Last week, it seemed like OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer was fed up with high-level county officials – specifically Supervisor Shawn Nelson and his chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau – double-dipping and milking the taxpayers for their own benefit.
So much so that he proposed a measure on the supervisors' public meeting agenda this week to outlaw Nelson and Bilodeau’s double-dipping practices.
But when the item came up for discussion, Spitzer killed his own proposal, saying it was really about teaching his fellow supervisor a lesson.
From the dais yesterday, Spitzer said he had introduced the double-dipping proposal to show how inappropriate it was for Nelson to try to push through a term limits extension effort last month without proper public debate. Nelson’s proposal ended up going nowhere.
“I put those [double-dipping] items on the agenda to make the very specific point that you cannot ask for something as complex, and where the law is subject to debate and subject to challenge, on the term limit issue without a full vetting and discourse,” Spitzer said.
“These are the kinds of reforms and things that I’m sure we’ll discuss in the future. But now is not the time, now is not the proper venue to debate it.”
Nelson, who was silent on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, later told the Orange County Register that Spitzer’s explanation was “bizarre.”
“This was, ‘If you have a subject that makes me feel uncomfortable, I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable,’ ” Nelson told the paper.
Nelson and Bilodeau’s double-dipping is well-known in county political circles and has drawn the ire of some of their fellow Republicans.
For years, Nelson has been collecting a $9,180 per year car allowance from the county despite getting a publicly-funded car for free as a perk of his appointment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) board.
So far, Nelson has received about $50,000 in car allowance payments from the county while having an AQMD car. And if he continues to receive the payments through the end of his time on the board, they will boost his pension by over $1,500 per year, according to a Voice of OC calculation based on information from county retirement officials.
Nelson has defended his perks by saying he’s sacrificing by serving on the Board of Supervisors because he used to make much more money as a private attorney. While serving as a supervisor, Nelson has continued to receive more than $100,000 each year from his law firm, according to his financial disclosures.
And Bilodeau, who receives $177,000 in salary and benefits for his full-time county job as Nelson's top aide, gets an extra $38,000 per year from AQMD for helping Nelson at that agency.
That’s led to questions about why Bilodeau gets the extra money when he’s already getting a full-time salary from the county to work for Nelson.
Bilodeau has said little publicly in response to the criticism, other than saying AQMD pays him to assist Nelson “in analyzing proposed regulations and other related technical tasks.”
Spitzer’s proposal would have banned exactly what Nelson and Bilodeau have been doing.
The changes would have barred supervisors from accepting a car for more than seven days per month from another government agency, such as AQMD, where they’re appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
The new rules would have also banned supervisors’ staff and contractors from taking compensation from an outside agency for assisting the supervisor at that agency, unless a majority of the Board of Supervisors approves.
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Spitzer said that Bilodeau’s situation may or may not be explainable and was worth questioning. But he was unequivocal that it’s wrong for Nelson to take a county car allowance while he has the free AQMD car. He went so far as to call it “abusing a government privilege.”
“I don’t think there’s any excuse for Shawn to get a car from AQMD as his full-time vehicle, which he uses on all county business…but then also take the car allowance,” Spitzer said.
So if Spitzer sees Nelson’s car allowance as such a clear-cut abuse, why didn’t he move forward with trying to ban it?
Asked repeatedly about this, Spitzer gave several answers, including that it would be rushed public policy and that he’ll raise the car issue again when the next AQMD appointment takes place in January.
As for Bilodeau, Spitzer said that could be addressed as part of a “comprehensive reform” effort he might pursue in the first quarter of 2017, but he wouldn't commit to it.
The only comment on the issue from other supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting was a brief request from Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett about Spitzer seemingly going off topic.
When the double-dipping item came up, Spitzer launched into a long and detailed critique of how Nelson handled his term limits proposal. After seven minutes of that, Bartlett politely asked Spitzer to “wrap up the comments relating to term limits, because that’s really not” what was scheduled for discussion.
In his interview, Spitzer also gave a new explanation for why he introduced the double-dipping measure: to “block” Nelson from re-introducing his term limits item.
But Spitzer says that on the following Saturday – July 30 – he learned that Nelson was “still trying to get his third vote to bring back the term limit initiative” for this Tuesday’s meeting. It would have been the last chance to get the initiative on the ballot.
“So I put those [double-dipping] items on the agenda as a block,” Spitzer said. “I needed to be able to say – if he agendized it – ‘Hey, the reason we need term limits is to stop you from doing what you’re doing which is to take a car and a car allowance.’ ”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.