Three years after a county grand jury recommended creation of an ethics commission to increase public confidence in local government, Orange County voters approved it overwhelmingly.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, 70 percent of voters were in favor of the proposal.
Political watchdog Shirley Grindle has pushed for years for an ethics commission and the Board of Supervisors voted in October to put it on the ballot. Only Supervisor Michelle Steele voted against it.
In the 1970s, Grindle authored the county’s campaign finance law, Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics (TINCUP) and uses thousands of index cards with notes of candidate campaign contributions to hold officials accountable.
Backed by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Grindle was the chief proponent of the ethics commission proposal that went before the voters to create a five-member commission to enforce campaign contributions on countywide elected officials.
The proposal also gave the ethics commission authority to enforce the county’s gift ban, lobbyist registry and parts of the county’s ethics code.
Members of the commission, under terms of the proposal, also could not talk to anyone about their investigations except during official meetings. The ban on ex-parte communications is similar to a proposal currently before the Legislature that applies to members of the state Coastal Commission which has been harshly criticized for individual members meeting privately with developers who have projects pending.
When the supervisors put the Ethics Commission on the ballot, Spitzer said ex-parte communications had to be banned to keep county supervisors from having private conversations with commissioners. The proposal gave supervisors the authority to both appoint and remove ethics commissioners.
By putting the proposal on the ballot, supervisors positioned Orange County to adopt the state’s first county-level ethics commission. San Francisco also has an ethics commission but it is both a city and a county.
In April, 2013, the grand jury reported “In a healthy ethics environment, leaders are not afraid of an independent ethics program because they understand that the best measure is to do everything possible to prevent officials and employees from creating an appearance of impropriety.”
The report emphasized the importance of training county elected officials, employees and lobbyists about what is and isn’t ethical.
“What is sometimes technically legal doesn’t always equate to what is ethical,” the report said.
And, it added, elected officials would not be the only ones to benefit from ethics training and oversight.
“It is evident to the Grand Jury that some employees at all levels of county government are unable or unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past.”
Decade after decade since the early 1970s, Orange County has been rocked by one political scandal after another that sent to prison members of the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, a member of Congress, some of the state’s biggest political donors and dozens of others.
In addition, the county declared bankruptcy in 1994, which at the time was the largest in the nation by a government body.
“Sadly,” the grand jury reported, “it is the Grand Jury’s hypothesis that untoward behavior continues and is actively festering in today’s political environment. In point of fact, this and several other studies conducted by the 2012-2013 Grand Jury address the fact that corruption has permeated all levels of the organization, and does not apply only to elected officials positioned visibly in the public eye.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.