Supervisors Turn Down Independent Ethics Oversight

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The County Board of Supervisors Tuesday rejected, for the second time since last year, a grand jury proposal for stronger ethics oversight of county government.

The vote to send a response rejecting the ethics commission was approved 5-0.

During the discussion, two supervisors, Todd Spitzer and Janet Nguyen, took issue with several sections of the report, including the rejection of the commission.

However, they never pushed for formal votes on those sections.  They did ask the clerk to note their opposition.

During the discussion, however, neither of them verbally argued for placing an ethics commission ordinance on the next ballot, as the grand jury recommended.

In their June report, the grand jury called on the Board of Supervisors to help create a strong, independent county ethics “program” to police the conduct of county officials and lobbyists.

“Ethics bodies work effectively to deter, detect, and punish ethics violations,” said the detailed report. “Vigorous ethics monitoring and enforcement is necessary to develop and maintain trust in government.”

Supervisors disagreed.

“I would agree that creating something new – just another level – is duplicative” and not probably getting to the heart of issues, said Supervisor Pat Bates at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting.

“I would be very, very concerned with anybody that’s appointed to have subpoena powers that are currently restricted to our law enforcement officials.”

The issue is pitting supervisors against grand jurors and the county’s rank-and-file employees.

Jennifer Muir of the Orange County Employees Association told supervisors on Tuesday that county workers support the grand jury’s proposal.

“Your county workforce stands with the grand jury” in their call for an ethics commission, said Muir, the union’s assistant general manager.

Muir noted that last year’s grand jury described Orange County as a “hotbed of corruption.” The most recent grand jury reiterated calls from the prior year’s panel for an ethics commission.

Supervisors, meanwhile, have disputed the grand jury report, saying it mostly refers to old examples and that proper oversight is already in place.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer called for a wide-ranging dialogue on ethics next year, when he will likely be the supervisors’ chairman.

“I really do think we need to have a comprehensive discussion, both of the campaign contribution issues and the ethics issues,” he said.

Supervisor John Moorlach suggested ethics reform be looked at as part of a review of the county’s charter next year.

“It would be real nice to pursue a charter commission and just do a thorough charter for the county that would address a lot of the concerns and tie everything together so we address ethics and campaign reform reporting in that document,” said Moorlach, who volunteered to serve on the commission. He leaves the Board of Supervisors at the end of this year because of term limits.

Chairman Shawn Nelson said there were practical problems with an ethics commission, like who would be appointed to preside over it.

If someone doesn’t like the way the government is run, he added, “you don’t just invent the fourth branch of government…I don’t know who is sort of the ultimate moral authority to appoint that branch.”

In her comments Tuesday, Muir reiterated calls from union officials for an across-the-board transparency measure, known as CRONEY.

The ordinance would shine a light on how large private contracts are negotiated, she said, and give the public more time to evaluate the costs of contracts.

If supervisors don’t adopt the ethics commission, “at the very least adopt CRONEY,” Muir urged.

“I think the taxpayers believe that when you approve $133 million for a contract, the contract is going to cost $133 million, not $133 million plus a change order” or extra charges for electricity or overtime, she said.

Muir asked the supervisors to schedule a future discussion of the proposed CRONEY law. Board members didn’t show interest in doing so.

As a reason for not pursuing a commission, Supervisor Janet Nguyen pointed to the state’s decision to take away $73 million per year in funding from the county.

“We do not have the funds” for a commission because of that, said Nguyen.

The grand jury, meanwhile, estimated the yearly cost of an ethics commission at about $500,000, or less than 0.01 percent of the county’s total annual budget.

Their report said the percentage is roughly the same as the city of Los Angeles, which is far larger than Orange County, spends on its ethics commission.

Nguyen also pointed out that one of the supervisors’ major rebuttals to the grand jury was largely a moot point.

As an example of stepping up oversight in the wake of the grand jury report, the board’s response pointed to the supervisors’ efforts to hire the state political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC, to enforce local campaign finance limits.

But, as Nguyen pointed out, the state Legislature recently killed the bill that would have allowed the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to take over enforcement.

Spitzer, meanwhile, said there was a school of thought, advocated by political watchdog Shirley Grindle, that supervisors were looking at the FPPC approach as a “shiny object” that doesn’t address the numerous other ethics concerns from the grand jury.

Spitzer also said he had it on good authority that the employees association lobbied Sacramento to not pass the FPPC bill.

As for their response to the grand jury, the supervisors’ ultimate vote was confusing, even to top county officials.

Approval of the response was done in a confused environment Tuesday, and it took more than a day for the county to clarify the formal recording of the vote.

Late Wednesday afternoon, county spokeswoman Jean Pasco sent out a widely-circulated news release announcing the official recorded vote.

The official minutes from the meeting now show the motion as follows:

“Approved proposed response to grand jury report with direction for staff to include the fraud hotline in the response to F3 and with the following exceptions: Supervisor Spitzer recorded a no vote to the response to R1 and Supervisor Nguyen recorded no votes to the responses to F5.B, F5.D, R1 and R3.”

Yet from the dais on Tuesday, the vote wasn’t very clear.

Toward the end of the supervisors’ discussion, Nelson asked if any of his colleagues were opposed to the motion on the floor, which he did not detail.

Nguyen responded: “just my comments, of all the items individually.”

Clerk of the Board Susan Novak tried to figure out which way Nguyen was voting.

“She doesn’t want be seen as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Novak said.

“Well she can vote on the motion, but her comments stand on their own. I mean, they will be part of the record. Actually they are at this point,” said Nelson.

Nguyen then reiterated her opposition to certain parts of the response.

“The ones that I did not make comments to, yes I agree with staff’s recommendation. But the ones I did make comments – those, especially the ones I said ‘no’ – I’m not supportive of staff’s recommendation. So I’m not overall supportive [of] the item. It’s individually,” Nguyen told Novak.

“There’s [a] couple that wasn’t a ‘no’, it was a comment – ‘yes’ with a comment. So please take a look at that again,” Nguyen added.

“Alright. With that, are there any opposed?” asked Nelson. None of his colleagues voiced opposition.

“Alright. Noted, with the exceptions of Supervisor Nguyen. Passes, sort of, 5-0,” said Nelson, who then moved on to the next issue on the agenda.

Novak, who is in charge of keeping accurate meeting records, said later on Tuesday that the slightly modified response was ultimately approved, and that she would be reviewing video of the meeting to clarify the exact motion.

“This is a little bit unique. We have had bifurcated votes before but not quite like this,” Novak said.

The official vote tally would be posted online Wednesday, she added.

“I will do it accurately to what’s on the tape” and ensure it shows Nguyen’s opposition to certain portions of the response, Novak said.

Moorlach, meanwhile, suggested that if Nguyen wanted to be shown as taking a vote against certain aspects of the response she should have asked for separate votes on the sections she opposed.

Moorlach said he got the sense “that if she were concerned, she would have said ‘let’s bifurcate, pull these out” and vote on some and not others, Moorlach told Voice of OC after the meeting.

Efforts to reach Nguyen late Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

The minor change agreed to by all supervisors was to add the county’s fraud hotline as an example of existing oversight.

It’s unclear what the grand jury and other supporters of stronger ethics oversight will do now. Grand jurors do not have the power to create an ethics commission on their own.

In the 1970s, county voters used the initiative process to adopt the local campaign finance limits law, known as TINCUP.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the county’s announcement of the formal vote late Wednesday, and to include more details from Tuesday’s board discussion.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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