on Dec. 10 to discuss issues and set policy regarding the Landscape Maintenance Assessment District,” according to the letter of complaint.
The current ethics law prohibits closed door committee meetings.
“It’s clear to me that the ethics ordinance is now being used as a political weapon and not as a deterrent to bad behavior,” said Hernandez, whose own investigation has cost taxpayers more than $30,000.
Hernandez was accused of accepting campaign contributions in excess of $500 from city contractors including Care Ambulance Services and Republic Services.
The ordinance prohibits council members from accepting contributions from city contractors. Hernandez subsequently returned the funds.
After six months of investigation, Hernandez was exonerated, he said.
Young and Lindsey, both on the Oct. 7 recall ballot, have been accused of accepting campaign support from housing developers who are in negotiations with the city for a controversial high-density apartment complex in the Yorba Linda lakebed.
Young wants to bill the legal costs to the residents who file complaints, but City Attorney Todd Litfin said that possibility is unlikely.
“Can we charge the people making the complaint? I’d love to stick somebody else with the bill, but until then, it will be on the taxpayers,” Young said.
The recent upswing in alleged ethics violations has at least 14 legal firms clamoring for city contracts to handle the workload, Lindsey said. “I think that makes us a laughingstock,” he added.
Still, some council members expressed reservations about regulating the amount of money spent.
“I don’t think the city should be determining that cap. It’s a conflict of interest,” said Councilman Mark Schwing, adding that a council where the majority is named in an ethics complaint could use the $5,000 cap as a way to block investigations.
The lack of detail in the proposed streamlined regulations raised concerns for others, who wanted a more comprehensive proposal.
“In a separate ordinance, we could … say that an agent also cannot contribute to a council member either before or after a vote,” said City Councilman John Anderson.
In May, Young and Lindsey received indirect campaign support from a man who had dealings with the city.
Flyers paid for by a group calling itself the Southern California Coalition of Businesses and Taxpayers or SCCBT praising Young and Lindsey’s “conservative leadership” were circulated throughout the city in response to the recall efforts, according to campaign disclosure statements.
SCCBT received $13,000 from Beverly Hills-based El-Yorba Linda in April. Afshin Etebar, listed as an agent for the company, is the owner of ETCO Homes, the developer of a controversial high-density apartment complex planned in the Yorba Linda lakebed. That’s the project that sparked the recall campaign against Young and Lindsey, who supported the project.
Because voters passed the ethics ordinance, amending it requires voter-approval. But council members can create regulations for how it works, as long as the regulations don’t detract or diminish the original measure, Litfin said.
“The city council cannot change its substantive requirements, but it is authorized to implement policy goals, so that’s something within the council’s purview,” Litfin said.
The council will take up the issue again at their next meeting Aug. 19.