The string of revelations at Anaheim City Hall of potential conflicts of interest among high-level city officials and employees has one good-government expert recommending that the city create an ethics commission.
Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said the revelations show a clear pattern of inattention toward possible conflicts of interest. He points to the absence of important safeguards against the threat of city insiders using their authority for personal gain.
Which is the reason, he said, an independent watchdog is important.
“It’s inevitably always a conflict to have city employees do it, because they have to potentially blow the whistle on their bosses,” Westen said. “There has to be some independent review so reporters don’t have to spend the rest of their lives figuring it out.”
This week, a Voice of OC story revealed that Councilwoman Kris Murray voted to approve a report by a subsidiary of Willdan Group, a consulting firm that employs her as its senior vice president. The subsidiary, Willdan Financial, has a $15,000 contract with the city that was renewed earlier this year.
The disclosures regarding Murray follow resignations by high-level officials in the city’s building division after Voice of OC investigations showed the city was outsourcing plan review work to their firms. Some inside City Hall say those revelations were among the key factors in the City Council’s decision last month to ask for City Manager Thomas Wood’s resignation.
Westen referred to a Los Angeles commission, set up more than 20 years ago, as a solid model for cities like Anaheim to follow. The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission enforces the city’s detailed ethics laws. The Center for Governmental Studies assisted the city in the late 1980s in drafting the ethics law that called for the commission, Westen said.
The commission, among other duties, is responsible for reviewing whether public officials’ outside employment could lead to conflicts of interest. The commission also enforces restrictions on gifts to public officials and post-employment lobbying.
Such independent oversight would help the city maintain the public’s trust, Westen said, because a regular audit would leave the public with little doubt about the dealings of city officials. “Ultimately it will save them a lot of complaints and maybe even litigation, if they get it right from the start,” Westen said.
Such a commission would be the first of its kind in Orange County, according to county watchdog Shirley Grindle. Not only has no public agency in the county created an ethics commission, but county supervisors turned down Grindle’s request for one three years ago.
Anaheim, however, doesn’t need an ethics commission, Grindle said. Murray’s controversial vote wouldn’t have happened if city officials simply lived up to their responsibility to pay close attention to the decisions they make, she asserted.
No ethics commission will closely review every public meeting agenda, Grindle said.
“I can tell you, particularly on the county level, that would be an impossible job. I don’t think an ethics commission would have stopped this [Murray’s vote],” Grindle said. “The fault is on her. She has to pay attention and be more careful about what she’s voting on.”