Santana: The Price of Ethics in OC

So what’s the price of ethics in Orange County?

Figure about $300,000.

That’s the estimate I crafted after chatting with Orange County’s longtime citizen campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle last week after she stopped by our newsroom inside the historic Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana to talk about the June ballot initiative she co-sponsored with county supervisors.

The ethics initiative was a compromise last October from supervisors after significant pressure from multiple county grand juries, Grindle, and the Orange County Employees Association, with strong calls for the establishment of a full-blown ethics commission with subpoena power.

The scaled-down version, which as approved by supervisors on 4-1 vote last year and will go before voters this June, would be the first of its kind for a county government in California but would have a much more narrow scope of work — and thus more limited price tag.

If approved by voters, the five-member commission would enforce campaign contribution limits on countywide elected officials, as well as the county’s gift ban, lobbyist registry, and certain parts of the county’s ethics code by working with a commission executive director.

By most accounts the commission is needed because District Attorney Tony Rackaucakas has utterly failed to provide effective regulation of campaign finance and political corruption inside the county government.

It’s now apparently up to the people to provide for that — in addition to funding his salary and agency.

A few weeks back, Supervisor Michelle Steel (who voted against establishing the commission) came out swinging at the supervisors’ weekly public meeting insisting that supervisors instruct Auditor Controller Eric Woolery to do a fiscal analysis of the ethics commission.

Steel flexed her conservative muscles from the dais, arguing that taxpayers have every right to know there would be a cost to the initiative. She lost that vote – with most supervisors saying they still haven’t made up their mind on how they will staff the ethics panel.

Flash Report Publisher Jon Fleischman recently sent me an Op-ed on the topic, arguing that supervisors should reconsider that action.

If they do, I’d argue they should amend the measure to take the ethics panel funding straight out of the DA budget – since it’s a function that elected official won’t do.

Now, talking cost on the ethics panel is something that seems to make Grindle irritable and supervisors nervous.

Grindle’s softball team has been on a losing streak lately and by the time she showed up at the Santora building last week, she was pissed.

She says Steel and Fleischman (both staunch allies of Rackauckas) are just trying to scare voters by pulling out big budget numbers.

Grindle insists when you state the ethics commission proposed budget, you also should note that the county general fund discretionary budget is about $723 million annually.

“The primary purpose of this commission is to monitor campaign finance,” Grindle said, noting that most of the work she does on index cards requires a mix of clerical and investigative expertise.

“I could input the data for all candidates in 20 hours in non-election years.
In election years, 40-60 hours,” Grindle said.

Yet the real key to monitoring the data, Grindle said, is to have an eye for the odd.

“About 95 percent of violations are inadvertently accepting over the limit,” Grindle said. “By tracking contributions, I catch those.”

She notifies candidate treasurers. They refund. No harm, no foul.

In the ordinance establishing the new five-member commission, county supervisors went out of their way to limit any political actors – such as elected officials, consultants or county executives – on the commission.

“The real crux here will be the executive director,” Grindle said. ”It will rely on an exec director who takes this job very, very seriously.”

That’s also where most of the budget will come from.

So figure a six-figure salary and compensation package, which probably puts the executive director at $200,000 with another $100,000 to handle clerical spikes such as during filing periods. There’s even a chance, Grindle speculates, that another agency (such as the county Registrar of Voters) could help with such tracking during peak periods.

Larger efforts to go after conflict of interest issues would likely require board of supervisors’ budgetary approvals for hiring of investigators or attorneys.

Though again, at this stage, Grindle and county supervisors both agree that focusing on price is premature.

Grindle argues that inaction carries a greater cost, a greater risk.

“What’s our alternative — to have no enforcement? No accountability?” Grindle asks.

“What do you think happens if nobody is watching?”

  • Ed Romero

    How can you have a committee on Ethics when that Board Member refuses to admit that there is CORRUPTION IN COUNTY GOVERNMENT?. We have had 2 former Sheriff’s in Court, both should of gone to prison, but only one made it. We had that Lesbian Cronyism at the Probation Department, if that Board Member needs proof, how about that Detention Officer that was caught snorting/freebasing Cocaine at our Los Pinos Detention Center (AKA/The Lesbian Drug Den), the Director FIRED her and that Corrupt Asst. Chief Probation Officer REHIRED her and advised the Director to keep his mouth shut and destroy all the records, that Detention Officer was transferred to our Records Unit, I caught her Smoking Marijuana twice while on duty, they finally FIRED her again, only because I threatened to call the Santa Ana Police Department. Then we had that Deputy Probation Officer who was arrested 5 times for Marijuana for Sale, that Deputy that was arrested 5 times for Drunk Driving, both kept their jobs, all they had to do was make a Drug Delivery to that Corrupt Asst. Chief Probation Officer that use to Smoke so much Marijuana while on duty that my co-workers gave her the AKA/Marijuana Nancy. Then there was that Deputy Probation Officer that was ARRESTED 8 TIMES for Drunk Driving, he was an EXPERT at making Criminal Cases disappear before they got to the DA or Court. Then there was that Lesbian that followed the young Clerical Employees into the Restroom and PEEK under the door (at what I don’t know, Vagina’s are all the same), she had so many Sexual Harassment Complaints lodged against her that they threw her off the 3rd floor and sent her to our Records Unit where she continued her nasty behavior. Yes, Todd there is CORRUPTION in County Government and it’s led by all those members of the GOP, the rules apply to everyone EXCEPT THEM.

    • LFOldTimer

      If all this stuff you say is true this county has gone over the edge. As far a Spitzer is concerned, the more I’ve watched him in action the last couple years the more I’m convinced that running to him for help would be like running to Dracula to stop Frankenstein. Todd needs public safety endorsements to win that corner office in the DA’s building. I don’t think managing a clean county government is even on the ‘to do’ list.

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    In a NUTshell…….waste of money.

  • David Zenger

    “She says Steel and Fleischman (both staunch allies of Rackauckas) are
    just trying to scare voters by pulling out big budget numbers.”

    Um, yeah, maybe. But their conclusion is exactly correct. And they are not the ones balking at putting a price tag on this nonsense.

    $300,000 is $300,000 too much to help the County politicians fill out their paperwork correctly while palming it off on the public as something that has anything to do with “ethics.”

    It won’t wash. Obeying the law is not an matter of ethics, it is a matter of…law. Sort of like stopping at a stop sign.

    The behavior of the County electeds can remain as unethical as ever and all the niceties of TINCUP can be observed to the Nth degree. Having an “ethics commission” will not have an iota of influence stopping undue lobbying, vote swapping, district prerogative misfeasance, sole source policy abuse, gifts of public funds or any of the other cute habits practiced by the Supervisors.

    • LFOldTimer

      Quote #1: “$300,000 is $300,000 too much to help the County politicians fill out their paperwork correctly while palming it off on the public as something that has anything to do with “ethics.”
      Quote #2: “Having an “ethics commission” will not have an iota of influence stopping undue lobbying, vote swapping, district prerogative misfeasance, sole source policy abuse, gifts of public funds or any of the other cute habits practiced by the Supervisors.”
      For some odd reason Shirley seems to be having a hard time wrapping her head around those very simple common sense observations.

      • David Zenger

        “The primary purpose of this commission is to monitor campaign finance,”
        Grindle said, noting that most of the work she does on index cards
        requires a mix of clerical and investigative expertise.

        There you have it. Proof positive that this nonsense has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the public institutionalization of those damn index cards. Blaming the do-nothing DA isn’t the issue in campaign finance, either. it’s already the assignment of the FPPC.

        Of course the Supervisors finally got wise and realized that THEY could call it an “ethics” referendum, THEY could take the credit for doing something in the matter of ethics, and NOTHING would change except that the public would get stuck with a tab that the Supervisors now pretend in priceless.

        Actually doing something under the color of ethics that has no intrinsic ethical quality is itself just about the most unethical thing I can think of.

        • LFOldTimer

          Excellent analysis, David.
          This is yet another scam on several different levels.
          Hopefully some organization with clout will throw some money behind this prior to June to expose the truth to the OC taxpayer residents.
          The only ones who are truly aware of the shenanigans are the handful of us who keep a close eye on county government.
          Don’t expect the Register to expose the truth. The county shamans would be worried if they didn’t think the Register would circle the wagons for them.