Santana: The Price of Ethics in OC

So what’s the price of ethics in Orange County?

Figure about $300,000.

That’s the estimate I crafted after chatting with Orange County’s longtime citizen campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle last week after she stopped by our newsroom inside the historic Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana to talk about the June ballot initiative she co-sponsored with county supervisors.

The ethics initiative was a compromise last October from supervisors after significant pressure from multiple county grand juries, Grindle, and the Orange County Employees Association, with strong calls for the establishment of a full-blown ethics commission with subpoena power.

The scaled-down version, which as approved by supervisors on 4-1 vote last year and will go before voters this June, would be the first of its kind for a county government in California but would have a much more narrow scope of work — and thus more limited price tag.

If approved by voters, the five-member commission would enforce 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 by working with a commission executive director.

By most accounts the commission is needed because District Attorney Tony Rackaucakas has utterly failed to provide effective regulation of campaign finance and political corruption inside the county government.

It’s now apparently up to the people to provide for that — in addition to funding his salary and agency.

A few weeks back, Supervisor Michelle Steel (who voted against establishing the commission) came out swinging at the supervisors’ weekly public meeting insisting that supervisors instruct Auditor Controller Eric Woolery to do a fiscal analysis of the ethics commission.

Steel flexed her conservative muscles from the dais, arguing that taxpayers have every right to know there would be a cost to the initiative. She lost that vote – with most supervisors saying they still haven’t made up their mind on how they will staff the ethics panel.

Flash Report Publisher Jon Fleischman recently sent me an Op-ed on the topic, arguing that supervisors should reconsider that action.

If they do, I’d argue they should amend the measure to take the ethics panel funding straight out of the DA budget – since it’s a function that elected official won’t do.

Now, talking cost on the ethics panel is something that seems to make Grindle irritable and supervisors nervous.

Grindle’s softball team has been on a losing streak lately and by the time she showed up at the Santora building last week, she was pissed.

She says Steel and Fleischman (both staunch allies of Rackauckas) are just trying to scare voters by pulling out big budget numbers.

Grindle insists when you state the ethics commission proposed budget, you also should note that the county general fund discretionary budget is about $723 million annually.

“The primary purpose of this commission is to monitor campaign finance,” Grindle said, noting that most of the work she does on index cards requires a mix of clerical and investigative expertise.

“I could input the data for all candidates in 20 hours in non-election years.
In election years, 40-60 hours,” Grindle said.

Yet the real key to monitoring the data, Grindle said, is to have an eye for the odd.

“About 95 percent of violations are inadvertently accepting over the limit,” Grindle said. “By tracking contributions, I catch those.”

She notifies candidate treasurers. They refund. No harm, no foul.

In the ordinance establishing the new five-member commission, county supervisors went out of their way to limit any political actors – such as elected officials, consultants or county executives – on the commission.

“The real crux here will be the executive director,” Grindle said. ”It will rely on an exec director who takes this job very, very seriously.”

That’s also where most of the budget will come from.

So figure a six-figure salary and compensation package, which probably puts the executive director at $200,000 with another $100,000 to handle clerical spikes such as during filing periods. There’s even a chance, Grindle speculates, that another agency (such as the county Registrar of Voters) could help with such tracking during peak periods.

Larger efforts to go after conflict of interest issues would likely require board of supervisors’ budgetary approvals for hiring of investigators or attorneys.

Though again, at this stage, Grindle and county supervisors both agree that focusing on price is premature.

Grindle argues that inaction carries a greater cost, a greater risk.

“What’s our alternative — to have no enforcement? No accountability?” Grindle asks.

“What do you think happens if nobody is watching?”