While Republican candidates Lisa Bartlett, Mayor of Dana Point, and Robert Ming, former Mayor of Laguna Niguel are challenging each other for the 5th District county supervisor’s seat this November, at a Thursday debate they seemed more like candidates running on the same ticket, agreeing on most of the questions regarding transportation, transparency and ethics in county government.

Bartlett and Ming debated before a crowd of 50 at the private Pacific Club in Newport Beach. The event was hosted by the Orange County Public Affairs Association and moderated by Martin Wisckol, politics editor at the Orange County Register.

The tone was far more amicable than a previous heated debate between State Senate candidates Janet Nguyen and Jose Solorio, who spent as much time criticizing each other as they did answering questions.

Wisckol commented before the start of the debate that Bartlett and Ming seemed to share more commonalties than they did differences, asking them to each name a quality distinguishing them from the other.

Both Bartlett and Ming agreed that the difference is their own “leadership,” pointing to their job experience and accomplishments while serving on local boards and committees.

Bartlett, who was first elected to the Dana Point city council in 2006, pointed to her private sector management experience and service on regional government boards, such as the Transportation Corridor Authority (TCA) and Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), as essential experience her opponent does not have.

Ming, a two-term mayor of Laguna Niguel, emphasized his experience at an investment banking firm as key exposure to evaluating the financial soundness of companies, as well as his experience on the regional boards of the Association of California Cities – Orange County (ACC-OC) and League of California Cities.

Although both candidates said economic revitalization is a high priority, there was no discussion of plans for revitalizing Dana Point Harbor, a project that has been in the planning phase for 15 years with no start to construction.

A 2013 Grand Jury’s report voiced concern over a lack of documentation and in the RFP process for the project management company, invoices lacking key information about the specific task and completion, and an erroneous attempt to change the project management company’s contract to sole-source when it originally went out for bid.

Ming mentioned that the Dana Point Harbor project needs to be seen to completion, but didn’t go into further detail.

Bartlett, a former TCA chair, named traffic and highway improvement projects at the top of her list of priorities. The TCA is a local authority on toll roads.

“In South Orange County, we’re all in gridlock. The 241 toll road…we need to get that completed down to the I-5. We have 14,000 homes being built now in Rancho Mission Viejo. There’s only one way to get in and out of that area,” Bartlett said. “Really solving our traffic and mobility problems — everything flows from that.”

Asked whether she supports adding toll lanes to the 405 freeway, Bartlett said toll lanes are a “likely” option. She said the county needs to be more proactive in putting forth local traffic solutions rather than allowing the state to implement its own ideas and “and take all the money.”

Alternative transportation options like light rail, such as proposed streetcar lines in Santa Ana and Anaheim, are “outstanding ideas that take people off roads” and connect cities, Bartlett said.

Ming said that at present, the 405 toll lanes are an inappropriate use of voter-approved Measure M transportation funds, but that he is open to toll lanes to reduce traffic congestion in the future. Light rail, he said, needs to be used widely in order to be a viable undertaking.

“I think light rail depends on the density of people and value for price of land you buy. It makes sense in Santa Ana, but I’m not sure about Anaheim. It’s very expensive and I’m not sure there are the ridership numbers that support that,” Ming said.

Ming named public employee pension reform among his top priorities, underlining his work as head of a pension committee for ACC-OC, where he helped develop a list of “best practices” for local pension reform.

He is a proponent of initiatives like the Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) ordinance adopted by county supervisors in June, modeled after a 2012 ordinance in the city of Costa Mesa. It requires public disclosure of formal offers and counter-offers for labor contracts, a detailed financial analysis of proposed agreements and the posting of the agreements 30 days in advance of voting on their approval.

The debate over transparency of labor deals before they’re approved has intensified in Orange County as public sector budgets have been squeezed by the rising annual costs to the county pension system, with the county’s unfunded liability rising from $1 billion in 2004 to more than $5 billion today.

A combination of increasing benefits, market losses and changes to actuarial assumptions contribute to the skyrocketing cost of pensions.

Bartlett described employee pensions are a “huge problem” but did not offer any immediate solutions. She said exercising moderation in employee benefit packages is just as important to fiscal prudence.

“You need to be fair in your benefit package because you need a good hiring and retention policy. Employee turnover is very expensive, and you might save a lot on the front end but you lose on the back end if you lose good people. You need a balance there,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said requirements under COIN for noticing the public are too onerous.

“I think COIN might be too far in one direction. We want transparency but we don’t want to micromanage where to you spend an inordinate amount of time [trying] to post everything in a timely fashion. You’re going to get in trouble,” she said.

Both candidates said they supported outsourcing more county services, provided numbers back the quality of service and financial benefits of handing over certain services to contractors.

“Everything should be analyzed for contracting out,” Ming said.

“Contracting out 100 percent or using in-house all the time is not always a good idea,” Bartlett added.

Asked to name a county department that they believe requires greater scrutiny, both Bartlett and Ming declined to pick on any individual department.

Bartlett said mismanagement is “endemic” countywide and emphasized bringing in new leadership, such as the new director of Public Works, Shane Silsby, who previously worked for the City of Phoenix.

“We need that kind of leadership in all departments. And I’m not going to name names, but if we have that kind of mindset we could have a very efficient County of Orange,” she said.

Ming said that while all departments could use greater scrutiny, county employees currently work in an untenable environment.

“The problem is staff are in an environment where everything they do is a politically charged attack. That’s not a way to promote risk-taking and innovation, and we need to change that atmosphere,” Ming said.

Both candidates said the county needed to increase ethics oversight, but do not support the formation of an independent ethics commission or Measure E, a ballot measure that would authorize the state Federal Political Practices Commission to prosecute violations of county campaign finance laws.

Supervisors rejected a proposal to form an ethics commission Tuesday. Measure E will be on the ballot in November.

“I don’t think we need a new commission or a new budget line item. I think what we need to do is elect people that would be ethical,” Ming said.

He questioned whether the state could competently enforce local law. Ming said he would support a campaign finance law to require donors to indicate “whether those donations are coming from them or someone else.”

“Disclosing conversations is part of transparency that the public needs — on the money side and the political side,” Ming said.

Barlett agreed.

“We need to be able to trace the dollars. If it’s XYZ company and it’s got a person associated with it, it may not be apparent in terms of connecting the dots…so we need to set a method up to trace those dollars,” Barlett said. “Local policy and local control… is really important. It shouldn’t be governed by the state and we don’t need a new commission.”

Another transparency-oriented ordinance, yet to be passed by the Board of Supervisors, would require an independent assessment of contract costs and require supervisors to disclose conversations with any business interests or lobbyists seeking a contract leading up to a vote.

Bartlett said public disclosure with lobbyists and business interests is important.

“I think for the sake of disclosure and transparency it’s a good idea,” Bartlett said.

She also expressed concerns with the bid process for county contracts.

“I have concerns with the RFP process. It doesn’t take into account change orders, and that’s where the county budget gets ballooned,” Bartlett said, referring to the process where the county can amend a contract amount without going back to the Board for a vote.

Bartlett has been criticized for, during her time as chair of the toll road agency, the use of a board resolution that allows the agency’s CEO and chair to approve contracts without notifying the entire board, as long as they have a legislative purpose. At the time, Bartlett defended the contracting power as necessary for reacting quickly to legislative action in Sacramento and Washington D.C. that could hurt the agency.

Although the contracts Bartlett approved were worth $188,000, change orders later increased the total amount to $372,200.

She was stripped of that authority by the board in February.

Although he felt the ordinance was a political tactic, Ming agreed with the disclosure of communications.

“I think they’re taking pot shots at the supervisors. I get it’s a battle up there. The one thing I do like is the disclosure of those conversations — there’s nothing wrong with disclosing if they are having conversations with businesses,” Ming said. “I would be proud to have lots of things to disclose, because if I’m having a lot of conversations with people, I’m looking for solutions.”

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