Tracking how county elected officials vote during public meetings isn’t always easy, especially because California gives county boards of supervisors a lot of latitude on how decisions are recorded.
That can be a challenge for the county clerk who has to scramble each week to record the official decisions produced when jockeying politicians debate hot issues from the dais of Orange County’s board of supervisors.
Consider the vote tally requested last month by Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is running for the 34th State Senate District in November and Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
When confronted with a public vote by the five-member board seeking to oppose establishment of an ethics commission, as requested by the local grand jury, Nguyen had an interesting take.
“She (Nguyen) doesn’t want be seen as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Orange County Clerk of the Board Susan Novak said to Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson at the end of the discussion, as she tried to figure out how the board members voted.
Determining a final vote took about a day and a half with Novak privately checking with Nguyen and Spitzer to make sure she recorded their votes the way they wanted.
In the end, she reported the full board voted 5-0 to oppose the grand jury’s ethics commission recommendation.
Yet Novak inserted an important addition. Although no official vote was taken, Nguyen and Spitzer are recorded as also voting to agree with the grand jury on some sections of the board’s official response to the ethics recommendations.
The two supervisors had said during the public meeting that they opposed sections of the board’s response to the grand jury and wanted to vote no on those parts, but no separate vote was taken on the items.
The official board video shows Novak’s questions to Nelson. In an interview with Voice of OC, Novak said after the meeting she sent copies of her proposed summary of what happened to Spitzer and Nguyen for their approval.
Yet the public was never allowed to witness her interchange with Nguyen and Spitzer, much less opine on whether it was appropriate.
The approach used by the board on the grand jury ethics issue isn’t addressed in the board’s official Rules of Procedure for its meetings.
Public standards for accuracy and board of supervisor voting procedures vary across southern California, with Los Angeles and San Diego counties paying much more attention to the accurate recording of meetings and votes than Orange, San Bernardino or Riverside Counties.
Frank Zerunyan, professor of government practices at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, said in general allowing supervisors to insert piecemeal votes into an overall public policy vote is “problematic.”
When a board votes that way, said Zerunyan, a lawyer and expert advisor to a United Nations committee that helps foreign nations with public policy issues, “you create confusion about what a ‘no’ vote means.”
A better procedure is to split the issue into several parts, and have everyone vote on each part, if there seems to be opposition to pieces, said Zerunyan, a member of the Rolling Hills Estates city council and its former mayor.
So Ethics? For or Against?
In its June report, Orange County’s grand jury called on county supervisors to help create a strong, independent county ethics “program” to police the conduct of county officials and lobbyists.
“Ethics bodies work effectively to deter, detect, and punish ethics violations,” concluded grand jurors, triggering angry public responses from county supervisors and even efforts to cut grand jury pay.
“Vigorous ethics monitoring and enforcement is necessary to develop and maintain trust in government.”
After publicly venting for months, the supervisors’ Sept. 16 vote was their formal response.
According to the county’s summary that ultimately was produced, all five supervisors voted in favor of the staff report that listed the individual items, including opposition to creating an independent ethics commission.
At the same time, Spitzer and Nguyen are officially recorded as voting “no” to section R1 of the board’s response. That section puts the board on record as opposing the grand jury recommendation that the board put an ethics commission on the ballot and ask voters whether to approve it.
Nguyen also is officially recorded as voting “no” on three other sections of the response. She did not return phone calls to discuss her votes.
Spitzer said in an interview “I support an ethics commission” but the details aren’t clear yet. He said he tried to make his position clear during the supervisors’ discussion. But when Nelson announced the final vote, Nelson left out Spitzer’s “no” on the overall board’s opposition to putting the ethics commission up for voter approval.
Toward the end of the supervisors’ ethics discussion, Nelson asked if any of his colleagues were opposed to the motion on the floor, which he did not detail.
Nguyen responded: “just my comments, of all the items individually.”
Novak tried to publicly figure out which way Nguyen was voting.
“She doesn’t want be seen as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Novak said.
“Well she can vote on the motion, but her comments stand on their own. I mean, they will be part of the record. Actually they are at this point,” said Nelson.
Nguyen then reiterated her opposition to parts of the board’s response to the grand jury.
“The ones that I did not make comments to, yes I agree with staff’s recommendation. But the ones I did make comments – those, especially the ones I said ‘no’ – I’m not supportive of staff’s recommendation. So I’m not overall supportive [of] the item. It’s individually,” Nguyen told Novak.
“There’s [a] couple that wasn’t a ‘no’, it was a comment – ‘yes’ with a comment. So please take a look at that again,” Nguyen added.
“Alright. With that, are there any opposed?” asked Nelson. None of his colleagues voiced opposition.
“Alright. Noted, with the exceptions of Supervisor Nguyen. Passes, sort of, 5-0,” said Nelson, and moved on to the next issue on the agenda.
Under the supervisors’ practice, Nguyen couldn’t get a chance to review that messy motion because Orange County supervisors, unlike Los Angeles and San Diego, don’t vote to officially approve the meeting summaries.
Orange County stopped voting on minutes and transcribing full transcripts of meetings 50 years ago, according to the clerk’s office.
Today, no one is sure why supervisors don’t publicly vote on the summaries that list agenda items and official vote tallies at their next public meeting – like many jurisdictions, like the Orange County Water District or the Orange County Transportation Agency.
Spitzer, who got the supervisors to start using an audio recording of each meeting as the official record of board actions when he was a member of the board in the early 2000s, said he hadn’t realized he and his colleagues don’t vote on the summaries.
Most other local agencies in Orange County do have their boards take formal votes on their meeting summaries.
“I like to approve the minutes because it ensures that the clerk accurately reflects what occurred,” he said.
“You and I both know, we’ve been at meetings where the body has acted and people walking out of the meeting saying ‘what just happened?’ ‘What did they do?’ ‘Will someone tell me what they just did?’” said Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg, creator of Rosenberg’s Rules of Order for local government, in his roughly five-year-old training video for local officials.
“Well, it should never be that way.”
“If we all know what the rules are, we’re all equal,” Rosenberg added in a telephone interview.
Rosenberg, a former Yolo County supervisor, and other county government and meeting experts said it is extremely important for public sessions to follow clear, easily understood procedures.
“It’s very easy to work with parliamentary procedure because it keeps everything in check,” said Dr. Lovene Knight of the Los Angeles branch of the California State Association of Parliamentarians, whose members primarily advise private industry. “It keeps things from getting out of control.”
The basics for U.S. public meetings were laid out in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert, a U.S. Army officer and engineer who was called on to lead a controversial public meeting in Massachusetts that disintegrated into confusion because he didn’t know what he was doing.
Embarrassed, he developed Robert’s Rules of Order, which successors have updated.
But many local governments, including Orange County, have moved away from strictly following Robert’s Rules and adapted them to their own procedures.
While each county can do it its own way, as long as it follows overarching state laws on issues like public meetings and announcing votes, Rosenberg and others said fundamentally “you’ve got to make it real clear to everybody ‘what happened.’”
His training video and other public meeting recommended procedures are available on line through The Institute for Local Government, a research and education arm of the California State Association of Counties or CSAC and the League of California Cities.
Among Rosenberg’s training video recommendations: “Rules should be clear. Simple rules lead to wider understanding and participation. Complex rules create two classes: those who understand and participate; and those who do not fully understand and do not fully participate.”
And, he teaches, “make sure if you’re the chair, the president, the mayor, you tell not only the body but also the public, also the secretary what it is you just did.”
After Voice of OC began asking supervisors about meeting procedures, the board this week reverted to the system parliamentarians generally recommend for complicated items.
One issue on the Sept. 30 agenda had four parts. Nguyen said she wanted to vote “no” on three of the four and “yes” on one part.
At Spitzer’s suggestion, the board took two separate votes.
All five supervisors voted in favor of the part of the item that had no opposition.
The other three parts were then lumped together for a single vote.
Nguyen voted “no” on the other three and the other supervisors voted to approve them.