Just weeks after winning her South County supervisor’s seat in November, some county vendors were stunned to get a fundraising pitch from Supervisor-Elect Lisa Bartlett.
Recipients were encouraged to immediately commit to donating up to $3800 to Bartlett’s campaign.
“Special thanks to everyone that made this victory possible,” read the invite to the Nov. 19 fundraiser at the Mozambique restaurant in Laguna Beach where donors would be encouraged to become a $3,800 “host” for the Bartlett for Supervisor campaign.
A “co-host” would have to commit to raising $1,900.
In order to enable maxing out to the legal limit, donors were encouraged on the event flyer to provide their spouse’s name, occupation and employer.
Others who couldn’t max out to the legal limit were encouraged to purchase $250 tickets to the event.
For many county vendors, there’s a fear that as development across the county unincorporated areas comes to an end – and those campaign dollars increasingly dry up – they will increasingly be targeted for invites to fundraisers held by debt-ridden county elected officials like Bartlett.
“I call them the captive audience,” said Shirley Grindle, a longtime Orange County campaign finance activist who wrote the county’s ordinance, TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics), which voters adopted back in 1978.
That era, fueled by a boom of housing development, unleashed a corrupt culture among Orange County elected officials, a recent grand jury concluded.
Just a few years ago, Orange County’s Sheriff was indicted for public corruption.
Grand jurors concluded, as has Grindle, that Orange County needs an ethics commission. Supervisors have angrily resisted such calls, saying such a commission would be politicized.
This year, Supervisor Todd Spitzer – expected to take on the role of the supervisors’ chairman this year – has said that a full ethics review will be on the table.
Yet the campaign finance realities for elected officials are complicated.
Bartlett is saddled with more than $137,000 in campaign debt from her campaign against Laguna Niguel Mayor Robert Ming this past fall. She owes another $71, 480 to her campaign consultants.
Neither Bartlett, nor her Chief of Staff Paul Walters, wanted to talk about the issue and didn’t return a call for comment.
Bartlett isn't the only one in debt.
According to Grindle's monitoring of public records, incoming Assessor Claude Parrish has a debt of $481,200 -- to himself.
Incoming County Supervisor Michelle Steel has a debt of $300,000 with $29,000 in unpaid bills.
Grindle said vendors are right to be offended. Candidates should be raising money from people, not vendors. That’s what the limits are intended to encourage.
“I don’t approve of any of this. I would be pissed off,” Grindle said, acknowledging vendor ire. “This has been going on for 50 years.”
Grindle said it’s fair for vendors who got Bartlett’s invite to assume that Orange County operates on a pay-to-play system.
“It’s always been this way,” Grindle said.
Grindle, a former planning commissioner, recalls during her term in office – before campaign finance limits – county supervisors would hold four to five fundraisers a year.
“These guys (vendors) were always on the invite list,” Grindle said. “If they didn’t divvy up…it was noted. They were on the shit list from there on. If you didn’t attend fundraisers, you would pay hell for it.”
And while pitches like Bartlett’s irks her, Grindle said today’s environment is actually much cleaner because her generation instituted strict campaign finance limits.
County Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson challenges Grindle’s view.
Nelson said the environment would be much cleaner and straightforward if there were no limits at all.
“I hate fundraising,” Nelson said.
Nelson defended Bartlett’s approach to fundraising, saying it’s a direct product of the system that Grindle’s TINCUP created.
“She probably has a bunch of debt, said Nelson, echoing Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s immediate assessment of the rationale behind the flyer invite.
Both thought the invite was a good idea because it allowed Bartlett’s current donors to max out to her as a candidate before the end of the year before the start of the next election cycle.
Anyone giving Bartlett a contribution starting this month is under the $1,900 limit for the remainder of Bartlett’s term in office.
“It’s a real quandary,” Nelson said. “If you don’t’ fundraise, you are vulnerable. If you are too aggressive, you are accused of shaking people down.”
“There’s probably a happy medium,” Nelson added.
Nelson’s message to vendors who are offended is simple?
“Don’t send a check.”
Former County Supervisor John Moorlach – who at one point worked with Grindle to potentially revise the county’s contribution ordinance - said asking a county vendor for money is not inappropriate.
“If there was something more to it then there might be something wrong with it,” Moorlach said.
He noted that some county vendors don’t contribute to campaigns and suggested that vendors themselves develop a policy.
“One approach is don’t do anything,” Moorlach said.
Nelson talks frankly about the challenges facing elected officials who have to work under a system where they have to raise significant sums.
“So who is going to contribute to campaigns?," Nelson asked. "People who want the best people in office. Who cares the most about who’s in office in the county? The unions and those who do business with the county.”
Nelson said campaign finance limits force officials to mine those with direct interests in government.
“I don’t think there should be limits because there’s very few that can spend that kind of money…The very few people who do want to spend it, mask it…They give to political action committees, or political parties with instructions on where to spend,” Nelson said.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense that people give it you and you are legally required to put your name on it,” Nelson said.
In the current system, Nelson said, “we encourage people to hide it.”
Grindle's response: “If he doesn’t like the campaign contribution limits, why not put up TINCUP on the ballot and ask the voters to throw it out and go back to no limits? I can guarantee you the voters will never throw out campaign finance limits.”
Grindle added that a lot of developers asked for the limit.
“It was the developers, the architectural firms…all those companies dealing with the county..they were the ones that talked to me privately…they said something needed to be done…they couldn’t afford to stay in the game and they would be punished if they didn’t.”
At least now, Grindle said, there is a limit.
“They can only get so much out of them and they are off the hook.”