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, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

  • Paul Lucas

    Shirley didn’t get all she wanted she got a watered down version. But Im happy for her and appreciate her efforts and leadership.

    • David Zenger

      What she wanted was recognition. She got it. We got nothing resembling ethics for the County government that is in sore need of it.

    • Shirley L. Grindle

      What do you think we didn’t get that we asked for?
      Shirley Grindle

      • LFOldTimer

        Shirley, go read the previous VOC article by Nick Gerda on the compromises regarding the Commission. That should explain it. I don’t blame you for the way it got sliced and diced. I’m just disappointed that you gave it your stamp of approval after it was barely recognizable. That’s not the fighter that I remember. Oh well. But those of us who care about the business of the County appreciate your participation and good work over the years. It’s just a shame that most people remember a fighter by his or her last fight.

        • Shirley L. Grindle

          To LFOldtimer:
          I suggest you read the package that is going on the ballot, then tell me what you think was “sliced and diced”. We had agreed all along to let the Supervisors make appointments to the Commission because their appointments have to meet the qualifications spelled out in the ordinance. In fact, the BoS made those qualifications even stricter and they will not be able to appoint the “usual” political cronies.
          You make a lot of negative statements, but you don’t provide any specifics which leads me to believe that you really don’t have any specific arguments.

          • LFOldTimer

            Shirley, then it’s up to you to specifically refute each and every claim that Nick Gerda made in his previous VOC article on the modifications or deletions that were made to the original Commission proposal that you submitted. Take each claim and tell us how they were inaccurate or made-up by Gerda. Write an opinion blog on it right here at VOC or put it in the comments section. Zenger is right. This has little or nothing to do with ethics. It’s going to cost us a ton of money to take it to the ballot – and then it’s going to cost us another ton of money to administer with very little return on investment. It’s a paperwork examination scam. That’s all it amounts to. All the big fish are allowed to freely swim away while you drop your line into the water to catch minnows. If it didn’t waste millions of our tax dollars I wouldn’t care. But it does so I do care.

          • LFOldTimer

            Looks like Shirley took the day off. Oh well. But until she refutes Gerda’s blog on the compromises to the Commission plan, point by point, Gerda wins. There should be no reason why she wouldn’t refute his claims if it denigrated the content of the ballot measure to which she gave her stamp of approval. Sorry to be so tough, Shirley. But this is costing us millions of tax dollars. If you truly believe in your commission ballot endorsement then tell us, point by point, how Gerda got it wrong. Thanks.

  • David Zenger

    That picture certainly wasn’t necessary. “V” isn’t for victory; it’s for victimized.

  • Bruce Bauer

    Great job Shirley! Thankfully, Shirley has, almost single handedly, been “minding the store” all these years. However, the County cannot continue to rely on her great work and needs this mechanism in place permanently.

  • Jasenn Zaejian

    This begs the question, why are they so frightened by a truly independent ethics commission, voted in by the public every ffew years, with no relationship to any supervisor?

  • Paul Lucas

    Why was M Steele so opposed to an ethics commission?

  • Jacki Livingston

    Dear Ms. Steel,
    Your laughable issues with ethics reviews does not surprise me. Shortly after your election to the seat you now hold, I sent you a letter, as sort of a ‘hail Mary’ last ditch effort to stop the torturous abuse that was railroading me out of my job. In it, I explained the history of the problem, and the primary concern, which was not my job, or my $800 worker’s comp case. I explained to you that elderly and disabled patients in nursing homes were being abused, with the assistance of County employees. I told you that Todd Spitzer had abused his position to manipulate the worker’s comp court. I provided you with EVIDENCE, and pleaded with you for help. You completely ignored me.

    I am not sure if it is because you a) don’t care about the elderly or disabled victims of this organized crime scheme, or b) don’t want to actually work that hard, or c) owe so many favors to Spitzie and his crew that you are afraid to rock the boat, or d) have layers of overpaid staff members who chuck out anything nasty, so you can deny ever having seen it. I suspect a mixture of all.

    Anything that anyone can do to shine a light on the cockroaches in OC politics is a good thing. Shirley Grindle has shown more caring and decency than you or any of your colleagues or predecessors. She actually believes in public services, and that the PEOPLE, including the ultimate bosses known as taxpayers, are the ones to be helped. So, sweetcheeks, before you guzzle more taxpayer bought Starbucks and nibble daintily on your taxpayer bought scone, you MIGHT want to think about what a dbag you look like, when you whine about the mere possibility that someone, out there, might actually require you and the other four do-nada-idiots to be accountable to the people of the County.

    A former employee-slash-whistleblower

    PS: You suck

  • LFOldTimer

    This will pass overwhelmingly because the average voter has proven himself time and time again to be way too stupid to see beyond the smoke screens. Then they’ll declare this a victory for the People. In the end, the pols win again. More Kabuki theater. Watch this same strategy (minus the ballot measure) used to create the new OIR model. Nothing is as it appears. Less for more.

    • David Zenger

      Or, as Mies van der Rohe said: less is more! Very Orwellian.

      Of course it will pass. The last “ethics” deal passed, too. That was a scam as well.

      • Jacki Livingston

        I don’t think Ms. Grindle is scamming. I do think that her heart is in the right place. However, trying to keep your white lace gloves clean in the bottom of the biggest, filthiest cesspool government in the nation is nearly an impossible task.

        • LFOldTimer

          Ms. Grindle made way too many compromises. 20 years ago I don’t think she would have tolerated this watered down version. We lose our fight as we age. But this is not about her. It’s about a system that doesn’t really represent the interests of the People any longer. It represents sugar daddies, power brokers and the ones who carry their water. And it’s not just isolated to the County. It’s system wide.

          • Jacki Livingston

            Oh, I agree with you, there, sir. I survived the organized crime of this county, all the way to the top. If people knew what I know, about what they have been doing? It would make the scandal at the City of Bell look like a walk in the park. Make no mistake, these people put the Mob to shame, in what they are doing, especially to the elderly and disabled, not to mention the taxpayers and employees. It is not isolated to the County, but the PTB of this County, led by Spitzer, are the most corrupt that I have witnessed since Watergate.

        • David Zenger

          I don’t think she is either. But she appears to have the same definition of ethics as Spitzer – it’s all about following rules, for them. Grindle is just mistaken. Spitzer is either 1) also ignorant about what ethics means; or 2) deliberately pretending filling out forms properly and sending them in on time involves some sort of moral or ethical issues.

          In any case the Supervisors now get to pretend they’ve accomplished something substantive when they’ve done nothing of the sort; and that’s…unethical!

          • Jacki Livingston

            Spitzer is so desperate to look relevant and to keep people from seeing how corrupt he is, that he will happily go along with some fake ethics committee. The Emperor/Chairman has no clothes, and either the people of the county are too stupid to see it, or else they just don’t care.

  • David Zenger

    “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.”

    It’s making it clear that the 12 (yes, only a dozen) County-level politicians will now have a tax-payer funded mechanism for helping them fill out and submit their required campaign forms properly – a private duty. That is certainly not the root of the ethical problems at the County. Spitzer still insists that “following the rules” represents an ethical conundrum. Is that genuine obtuseness, or a more cunning self-serving cynicism?

    Anyway, what a victory. Grindle gets to foist her thousands of index cards onto the taxpayers – a job, by the way, that could be assumed by anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of Excel, and no commission needed.

    Onward Christian Soldiers!

    • Jacki Livingston

      “Is that genuine obtuseness, or a more cunning self-serving cynicism?”

      OOOOHOHOH! *does Arnold Horshack hand raising*

      I know the answer! Um, both?

    • Jacki Livingston

      And, to add…12? We only have twelve elected officials? Not one of them is actually doing the job, and not one is without horrible scandal and abuse links. How can twelve people do so much harm?