With the Orange County Board of Supervisors poised to ask the state Legislature to authorize the Fair Political Practices Commission to take over campaign finance enforcement in Orange County, there is confusion about how that might work.

Last week, a motion by supervisors began a process that could end with voters approving a transfer of local enforcement power to the FPPC from the district attorney’s Office, which currently polices campaign finance for countywide offices under the county’s Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics or TINCUP ordinance.

Throughout the discussion of the issue on the dais, however, there was a strong sense from supervisors that if this transfer took place, the county’s per-election cycle contribution limits could shift to the state’s standard, thereby more than doubling from $1,900 to $4,100.

In the end, the supervisors officially asked the Legislature to maintain the county’s current campaign contribution limits, but that would require the Legislature to make an exception for Orange County.

“We can’t enforce local limits unless we get legislative authority and the contract with the county says we can,” said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga.

Regardless, the change, supervisors said, would lead to better training of elected officials on campaign finance and more accountability.

“Under this plan we would all be audited — every single elected official,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at last week’s board meeting. “It’s a great enforcement mechanism.”

Ironically, the genesis of the supervisors’ proposal is a harshly critical report by last year’s county grand jury that elicited sharp responses at the time from members of the board.

The grand jury report, titled “A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County,” described a “culture of corruption” in county government that dates back to the 1970s and allegedly continues today.

“From 1974-77, an eye-popping 43 Orange County political figures were indicted, among them, two congressmen, three supervisors and the county assessor,” the report stated. “Sadly, the conduct continues today at all levels of Orange County government.”

The grand jury asserted that county officials must “embrace comprehensive ethics reform to reduce incidents of corruption in the future.” It called for an ethics commission to lay the groundwork for political reforms and creation of an “oversight authority.”

A majority of the supervisors lambasted the report when it was issued, calling it “shameful” and based on isolated incidents. They went on to say that the costs of a commission would be “wasteful.”

Spitzer was the only supervisor to agree with the commission recommendation.

But while most supervisors characterized the grand jury’s recommendations as unnecessary and impractical, the report now is pointed to as the origin of their reform.

“In response to a 2013 Grand Jury Report, an ad hoc subcommittee of the Board, consisting of Chairman [Shawn] Nelson and Supervisor Spitzer, reviewed the Grand Jury recommendation that the Board of Supervisors create an independent County Ethics Commission,” begins county staff’s narrative of the proposal.

County officials plan to pay the FPPC about $250,000 per year for its services.

Nelson said the FPPC model has worked well in San Bernardino County, which implemented it last year with state contribution limits.

“They seem really happy with the way things have worked,” Nelson said. “Everyone understands it, there’s consistency … the public and the electeds know what the system is.”

At least one supervisor, however, acknowledged that the support of local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle would be crucial to getting the changes passed by Orange County voters.

Grindle is the author of TINCUP, the 1978 ordinance that established the framework for the current contribution limits and gave the DA authority to enforce them. Any changes to TINCUP require voter approval.

“Should she be oppositional or should she be favorable,” it will “make a big difference,” said Supervisor John Moorlach at last week’s meeting.

If the transfer of enforcement power meant an increase in local campaign contribution limits, Grindle said she would oppose the change.

“I certainly will not support the board … dropping TINCUP, and I will urge all the voters not to let that happen,” Grindle said in an interview.

“The average voter out there probably agrees that the politicians are collecting too much money for their campaigns to begin with.”

Supporting this position was Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who was recently called out by Grindle for taking too much campaign money from the county’s main employee’s union.

“I don’t want to take a stand in weakening TINCUP,” Nguyen said last week, adding that she’d be abstaining from voting on the issue.

When supervisors first announced they were looking at the FPPC model last summer, Grindle said she was generally supportive.

At the time, it was thought that the FPPC would be enforcing the more restrictive TINCUP regulations. Grindle said her only worry was about the long periods of time the FPPC often takes in its investigations.

That was before it emerged that TINCUP would need to be repealed in order to bring in the FPPC.

“They want more money,” Grindle said of the supervisors. “They want the higher limit. They want to be able to get $4,100 … from their big contributor so they won’t have to go around and get lots of smaller contributions from others. It makes it easier for them.”

Grindle is often on her own in enforcing the contribution limits, relying on thousands of handwritten index cards listing contributions. She still supports an ethics commission model, where retired judges oversee an executive director and issue fines.

(Click here to read Grindle’s proposed ethics commission ordinance.)

Grindle estimated that copying down the contribution data for the last filing period took her four hours a day for seven days. The commission’s executive director would take over that role and commissioners would meet two or three times in election years.

“I think that practically everybody who violates the ordinance will correct it rather than go to the commission” and be fined, Grindle said.

Nelson, meanwhile, said there are a number of practical hurdles to overcome in creating a commission like one proposed by grand jurors.

“It’s a lot of wishful thinking, and the grand jury knows better,” Nelson said in an interview. “How do you get these perfect people? And where do you get a budget?”

“I think the FPPC, if people are truly desirous of an independent body, it’s the only one that really makes any sense. They’re independent, they don’t rely on the county to exist, they don’t rely on the county for training” or for its budget.

Several local officials have been caught violating TINCUP in recent years.

In 2007, the state Attorney General charged Nguyen with five counts of violating TINCUP, with $2,500 in fines levied.

This past October at Grindle’s urging, Nguyen returned a $1,700 contribution from the Orange County Employees Association.

More recently, former Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu was found to have violated TINCUP when he took $1,700 in illegal campaign contributions from a hotel developer during his failed run for county supervisor.

Sidhu later voted for a $158-million taxpayer subsidy for the developer, Bill O’Connell.

To move forward with the FPPC approach, a bill would have to be approved by the state Legislature and signed by the governor. Then the change would have to be approved by Orange County voters.

“That’s a long road, and I think not an easy one,” Moorlach warned at the meeting.

“I would think that the vote loses, based on some of the prior votes on TINCUP and how well it passed.”

Correction: In a previous version of this article, the headline and lead paragraph incorrectly stated that the Orange County Board of Supervisors is seeking an increase in local campaign contribution limits. The article has been updated to reflect the board’s intent to maintain the current contribution limits. We regret the error.

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

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