Shirley Gets Her Wish: Ethics Commission Plan Will Go Before Voters

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Local watchdog Shirley Grindle flashes a victory sign the day after county supervisors placed the ethics commission proposal on the ballot.

Shirley finally got her wish.

With a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors put a proposal for an ethics commission on the June ballot, and in doing so gave local voters a chance to make OC the largest county in California with an added layer of political accountability.

It was a major win for political watchdog Shirley Grindle, who – with her tens of thousands of index cards documenting political contributions – has for over 15 years single-handedly enforced the campaign finance law she authored in the late 1970s.

“I can’t thank this board enough for the cooperation and extreme help that all of you have given, except [Supervisor] Michelle Steel,” Grindle told supervisors before the vote.  (Steel has consistently opposed the commission idea.)

When the item was approved, Grindle became overwhelmed with emotion, her eyes tearing up as she placed her face into her hands.

Acknowledging that she won’t be around forever, the 80-year-old Grindle has pushed hard in recent years for a permanent ethics commission to enforce campaign finance limits and other county rules. She didn’t get any traction until threatening in April to run her own ballot measure, which she has successfully done before.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has expressed support for an ethics commission for years, described the effort as “historically significant for this county.”

Grindle has “been insulted six ways to Sunday by the very agency” that’s supposed to be enforcing local campaign contribution limits, he added, referring to the office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

“I’m proud to move this one item to solve this one issue and hopefully we can make some progress,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

Before voting against it, Steel read aloud a statement saying the commission isn’t worth its price tag, which she put at about $900,000 per year.

“As the county recovers from the two decades of bankruptcy, this is the last thing we need,” she said, expressing hope that county residents will make a “wise decision” on this.

That brought a forceful response from Spitzer, who suggested that the commission would help avoid the type of corruption that led to the county’s $1.6 billion bankruptcy.

“Supervisors were indicted by then-District Attorney Mike Capizzi, and other supervisors resigned, because they didn’t want to be indicted. We never had a more dark hour,” Spitzer said. “This initiative today is making it unequivocally clear for our entire county that this Board of Supervisors is not going to tolerate people who don’t play by the rules.”

Steel didn’t respond to Spitzer’s comments.

Beyond Steel, opposition also came from Steve Rocco, an eccentric figure in local politics who served as a board member at the Orange Unified School District.

“I will write the rebuttal to this,” Rocco told supervisors Tuesday, describing the commission as “fraud.”

If approved by voters in June, the five-member commission would be tasked with enforcing campaign contribution limits on countywide elected officials, as well as the county’s gift ban, lobbyist registry, and certain parts of the county’s ethics code.

In making tweaks to the proposal Tuesday, supervisors added language to ban commissioners from talking about their investigations outside of official proceedings.

Spitzer said the ban on ex-parte communications would prevent supervisors – who would appoint the commissioners and could remove them – from trying to influence the panel.

The ban makes it so “we have to abide by the same rules as everybody else. No special treatment for supervisors,” Spitzer said.

If the commission is ultimately approved by voters, Orange County’s panel would be the only county-level ethics commission in the state, other than San Francisco, which is both a city and a county.

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.