County Supervisor Todd Spitzer was challenged Tuesday by fellow Supervisor John Moorlach over a $25,000 contract given to Spitzer’s campaign consultant for work on a crime victims memorial that Spitzer had indicated would receive no taxpayer dollars.
The issue came up as Spitzer asked supervisors to retroactively approve the contract with the public relations firm Communications Lab, owned by his campaign consultant, Arianna Barrios.
“I asked you [Spitzer] specifically … and you said ‘we have to raise money and that’s all going to be done privately,’ no taxpayer dollars,” Moorlach said.
“For construction,” Spitzer said.
“That didn’t seem to be the suggestion. I’m having difficulty with how this is being handled,” said Moorlach.
County Auditor Controller Jan Grimes withheld payment to Barrios who was hired by the county under questionable circumstances to spearhead a $25,000 public relations blitz in April for the unveiling of a victims memorial at Mason Regional Park in Irvine.
With the auditor blocking payment, Spitzer brought the $25,000 bill to the board of supervisors.
He said he takes responsibility for the “hiccup.”
“I feel a responsibility to fix it,” said Spitzer, adding the design competition, which was largely organized by Barrios, brought international attention to Orange County.
A Voice of OC review of internal county documents showed county parks staff objected strongly when they were inundated by requests from Spitzer’s office for unauthorized arrangements and excessive preparations for the April event.
The event was authorized a year earlier by supervisors – with the express mention that public resources wouldn’t be spent on one supervisor’s pet project.
A staff report for the item in April 2013 noted there would be no financial impact from the memorial construction. According to the report, even staff time to organize the event would be “minor,” mainly depending on OC Parks and Spitzer’s staff to get announcements out and process design applications.
That didn’t turn out to be the case.
Documents indicate county staffers who work for Spitzer – who also represents crime victims as a private attorney – also apparently were advocating to parks staff that his campaign consulting firm – Barrios’ Communications Lab – be paid to engage in fundraising activities for the event.
Following internal pushback and news coverage of the issue, Spitzer on Tuesday said he planned to pay for the contract out of his county office budget – instead of OC Parks funds or his campaign account.
As a county supervisor, Spitzer has authority to approve contracts from his office budget up to $25,000.
But, as Moorlach pointed out, those are still public dollars.
“I was assured there would be no public funds used for this project. That was my understanding,” said Moorlach. “I’m having a little heartburn with that.”
Moorlach wanted his colleagues to instead approve the contract payment as a “loan” to whatever nonprofit organization ends up fundraising for the park. The $25,000 would be reimbursed to the county after private funds are raised.
His idea failed to gain traction with Spitzer or with supervisors Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen. Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson was absent from the meeting.
“It was a timing issue. And we’ve all been in that situation, so I’m frankly glad that you moved on it” so we could get that attendance at the April event, Bates told Spitzer.
“Thank you for coming out front and owning the issue,” Nguyen told Spitzer.
Supervisors’ penchant for using county agencies for their own political purposes has created friction within the county bureaucracy for years. County human resources in 2013 had to establish a policy to stop questionable transfers of political aides into county agencies.
Nguyen came under fire in 2012 for her coordination with county agencies – such as Social Services and the Sheriff’s Department – on events in the First District with reports that signs at such events didn’t highlight the agency but instead touted Nguyen.
Bates also came under fire for questionable staff transfers from her office into the county bureaucracy as well as efforts by her office to influence enforcement of the county’s sex offender park ban near Dana Point Harbor.
On Tuesday, the supervisors ultimately voted 4-0 to remove the request that they authorize the Barrios contract, with the understanding that Spitzer would use his office budget to pay for it. They also approved a design for the victims’ memorial.
A directive was also given to county staff to talk to local nonprofits – particularly the Orange County Community Foundation – about managing the park’s design, fundraising, construction and maintenance.
It remains to be seen who will take responsibility for maintaining the memorial.
“I don’t want to create another Civic Center situation with the plaques,” Spitzer said, referring to the long-neglected Orange County Walk of Honor just outside the supervisors’ offices in the county Civic Center.
Local veterans advocates became so disgusted with the state of the plaques they recently took it on themselves to clean the memorial wall.
Separate from the Barrios contract, supervisors praised the final design of the victims’ memorial.
“I see this as a spiritual resource in our community,” said Bates.
Of the winning design, Spitzer said “it’s a beautiful, beautiful statement I think. And I think the crime victims are just overwhelmed.”
“It’s embracing. It’s like a blanket around someone’s shoulders.”
The discussion also prompted most of the supervisors to recall their own experiences as crime victims.
Moorlach said he was robbed at gunpoint twice in the 1970s while working at the Trojan drive-thru dairy in Cypress. A few days later, three other employees in Hawaiian Gardens were killed and left in a refrigerator, he said.
“We were very, very fortunate to not have been killed,” said Moorlach.
Nguyen said she was robbed at gunpoint in her San Bernardino County home as a teenager.
“Unfortunately the gun was right to my head” when she tried to activate an alarm, Nguyen said.
Bates said her sister and brother-in-law were lost in “a very tragic domestic violence issue.”
“When you lose somebody in a violent action, a homicide like that…the pain is there,” Bates said.
The planning process for the memorial park has provided “a moment of comfort” for victims, she added. “There was a bonding, a coming together.”