Watchdog Says Watered Down Ethics Commission Plan Is Still Progress

After months of back-and-forth negotiations with Shirley Grindle and other political watchdogs, the Orange County Board of Supervisors is slated to vote Tuesday on whether to put a proposal establishing a countywide ethics commission on the June 2016 primary ballot.

But as is often the case with any significant lawmaking, the proposal supervisors will be voting on is quite a bit different than what Grindle and her colleagues first put forward. Here is a rundown of the major changes:

Who Gets to Pick the Commissioners

Grindle’s original plan, which she announced in April, gave appointment power to former members of the county’s civil grand jury, which has been willing to confront county supervisors with searing reports in recent years.

Members of the Grand Jurors Association of Orange County would interview and screen applicants, and narrow down the pool to a smaller group. Former grand jury forepersons would then the final decision on who gets appointed.

That would have taken supervisors, who are supposed to be held accountable by the commission, out of the appointment process.

But County Counsel Leon Page issued a memo saying such an approach would be illegal since state law doesn’t give any authority for counties to have independent commissions.

Pointing to the memo, supervisors got Grindle to agree to place appointment power in the hands of county supervisors, as long as commissioners meet certain requirements like not being a political consultant or lobbyist in the previous 10 years.

In theory, state law could be changed to allow an independent ethics commission but that idea wasn’t mentioned by supervisors.

Grindle says she’s not worried about it, as long as supervisors appoint people who aren’t closely connected to politicians. “I think they’re going to find citizens who have never been in the political life,” said Grindle.

“If the board does that let em suffer the consequences, which is exposure,” she added. “I’m not quite as cynical about it, because they want to look good. They want to brag about what they have done.”

How Commissioners Would Get Booted From Office

Under Grindle’s proposal, commissioners could only be removed for “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office or violation of this [ethics commission] Ordinance, and conflicts of interest.”

A majority of a panel of former grand jury forepersons would have to issue a finding to that effect, and only then would a majority of county supervisors be able to remove a commissioner.

That was changed to allow four of the five county supervisors to “remove a Commissioner, at any time, with or without cause.”

And a commissioner could be removed with a simple supervisors’ majority if most of the ethics commission recommends removal.

Commissioners’ Term Length

Grindle’s proposal had commissioners serving five year terms, which supervisors later dropped to three year terms without public explanation.

“There’s just no real good reason to have dropped it to three,” Grindle said.  “I would hope the board would consider changing that from three to five year terms.”

Subpoena Powers

Under Grindle’s proposal, it could subpoena witnesses and records relevant to an investigation.  That would put it in line with the ethics commissions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have full subpoena power, along with the state Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC.

After negotiating with supervisors, the Orange County subpoena powers were narrowed down, taking away the ability to subpoena witnesses and limiting records subpoenas to just the bank records of campaign committees.

Grindle says that while she wishes it had full subpoena powers, in money laundering investigations where such powers would be warranted, the commission would probably turn the investigation over to the FPPC, which has full subpoena powers.

She added that when the process started out, supervisors didn’t want any subpoena powers for the commission.

Investigating Misconduct by County Managers and Employees

When Grindle announced her proposal in April, one of her biggest pitches for it was that it could be an independent place for county workers and contractors to report misconduct.

She pointed to the example of the sexual abuse allegations against Carlos Bustamante, a former executive in the county’s public works department. Women who worked for Bustamante alleged sexual abuse only to see their complaints referred to an underling of Bustamante’s.  Bustamante was later criminally charged with sexually abusing workers and his case is scheduled to go to trial early next year.

Grindle’s proposal had the commission investigate unethical conduct by county managers and employees, and receive tips through a whistleblower hotline.

After the negotiations, the whistleblower hotline was removed, as was enforcement of the state Model Conflict of Interest Code.  And enforcement of the county’s Code of Ethics was narrowed from the entire code to just sections 6 and 9.

That removes enforcement of the provisions for conflicts of interest and interference of political activities with county duties.

Grindle says she’s not too worried about the hotline being removed, since the commission would only accept complaints in writing, signed by their author and citing which laws have been broken.

“There’s no question that in the future there probably would be changes made. This is the first attempt for Orange County to have this kind of a commission. And I’m sure it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do now, and we just got to get it on the books.”

“In my opinion we got 90 percent of the loaf, and that’s better than none.”

She also noted that the Board of Supervisors, most of whose members are new this year, has come a long way.

“I have tried to get this done for ten years. About six, seven years ago, I couldn’t get three votes on the board, and I figured, you know what, the Board of Supervisors are term limited and I’m not…and I just out-waited ’em,” she said.

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

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

  • buzzookaman

    We would not need a ethics commission if the State Attorney General, FBI or DOJ would do thier jobs.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    You all need to read the ordinance (to establish the Campaign Finance and Ethics Commission) before you shoot your mouths off. It is a comprehensive ordinance, but I am confident it will do the job.

    • David Zenger

      I read your proposed referendum, Ms. Grindle – and that was before they watered it down.

      Thanks for commenting so I can say it to you directly: the ethics problem in OC government has NOTHING to do with proper campaign form filing and useless “hotlines” pulled and persuaded by County Counsel. It has to do with a bunch of perpetual politicians who absolutely refuse to turn off campaign mode and switch to governance.

      Once these people realized they could actually take credit for something “ethical” they were all on board – yes, they finally swallowed the bitter pill that implied they needed ethical oversight in the first place. And now that hard nugget is swallowed and the rest is just juicy taxpayer funded baloney.

      This “ordinance” is like a moon shot that spiraled somewhere out of control. Yes it left the atmosphere, no it never got anywhere near the real target.

    • LFOldTimer

      Thanks for your board comment, Ms. Grindle, as vague and unresponsive as it was. Mr. Gerda’s article clearly articulated all the essential teeth that were extracted from your original design. As far as I can see we, the taxpayers, are about to get billed for more political puffery and chest beating. The foxes have been left in charge of the chicken coop at our expense. And I’m very, very suprised that you took the bait. Most of us see the obvious flaws that leave us with more worthless oversight. The more things change the more they stay the same. I predict that history will not record this as one of your finest endorsements. Still, we thank you for prior activism.

      • Shirley L. Grindle

        Unfortunately, Gerda did not have all the facts on hand. He was referring to a very early draft that was not the one we handed in to the Board (dated Aug. 22). The truth of the matter is that we got just about everything we had asked for albeit in a slightly different format. Much of the problem is due to State law which governs Charter Countys. Someone suggested we should change the State law – well you and Zenger and Tahilrami can work on that. Meanwhile, we need to make sure there is enforcement of our local campaign, gift and Lobbyist Registration ordinances – something we do not have at the present time. As far as ethics is concerned – lets see how that plays out with this Commission. Many ethics issues are handled as “human relations” matters which we chose not to get into nor was the Board going to accept that.
        Like I have always said, 90% of the loaf is better than no loaf at all. It is easy for people to sit back and criticize, but where have these people taken action other than to complain about things on the voiceofoc site.

        • LFOldTimer

          Oh, so you are claiming that Mr. Gerda provided us with innaccurate information? Which of his claims were innaccurate? Gerda’s claims indicate that the changes to your orignial design tore most of the meat off the Commission Plan’s bone. Which of those teeth are still intact? The supervisors not only select the Commission members – they decide whether a Commissioner should be removed from his appointed position. So it places the very ones who are supposed to be under the microscope in charge of the basic operations. What about the subpeona powers (which are vital tools for any investigative body) that got tossed out? Those were allowed under the law and still got trashed. Both LA and SF commissions have full subpoena powers. Didn’t that provide you with a clue that this revised design might be turning into a whitewash? And did you get alternative legal opinions from independent sources rather than from just County County Counsel or ‘friends of friends’ of the County executives? So unless you can show that Mr. Gerda’s specific assertions are incorrect it looks to me like the very ones who are supposed to be the targets of the Commission’s scrutiny are going to run the entire kit ‘n kaboodle. How could that possibly be called “oversight” with a straight face? I wouldn’t care so much if it wasn’t costing us a boatload of more taxdollars. I have an eerie feeling that we’re about to get billed
          for another hoodwinking.

          • Shirley L. Grindle

            You need to read the Draft that is being voted on by the Board. I think you will be surprised.

          • LFOldTimer

            Again, thank you for your feedback. Please understand this is not a critique of your performance. Most of us appreciate what you’ve done over the years. We just don’t want to get flim-flammed by those who make the final decisions. It gets old after a while.

          • David Zenger

            I don’t appreciate her performance. There has always been too much sanctimony, and yes, sloppiness. In any case, the problem of ethics at the County is NOT about lobbying, or gifts or mistated campaign contributions. It IS about the way the County government is farmed as a political plantation by people constantly running for office instead of governing.

          • LFOldTimer

            Well, as long as the supes get rewarded by the voters for their mischief with a ticket to the California Senate I don’t see things changing much, David. Are the pols to blame. Of course. But they’re just following the electorate’s lead. If the average voter was brighter than a 5 watt bulb things might be different. It seems to me that out of pure frustration Ms. Grindle just wanted to kick something across the finish line with hopes that someday it may evolve into meaningful oversight. History instructs us the chances of that happening are slim and none. But she likely saw this as a sink or swim opportunity. She’s been playing this twisted game for many years and probably wants some well-deserved time for herself. That’s understandable. At some point in life most of us acquiesce and bury our hatchets. Let somebody else fight the battles. Ms. Grindle has done more than her fair share.

          • David Zenger

            I think you probably have her motives right.

            Unfortunately, when you ride the same hobby horse long enough you lose sight of other modes of transportation.

            I don’t like the idea of the public assuming responsibility for Grindle’s pastime and I resent the Supervisors hijacking it to completely misrepresent their actions as an “ethics” improvement. I know very well it’s SOP, but that doesn’t make it stink any less.

            Todd Spitzer doesn’t seem to get it, but obeying campaign reporting rules does NOT present any sort of ethical dilemma.

        • David Zenger

          No, Grindle, the “problem” is that you haven’t got the slightest clue what really causes the ethics deficit at the County. You could have gotten EVERYTHING you asked for and the boat would have sailed without you on it.

          Your little index cards may have documented errors from time to time. Meanwhile, gross misfeasance marched happily along for all those years as you made your complaints, some justified, others made up, to the FPPC.

          You may have gotten 90% of your “loaf.” Too bad the loaf has zero nutritional value.

  • gazoo

    Board gets to choose members…. They have bogus supeona ppwers…… Im sure this panel will get down to the bottom of things really quik…..

  • Paul Lucas

    Rock on Shirley Grindle!!

  • Jasenn Zaejian

    OC government, especially it’s legal department, has been cited as one of the most corrupt country governments in the country. Its no surprise that the BOS would water down a rational ethics commission. Think of who is at the source of and supports the corruption with their decisions.

  • LFOldTimer

    Ms. Grindle, any possibility of you stepping up to the plate and complaining that your original plan has been strongarmed and turned into something that you don’t even recognize to fool the citizens with the illusion that we are about to welcome a new sabre toothed watchdog in town? From all appearances this seems to be just more plastic phony window dressing. What adds insult to injury is that the taxpayers will get billed dearly for it. Please….take a stand.

    • David Zenger

      I think you are overstating Grindle’s role vis-a-vis ethics. Her effort tracking campaign contributions may have been admirable for what it was, but it never got anywhere near the heart of the “ethics” matter: politicking has completely replaced governance at the County. The only way top make these people do their jobs is to require that they publicly report in detail their accomplishments and have those reports audited by a completely independent person, a person chosen by the Grand Jury.

      Anyway, it looks like she’s done. Too bad her legacy will be a phony, useless commission.

      • LFOldTimer

        You misunderstood me, David. Not asking Ms. Grindle to change business as usual in County government. Just asking her to confirm that this latest head fake mistermed ‘oversight’ does not have her stamp of approval since she had an original hand in its making. Otherwise IMO it taints her too. I don’t think that’s asking too much.

        • David Zenger

          Yes. Michelle Steel (of all people) got it right. It is unethical to create an “ethics” commission that doesn’t do anything.

          Alas, Grindle’s quotations and apologies in the article seem to suggest that it DOES have her stamp of approval – certainly no signal at all of disapprobation.

          I thinks she’s just giving up her efforts and sticking the taxpayers with it. But it has nothing at all to do with the ethics problems at the County.

          • LFOldTimer

            You got it, David. No different than the OIR. Same church, just a different pew. Welcome to OC. Quite frankly, I very disappointed with Ms. Grindle. What a sour note to end on. Taxpayers get get less for more.

          • David Zenger

            I’m not really disappointed in Grindle. She knows what she knows – and what she does doesn’t get to the heart of the ethics matter. When all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

          • LFOldTimer

            Oftentimes Ms. Grindle would make a comment or two under the VOC articles that address matters which pertain directly to her pet projects and passions. It’s interesting that so far she’s remained board silent on this development and to our reactions about how the County turned an attractive idea into a piece of undigestible sausage. Sad.

          • David Zenger

            Sausage in, sausage out.

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Well that loaf just got burned. Sorry, Ms, Grindle you have my respect but the BOS have managed to totally control (manipulate) the proposed ethics commission.

  • David Zenger

    Let’s see: no real control or oversight of anything. Just reviewing campaign forms at the public’s expense.

    And the Superviors get to brag on campaign literature that they supported an “ethics commission” that doesn’t even remotely address ethical behavior.

    Napalm in the morning smells like…victory.