A majority of Orange County supervisors signaled support Tuesday for a county-level ethics commission, a sign that sustained pressure by local political watchdog Shirley Grindle and other good government advocates is paying off.
After years of resistance, supervisors now appear ready back ballot measures that would establish an ethics commission, as long as they have a say in how it is created and the rules under which it will eventually operate.
This is important because if they support a proposal, supervisors can place it on the ballot next June or November. But if Grindle and her compatriots can’t get the backing of supervisors, they would launch an expensive signature-gathering campaign to put the proposal before voters.
“This is well within our ability to get right, and with your help, we’re going to,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson told Grindle, echoing statements by two of his fellow supervisors, Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett.
The moment was a significant one for Grindle, an 80-year-old Orange resident who has enforced political donation limits among county candidates, largely on her own, for decades.
“I’m gonna cry, because I’m very grateful for your help,” an emotional Grindle told supervisors.
Spitzer, meanwhile, noted that while things are moving in that direction, much work still needs to be done in the coming weeks to hammer out potential changes.
The proposal stems from grand jury reports in recent years that urged the creation of an ethics commission, as well as an acknowledgement from Grindle that she won’t be around forever.
Under the proposal, a five-member commission would enforce not only campaign finance limits for countywide offices, but also receipt of gifts and unethical conduct by county 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.
If they don’t get the support of supervisors, Grindle and her supporters have made it clear that they will launch a campaign to get it on the ballot, no matter the cost. To put it before voters next November, supporters would have to gather signatures from more than 62,000 registered voters over a 180-day period.
Spitzer has acknowledged publicly that the proposal would likely pass if it made it onto the ballot.
So in recent months Spitzer and Nelson have been suggesting changes, which Grindle has agreed to.
The most significant change has been to how commissioners are appointed. The original proposal called for an association of former grand jury members to interview and vet applicants for the commission, and then recommend several candidates that county supervisors are limited to choosing from.
But County Counsel Leon Page said it would be legally problematic to require a private organization to perform such a task, and Grindle agreed to drop the requirement as long as supervisors follow the ordinance’s criteria for commission candidates.
Those criteria include not being an elected official, working as a lobbyist or public affairs professional, being a county elected official or high-level staffer in the previous five years, or provide services to candidates or elected officials.
In a memo released Tuesday, Page also questioned the legality of other parts of the proposal, including the requirement of a minimum budget for the panel, and a need for due process to be ensured before fines are imposed.
Under current state law, he added, the panel could not be truly “independent,” and would have to report to county supervisors.
And, he noted, its passage would require voters to amend the county’s campaign contributions law, TINCUP, as well as approve a charter amendment to grant subpoena powers to the commission, which would be separate items on the ballot.
Supporters of Grindle’s campaign include Bill Mitchell, the former chairman of Orange County Common Cause; Mario Mainero, a Chapman University law professor and former chief of staff to state Sen. Supervisor John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) when he was a county supervisor; and Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman.
If the proposal is ultimately approved, it would make Orange County the largest California county to have an ethics commission. The panel would also be the first county-level ethics commission in the state, other than San Francisco, which is both a city and a county.
While a few counties have panels or individuals who cover some aspects of ethics enforcement – like campaign finance issues – all of California’s local ethics commissions are at the city level, in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.
The issue is slated to be discussed again at the supervisors’ Oct. 6 meeting, where a vote on moving forward with the proposal might take place.
Grindle also urged the creation of a computer database to consolidate and track campaign contributions to county candidates. She still uses a typewriter and index cards to copy down campaign contributions and catch those that go over the limit.
And she emphasized the importance of keeping track of companies’ ownership, since donors sometimes contribute directly and also through companies they own, which can be an end-run around the limits.