OC Supervisors Bring Ethics Commission a Step Closer to Reality

A decade-long effort by a citizen watchdog Shirley Grindle to establish an Orange County political ethics commission took a major step forward Tuesday, with county supervisors spending hours modifying her team’s proposal before setting up a vote for later this month to put it on the upcoming June ballot.

While she’d prefer some aspects to be different, Grindle said she was relieved that supervisors were supportive, which would avoid the need to gather more than 62,000 signatures to place it on the ballot.

“I am so grateful for the help that the supervisors have given us,” Grindle told board members.

After the meeting, supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett each walked over to personally congratulate Grindle.

The measure is the byproduct of years of advocacy for an ethics commission by the 81-year-old Grindle, her supporters, and multiple county grand juries — all frustrated over what they say is lax enforcement of local campaign finance laws by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

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

But things started to change in April when Grindle and a coalition of supporters presented Spitzer with a 12-page ordinance they wrote to establish a commission.

Since then, other supervisors – particularly Shawn Nelson – met with commission supporters to change some of the provisions.  At Spitzer’s suggestion, they also had their aides gather testimony from various experts on political ethics enforcement and issue recommendations.

The effort picked up steam last month when Supervisor Lisa Bartlett joined Nelson and Spitzer in supporting a proposed measure.

However, even with what appears to be a board majority in favor of the Grindle proposal, there was still drama on the dais Tuesday.

Supervisor Andrew Do created his own competing commission proposal on Friday that, among other things, would have made it easier for supervisors to disband the commission.

Specifically, it would allow supervisors to shift some or all of the commission’s duties to the state Fair Political Practices Commission if a state bill allowing it is approved.

Do also sent out a press release and email blast Friday taking credit for the commission proposal, without mentioning Grindle’s role in sparking the effort in the first place through the threat of a ballot initiative.

That prompted criticism Tuesday from a supporter of Grindle’s who helped write her proposal.

Do was “simultaneously trying to get in front of the parade and lead it in the wrong direction,” said Bill Mitchell, a local attorney who was formerly involved with the political ethics advocacy group Common Cause.

“The political hacks always seem to find one supervisor to serve as their stalking horse to delay and limit reform. In this case Supervisor Do” is the one who wants to “deflate ethics reform,” he added.

Do strongly disputed that characterization, saying he had shown respect for Grindle at the previous board meeting and that his proposal doesn’t make the commission worse.

“People need to learn a little more about the law before they [come] in here” and “shoot off their mouth,” Do said.

Spitzer also apologized Tuesday for accusing Do of plagiarism in comments to the Orange County Register on Friday.

“If I misspoke I’ll own it, because I don’t want to jeopardize my relationship with you Andrew,” he said.

A board majority of Spitzer, Nelson and Bartlett agreed to some of the changes in Do’s proposal, while rejecting others.

They supported his suggestion to increase from five years to ten the amount of time lobbyists, politicians and others have to be finished with those roles before serving on the commission.

And they opposed his suggestions to lower the number of votes it takes for supervisors to remove an ethics commissioner and ban proponents of the commission ordinance from ever serving on the panel.

Supervisors also directed that the final language allow them to make changes to the commission’s duties after it’s created. That language has yet to be worked out.

The final language is expected to come back to supervisors Oct. 20 for a vote to place it on the primary ballot next June.

Supervisor Michele Steel opposed the ethics commission entirely, suggesting it won’t be doing anything that’s not currently being done.

“It is not ethical to waste taxpayer dollars in order for you to make symbolic gestures,” Steel told her colleagues.

Meanwhile, Michael Anzis, the lead author of a 2014 grand jury report recommending an Orange County ethics commission, said the proposed commission lacks independence because its members would be appointed by the very supervisors who are supposed to be kept accountable by the commission.

And, he said having the hearing officer be an attorney appointed by supervisors is “also a blatant lack of independence.”

County officials responded that state law requires that supervisors appoint members of county-level commissions, and that supervisors aren’t involved in picking hearing officers, who are chosen by the clerk of the board.

If the commission is ultimately approved by voters, it would make Orange County the largest California county to have an ethics commission. The panel would also be the only 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.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Orange County will be the first county-level ethics commission in California, aside from the city and county of San Francisco. Ventura County had a campaign finance ethics commission that was disbanded last year in favor of hiring two former county attorneys to enforce campaign finance laws.

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