Supervisors Start Preparing for Possibility That Ethics Commission Passes in 2016

Members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors are gearing up for the possibility voters next year will approve an initiative, spearheaded by local watchdog Shirley Grindle, to create a countywide ethics commission.

“My gut tells me [that] if it gets on the ballot, like Measure E, it passes,” supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer said Tuesday, referring to a county ballot measure this past November that contained “Ethics Commission” in its title but didn’t actually create a commission.

“The voters seem to think that there needs to be oversight and they’re willing to support it,” he said.

He urged his colleagues to get involved in trying to make changes to Grindle’s initiative.

As an example, Spitzer said the measure should include a provision for training elected officials on ethics laws and regulations.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, meanwhile, criticized the commission proposal as wasteful.

In off election years, ”you’d have people on the payroll full time” with nothing to do, he said.

Under Grindle’s proposal, an ethics commission would enforce not only campaign finance limits for countywide offices, but also receipt of gifts and unethical conduct by managers and employees.

It would also receive tips regarding ethics issues through a hotline, and have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, such as bank records.

Finalists for the panel would be screened and recommended by former grand jury members, with the commissioners chosen by former grand jury forepersons.

(Click here to read the latest version of Grindle’s initiative.)

Grindle said Wednesday the initiative has been updated to incorporate several suggestions by Nelson.

She also expressed hope fundraising for signature-gathering won’t be necessary to get it on the ballot.  Instead, supervisors can place it on the ballot directly.

The commission push comes amid widespread frustration over what many say is lax enforcement of local campaign finance limits by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

In recent years, county grand juries have twice recommended the Board of Supervisors create an ethics commission.  Both times, county supervisors rejected the suggestion.

Instead, Spitzer and Nelson sought to have the county contract with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce the county-level campaign contribution limits, known as TINCUP.

But that model, which would have had a far narrower mandate than the grand jury sought, was killed in Sacramento after heavy opposition from organized labor groups like the Orange County Employees Association.

Spitzer acknowledged Tuesday that the FPPC route likely won’t come to fruition.

“It stalled.  And I think we need to own that,” he said.  “It doesn’t look like we’re going to be successful in Sacramento.”

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