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.