Orange County supervisors signed off Tuesday on a $549,000 budget and staffing plan for the county’s upcoming ethics commission that calls for two-and-a-half workers to investigate and help enforce the county’s campaign finance limits and ethics rules.
They also got the ball rolling on recruiting an executive director for the commission, the creation of which was overwhelmingly approved by nearly 70 percent of voters earlier this month.
The person who takes on the director role has to be of the “highest regard,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who for years has been the most vocal proponent for an ethics commission among county supervisors.
The executive director must also be “non-political,” he added. “They don’t have relationships with us outside. They don’t socialize with us.”
The commission will be the only county-level ethics commission in California, aside from San Francisco, which is both a city and county. It will be tasked with enforcing the county’s campaign finance limits, lobbying law, gift ban, and code of ethics.
Its approval by voters was a major win for local 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.
Under the plan approved Tuesday, the commission’s staff will comprise of a full-time executive director, a full-time staff specialist and half of the time of an attorney in the County Counsel’s Office.
In choosing the in-house staff option, supervisors rejected outsourcing the work to a private law firm, saying it’s important to have the continuity of the same staff training officials on the rules and laws and enforcing them.
Supervisor Andrew Do also noted the pressure it would put on lawyers whose contract renewals are decided by the very officials they’re supposed to watch over.
“If you’re asking someone to be fair about this and call balls and strikes as they see them, it’s really hard” to have their contract be up for renewal and have to garner three votes from supervisors, Do said.
Attorneys in the County Counsel’s Office know their job is for the most part protected, Do said.
The vote for the ethics commission’s budget and staffing plan got unanimous votes from supervisors, including Michelle Steel, who up until Tuesday has consistently voted against the commission. Steel said she voted for the items Tuesday because the voters approved the commission, with the results certified Tuesday.
Spitzer also advocated Tuesday for the commission staff to be tasked with reviewing the list of county employees who have to file financial interest disclosures. Currently, this is done by attorneys at the County Counsel’s office.
Several key decisions on the commission remain to be worked out.
They include who the executive director will report to at the county, where the commission and its staff will be located, and how to invite the public to apply to become the first commissioners.
Spitzer also asked that county officials talk with other jurisdictions that have ethics commissions, like the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, about “how we inject a significant degree of separation and autonomy from us [supervisors]. The last thing we need is to be perceived as supervising this executive director.”
There was no discussion Tuesday about when the commission will actually be up and running.
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.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.