OC Supervisors Seek More Power Over Ethics Commission, By Changing What Voters Approved

Jeff Antenore, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

The supervisors who have publicly supported changing what voters approved for the ethics commission. From left: Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, and Andrew Do.

Orange County supervisors are preparing to change the law voters approved for a county ethics commission, in an effort to expand their influence over the panel tasked with enforcing campaign money violations by supervisors, their election opponents, and other county-level candidates.

The changes under discussion would modify the term of office for commissioners to either align with the term of their appointing supervisor, or grant each supervisor the power to choose how long their appointee serves.

The ethics commissioners are supposed to enforce county campaign and other rules that apply to the supervisors as well as other county office holders and candidates.

Supervisors can make the changes to the ethics commissioners’ terms without going to voters for approval, according to their top attorney.

Supervisor Andrew Do, who supports the effort, has suggested to his colleagues that they make it so the ethics commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the supervisor” who appointed them.

When he proposed it during a public discussion last month, none of the other supervisors opposed the idea. Do’s suggestion was: “Can we not have a term on it? Can we just make it at, at the pleasure of the supervisor?”

That’s concerning to Shirley Grindle, who co-authored the county’s campaign finance law and supported the ethics commission ballot measure.

“If they keep trying to emphasize ‘serving at the pleasure’ of the board, all they’re doing is telling the public that if their commissioner voted against them on a campaign finance issue or a gift ban issue, [then] that supervisor could get rid of them,” Grindle said in an interview.

“My concern is that this [ethics] commission needs to be as politically independent of any influence of the Board of Supervisors, because they’re the ones that [appoint] them to it. And what they’re doing is just creating more influence.”

So far, three of the five supervisors – Do, Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel – have publicly supported changing the term rules. If a fourth agrees to changes, the supervisors can make the changes without going to voters, according to their top attorney.

The supervisors already have the power to appoint all five ethics commissioners, and they can remove commissioners for any reason as long as four of the five supervisors approve the firing.

The changes being considered could give supervisors more frequent chances to remove commissioners without the appearance of firing them, by having shorter terms and appointing a different person to replace the incumbent.

The ballot measure to create the Campaign Finance and Ethics commission was overwhelmingly approved by 70 percent of county voters last June. It requires supervisors to create the commission to enforce the county’s campaign finance limits, lobbying law, gift ban and code of ethics.

While it’s been more than a year since voters ordered its creation, the supervisors still haven’t established the ethics commission, even as the campaign season for next year’s elections is already underway. Multiple candidates are actively fundraising for major county-level offices like sheriff-coroner, district attorney, and 4th District county supervisor.

Among those subject to enforcement by the ethics commission are the county supervisors, who make the commission appointments, and the supervisors’ election opponents.

Voters approved specific rules for the commission’s terms of office, which require initial terms of one, two, and three years – chosen at random – in order to set up staggered three-year terms later on.

But supervisors want to change that, and their top attorney, County Counsel Leon Page, said they can do it without voter approval. He said that’s because of a provision in the measure that allows supervisors to make major changes as long as four of the five supervisors approve and the changes “further the purposes” of the ethics commission measure.

Grindle said she seriously doubts the proposed changes fit that definition.

“The whole idea was to make this as independent of political influence as possible. And that is not what they’re doing,” she said. By increasing their influence, she said, “that is not furthering the purposes of this commission.”

The supervisors’ interest in changing the ordinance came into public view at their June 27 meeting, as they prepared to appoint the first ethics commissioner.

Page, the attorney, noted the voter-approved term rules require a random selection of which appointee gets the one, two, or three year initial term.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who nominated the first commissioner, Peter Agarwal, questioned that approach.

“Why wouldn’t we just do it based on our election terms?” Nelson said, to which Supervisor Andrew Do voiced his support.

“Our appointee should – should terminate with us, unless the next person wants to appoint them,” said Nelson, who is termed out in January 2019.

Page replied the voter-approved law already lays out how terms are supposed to work.

“Well the statute did provide for three-year terms, two-year terms, and [a] one-year term. That’s in the county ordinance,” said Page.

Do asked Nelson: “So you want to make it, serve at the pleasure of the, uh, supervisor?”

“Well we’re in that awkward situation where we’re starting anew,” Nelson replied, saying he has 18 months left in his term and his appointee “shouldn’t be forced on” his successor as 4th District supervisor.

“I just think the [commissioners’] terms ought to mirror ours,” Nelson said.

Do suggested each supervisor could have total discretion about how long they want their appointee to be on the commission.

“Can we not have a term on it? Can we just make it at, at the pleasure of the supervisor?” Do asked Page.

The county’s attorney reiterated that the law already specifies how the terms would function.

“The ordinance does provide for specified terms of office, for appointees to the ethics commission,” Page said.

But, he noted, supervisors can change the ordinance, by a four-fifths vote, if it “furthers the purposes” of the measure.

Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel, who has been an avid opponent of the ethics commission, was supportive.

“Why don’t we do that then? Yeah,” Steel said in response to Page explaining how to change the law.

The supervisors directed Page to come back with action they can take to change the rules for ethics commissioners’ terms. 

If Nelson, Do, and Steel want to make changes, they would have to gain support from at least one of the two other supervisors, Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett. Neither has publicly weighed in yet.

In the ethics commission measure they successfully put before voters, supervisors included provisions granting themselves the power to make substantial changes.

“Nothing in this article prevents the Orange County Board of Supervisors by majority vote from amending this article to make technical non-substantive changes or by a four-fifths vote from making substantive amendments to further the purposes of this article,” the ordinance states, in Section 1-2-116.

The supervisors also voted unanimously to appoint Nelson’s nominee, Agarwal, as the first of the five ethics commissioners. While supervisors talked about changing the commission terms, they didn’t discuss their first appointee at all, including Agarwal’s qualifications to serve on the commission.

Agarwal is a longtime appointee of the supervisors to various entities, including CalOptima, the county Waste Management Commission and Audit Oversight Committee. CalOptima is the county’s federally and state financed health plan for low-income, disabled and elderly county residents.

Agarwal works as a bank branch manager with Citizens Business Bank in Fullerton and is a board member of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce

The proposed changes to the commissioners’ term lengths could come before supervisors at one of their upcoming meetings. The topic is not on the public agenda for Tuesday’s meeting; the following meeting is scheduled for July 25. Public comments on any issue under the supervisors’ jurisdiction are heard at the beginning of the meetings, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Lyanna Lyns

    Anyone dumb enough to think that the BoS wants ethics should be sold some land in Florida…cheap. They are allergic to ethics. They crave power and control over their money making scams like a fat kid craves birthday cake. Nelson’s former Chief of Staff told a county employee in an email that ethics were an ever evolving and redefined concept, when it came to the board. No wonder poor Sean looks confused in every photo. These five people are worse than any gang leaders, drug dealers or other scum brought in for trial. Those people don’t pretend to be leaders or role models. They know what they are. I can’t think of anything worse than being related to one of these lowlifes…talk about family shame.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    I totally oppose the Board of Supervisors messing with the Ethics Commission Ordinance approved by the voters. They haven’t even got the Commission itself up and running and some of them are already talking about changing it — just confirms why the general public has little trust for elected officials. It takes a 4/5 vote by the Board to change the ordinance,= and I don’t think they have a 4th vote. Better to let the Commission get up and running.

    • LFOldTimer

      I envisioned this before the EC even went to a vote of the people, Shirley. And I warned you about it in my VOC comments.

      You’re well aware of the sneaky and underhanded history of the BoS. You’ve seen the many times the BoS has back-stabbed the public.

      Yet you played ball with them and got snookered.

      “…and I don’t think they have a 4th vote….”

      And if you’re wrong I will lose my trust in you since you contributed to the sham.

  • Ed Romero

    The Board of Supervisor’s should have NOTHING to do with the Ethics Commission. It was all the past Board Members that LOOKED THE OTHER WAY, when all those Dirty Crooks at the O C Probation Department were Dealing Drugs, Smoking Marijuana, Snorting and Freebasing Cocaine and Hiring and Promoting their numerous Lesbian Friends to positions that should of gone to more QUALIFIED applicants. It was that past Board of Supervisor’s that selected that Asst. Chief Probation Officer that was caught shoplifting 8 times, she Smoked so much Marijuana while on duty that the entire 5 floors of the Probation Department were flooded with Marijuana fumes, the cafeteria was full of Local Law Enforcement Officers and NO ONE did a thing about it. The Board of Supervisor’s sent this Dirty Crook to represent the County of Orange at that Seminar in Ethics in County Government. She was SNUBBED at the Seminar, her reputation followed her up there. Who Rotten and Crooked do you have to be to send such a person anywhere to Represent the County of Orange.

  • Paul Lucas

    What andrew do is proposing is wrong as it simply negates the whole idea of an ethics commisasion which should be independent.

  • Ed Romero

    All you have to do is some research on the present and former Board of Supervisors and you will learn they have no BUSINESS dealing with the Ethics Commission. I remember the Board of Supervisors selecting that former Asst. Chief Probation Officer that was caught shoplifting 8 times and never spent on day in Jail. She use to Smoke so much Marijuana while on duty that our Main Office Building sometimes looked like a FOGGY day in Fresno, my co-workers gave he the AKA/Marijuana Nancy. She had her very own Gang of Drug Dealers, they would make Drug Deliveries right into her Office while on duty, most of them were Deputy Probation Officers including that Deputy Probation Officer that was arrested 5 times for Marijuana for Sale and that other Deputy Probation Officer arrested 5 times for Drug Driving, all they had to do was make a Drug Delivery and all was FORGIVEN. She is also the same person that I caught DESTROYING Probation Criminal Records on 2 different occasions. She was known though out the Probation Department as Nancy the Thief, Nancy the Wallet Stealer (she would steal employee wallets and use their Credit Cards and Check Books), She would come to the rescue of any of her Lesbian Employees who got caught doing some illegal, like that former Detention Officer who was caught Snorting/Freebasing Cocaine at our Los Pinos Detention Center, this is who the Board of Supervisors selected to represent the County of Orange at the Seminar in Ethics in County Government. She was SNUBBED at the Seminar by other Attendees, her reputation followed her up there. Everyone know what was going on and NO ONE SAID a thing about it. At times the Probation Department was full of Local Law Enforcement Officers and the Cafeteria was full of Marijuana fumes, one time I was in elevator with 2 Anaheim Police Officers and the Marijuana fumes were pouring out of the Air Vent and NOTHING was done about. So you see the Board of Supervisors has NO BUSINESS inferring with the Ethics Commision

    • Lyanna Lyns

      SSA has a supervisor who is the up and coming star, enabling all of the corrupt BoS guys. He has sex on his desk with subordinates, or in the parking lot, and he does so much coke right off his desk, you would swear it was snowing. He has a little gang of younger fanboys who do his bidding, and he is known for throwing chairs, books, packages and other things at employees who tick him off. He promotes women based on the tight pencil skirts and kneepads they wear, and makes crude comments in staff meetings about women having hot flashes or not having had relations in a while. But they love him, and he is the rising star of the agency, untouchable because of who he is related to. Disgusting.

  • Jane Rands

    Ms. Grindle is not to blame for the actions of the members of the BOS. Her initial proposal for this commission did not have the BOS appointing the commission members. It was the County Counsel that said it could not work that way.

    I do, however, find it useful, separate of the intended benefit of the voter approved commission, in that it helps to show the BOS for what they are and their absolute disdain for any accountability to the public they were elected to serve.

    • verifiedsane

      Grindle got played…as the BoS took a noble idea, and turned into another shameful scam being perpetrated upon the citizenry

      • LFOldTimer

        Spitzer, et. al., used Shirley’s watchdog persona to help kick their EC scam over the finish line.

        I wonder if the BoS will consult w/ Shirley about taking full control over the commissioners prior to their vote???? hah. Figure the odds.

        They don’t need her anymore. All they need now is county counsel’s green light – which they already have.

        ETHICS Commission??? hah. What a total farce.

        All pre-planned.

        Just like the OIR scam.

        Just like the Public Integrity Unit (PIU) scam.

        I told you so.

        Any comment, Shirley?

  • LFOldTimer

    I tried to warn you, Shirley. You told me I was just being negative.

    This entire fiasco was nothing more than a head fake and a power grab.

    The Board controls the Director and now will totally control the Commissioners.

    Like I said before, this scam was like Dracula appointing a commission to oversee the blood bank operations in Transylvania.

    They played you like a fiddle, Shirley.

    • David Zenger

      “They played you like a fiddle, Shirley.”

      Grindle got exactly what she wanted – the public to take over her index card collection. It was a validation.

  • verifiedsane

    Another tax payer boondoggle & toothless BoS controlled watch dog doing exactly what it was intended to do…and that is absolutely nothing, except to act as window dressing for the deeply corrupt and self serving ruling oligarchy….Sadly, just another OIR http://voiceofoc.org/2016/02/santana-the-demise-of-oir-should-trigger-calls-to-feds/

  • David Zenger

    Very Kafkaesque. Who cares?

    If this commission were intended to do anything the Supervisors would NEVER have put it on the ballot in the first place.