A request by County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett to organize annual senior fairs in her South County district sparked a heated discussion at this week’s board meeting over the fine line supervisors often walk between serving the public and selfish politicking.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson fired the first salvo by making a thinly veiled insinuation that former Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is now a state senator, was improperly promoted through county-funded events during her tenure on the board.

“I think we need to have a discussion about, if we have these county events, to what extent, if any, are our little faces shown. Are they truly county events? Or are they board member events? I found out [in] my first four-and-a-half years here that sometimes what I thought was a county event was hard to tell…and I’m being polite, on purpose,” Nelson said, referring to a timeframe that matches Nguyen’s tenure as a supervisor.

During Nguyen’s term, county-organized health fairs were known to feature prominent references to her, including event signs with Nguyen’s name written in large block letters.

A county-sponsored health fair in 2013.
The parking lot at a county-sponsored health fair in 2013. Credit: Thy Vo / Voice of OC

First District Supervisor Andrew Do — who worked as Nguyen’s chief of staff and was elected in January to replace her — disputed Nelson’s accusation, saying that county events by their very nature aren’t political.

“I think clearly when you put on an event it’s not campaign-related,” Do said while arguing that supervisors’ staff members should be able to solicit donations for events like health and senior fairs.

Nelson shot back, telling Do that activities under Nguyen’s term were “nefarious.”

Several years ago, Nelson said, he stumbled onto the fact that “unbeknownst to anyone on the board” a county event in the First District was “granted all sorts of radio programming and television” exposure.

“I was, frankly, offended,” Nelson continued.  “No one had told me.  And those kinds of things were going on under the very notion that, ‘Oh, it’s okay to use staff and…[county] resources and promote the event.’  That stuff can’t and shouldn’t happen. And it was happening in the district you now occupy. So the idea that there’s never been anything nefarious – there has been.”

Do strongly disputed that, saying that during his time as chief of staff, the County Counsel and CEO’s offices were consulted to ensure improper campaigning and publicity didn’t take place.

“When we put on a logo for an event, we can’t even put on, like, say ‘Supervisor Andrew Do of the First District. We are required to even take out the [words] ‘First District’…out of fear that it would be mentioning our name twice in a flyer or a banner,” Do continued.

“Just citing that there have been publicity efforts on radio or TV – we don’t know what form they took. Was it in a public announcement format? How were they supported?  How were those activities nefarious? So I take issue with that assumption…none of us here have done anything nefarious.”

Despite the back and forth between Nelson and Do, the board agreed that in general county-sponsored events are a benefit to the public and should continue.

But they also agreed they should do a better job of coordinating events across districts so multiple supervisors can attend.  To that end, they plan on creating a yearly master calendar of events.

And Nelson raised concerns about disclosing the true cost of staff time and resources for county events, in light of a county environmental fair that was cancelled after costs far exceeded expectations.

The Green Fair was cancelled in 2013 after Nelson said hundreds of thousands was spent that was never disclosed on original staff reports to supervisors.

“I don’t want to find out that some innocent blessing we gave…turned out to be some massive” project, Nelson said Tuesday.

In response to Nelson’s concerns, county staff said they’ve drafted a policy for planning such events, along with disclosing budget expectations.

Bartlett ultimately got unanimous approval to plan this year’s senior fair, with a limit of $30,000 in staff time and resources from the county’s Office on Aging.

Supervisors also signed off on allowing Bartlett’s staff to solicit funds from potential event donors if they have Bartlett’s approval.

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

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