Santana: Searching for Watchdogs in Orange County

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.

While Republicans in Congress took a ton of heat earlier this month for trying to publicly downsize their own ethics watchdog, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has thwarted ethics oversight for years with a much quieter approach.

Approve the agencies along with healthy budgets.

Heck, even expand their focus.

Just don’t hire anybody to run them.

That seems the current fate of three separate Orange County oversight agencies: its law enforcement watchdog, the newly established ethics commission, and the performance auditor.

This past week, county supervisors seemed to indicate they might move to fill the long vacant law enforcement oversight position, known formally by its fancy and confusing title invented by a former board of supervisors, the Office of Independent Review (OIR).

The agency was sold as a way to offer county supervisors and the public an extra layer of oversight on departmental issues, which it never did.

OIR was oversold in the wake of a jail beating death by nervous politicians publicly promising reform, yet it always remained underfunded and devoid of leadership.

Indeed, on the biggest scandal to hit the department since former Orange County Sheriff Carona was indicted – involving deputies’ role in hiding a jailhouse snitch operation – OIR has played no role, either in exposing any wrongdoings or in leading a non-partisan discussion of how to address the situation and its impacts.

The same goes for the management scandal when hardened criminals escaped from the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana last January. OIR has never been heard from on the issue.

Despite this week’s closed-session consideration of a candidate for OIR by county supervisors, there was no hire announced, leaving the agency, again, funded but largely rudderless, since its last director resigned back in March.

Speaking of rudderless, consider the lack of progress on a countywide ethics commission.

Orange County voters overwhelmingly approved an ethics commission back in June, yet county supervisors still haven’t announced any progress on appointments to the commission or on finding an executive director.

Local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, who led support for the establishment of an ethics commission and has publicly worked on the issue since 1978, is herself extremely frustrated with the amount of time it has taken county supervisors to institute what voters approved.

She’s not shy about her expiring patience with the process.

Grindle made news recently as she called herself out to state campaign finance officials for a lack of proper disclosures in connection with some of the advocacy for the ethics commission during the June election.

Grindle noted that the delay in action from the state commission – despite her ready admission of guilt – itself shows the desperate need for a real-time agency in Orange County that can ensure transparency and accountability on local campaign finance.

Yet it’s clear that real-time regulation of campaign finance just isn’t something this board of supervisors gets excited about.

Consider the fate of the county’s performance auditor.

Performance audit was a revolutionary position created by a former board of supervisors aimed with the charge of boldly looking under the hood of the county government and publicly announcing what was found – something akin to a county-funded investigative reporter with an accounting background that could really produce interesting audits about where there was fraud, waste and abuse…and why.

Indeed, with the proper political backing from the board of supervisors, in its first few years, performance audit issued a series of scathing but impactful reports on things like overtime spending, questionable raises for top executives, and IT mismanagement.

Yet those reports clearly complicated the rise of Performance Audit Director Steve Danley – who instead of rising to CEO – took over the HR department and eventually retired in protest.

After Danley, supervisors hired another performance auditor – Philip Cheng – following a long vacancy for the post. Yet Cheng’s audits were so tame he didn’t last long. Ever since 2015, the post has remained vacant.

Here’s the real challenge all of us need to tackle.

It’s tough for county staff to overstep county supervisors on things like ethics, or homelessness, or anything requiring vision.

All three million of us Orange County residents seemingly have to wait on them.

So what is their vision?

So far, at least on ethics regulation, it seems a big blank.

  • verifiedsane

    Another example of the depth of corruption in OC Government, Sheriffs, and DA’s office…the destruction of the snitch scandal evidence! The whole “watch dog” thing is little more than a dog and pony show as this PR fiasco is being controlled by the very people who are committing the crimes. READ and weep citizens…The corrupt OC leadership will stop at nothing to cover-up their criminal acts and protect their ruling class friends. The fox is running the hen house.

    OC Register: “Orange County Sheriff’s Department sought permission to destroy jailhouse snitch records”

  • verifiedsane

    Voice of OC steps in to stop discourse in comments…that is some search for truth, and shows their lack of journalistic integrity…censorship of the citizenry, Really?…at least, we now know who’s pocket the VofOC is in!…just more of the supposed news media perpetuating and propagating the ruling class propaganda with one sided and biased reporting of FAKE NEWS..

  • Cynthia Ward

    So what IS the model that needs to be used to get transparency? I hear lots of naysaying, but no ideas. Come on, people.

    We obviously need a Commission or some form of watchdog. We have been patently unfair to leave this on the shoulders of (UNPAID) Shirley Grindle, and because the sophistication of the misdeeds of some goes way beyond campaign donations, we need a bigger net (or a bigger boat) than she can provide. So something is needed. But it obviously cannot be done by volunteers, as someone who just took 3 years off work to go after Anaheim, I can tell you it is more than volunteers can do. So we clearly need funding to cover staff, lawyers, and salaries so people are not impoverished in the pursuit of transparency, trying to protect their own tax dollars from misuse. But independence is obviously tough to come by when those being “watched” by the watchdog also get to appoint the watchdog.

    Is it possible to set up FUNDING as a line item in the budget, as a RESTRICTED FUND that cannot be dumped by politicians who don’t like the answers the watchdog comes up with, and then select those who serve in a random drawing, after completing a basic background check, much as the Grand Jury is set up? Or can we expand the funding and scope of the Grand Jury, asking Grand Jurors to remain for an additional 2 years after serving, collecting a salary that makes it worth doing that, and run the Commission? I know, it is hard enough to get a Grand Jury filled now, OC just extended the application process to allow more applicants, it is on my own “bucket list” for someday, but $50 a day ain’t gonna pay the bills so it has to wait for later. Pay something folks could work with and we would get takers, there are a LOT of us willing to serve in that capacity, but paying the mortgage is already hard enough in OC.

    That’s just my off-the-top-of-my-head take on it, but would like to hear actual IDEAS for how this MIGHT be able to work. Dismissing the goal of truly independent accountability and transparency is not getting us closer to better government.

    • LFOldTimer

      If any of the directors or overseers on these watchdog agencies are appointed by the supes it’s already a failure. History has proven that time and time again. If the supes select the watchdogs and the watchdogs work at the pleasure of the supes – it’s an outright failure from the get-go and it’s futile to even discuss Step 2.

      How many times does one have to be kicked in the groin before the learning process begins? 4, 5. 6??

    • David Zenger

      The problem is that “ethics” is not about filling out campaign paperwork properly, any more than stopping at a red light is an ethical issue.

      The real ethical problem at the County involves Supervisors using their position to further their own political careers, faking sole source justifications, unnecessary public works projects, assuming private liabilities, getting political PR jobs to insiders, etc., etc.

      What we need is a method for making them report what they have actually accomplished and then having a completely independent auditor verify, reject, or correct their assertions. It would all be part of an annual process that would force them out of shallow PR and axle-greasing and into the realm of governance.

      It would all be so simple.

  • LFOldTimer

    Actually it would likely be in the taxpayers interest to leave the 3 watchdog agencies unmanned and vacant since the positions will get filled with friends of friends and more trough-feeding lapdogs in search of a meal ticket. We’d save multi-millions of tax dollars. Or just hire R. Scott Moxley and give him subpoena power. I’d be all-in for that oversight. Something might actually get accomplished.

    The OC Grand Jury is really the only county watchdog agency worth its salt. OCGJ actually exposes rot. And Spitzer wanted to reduce their daily stipend from $50 to $15. Remember? That should give you your first clue of the sort of oversight valued by the board. 🙂

    The supes extended OIR Director Connolly’s $210,000 contract (plus a fat car allowance) for 6-9 months and the reason provided was that the BoS feared the Feds would puke on the county with a consent decree. And now the Feds are breathing down their necks anyway. lol. The majority of the board publicly acknowledged that they learned more about OCSD malfeasance from Moxley at the OC Weekly than from empty suit Connolly. lol. The OIR has been without a Director now for about a year. IMO it’s just as productive now vacant than when Connolly sat in the director’s chair. Don’t break it by hiring another lapdog. Leave it alone.

    County run oversight has proven to be absolutely worthless time and time again. It’s all window dressing for show. That was obvious after the Carona scandal when the supes hired Hutchens and Connolly. How did that work out? lol.

    Please….don’t waste our tax dollar on more fake oversight. Use the money to build a south county shelter for the homeless. Upgrade the county parks. Construct another rescue shelter for the animals. Do something productive that shows a positive outcome. Just no more end-a rounds and more fake oversight. Tell your friends to go find honest and respectable employment elsewhere.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Let’s not get carried away. The GJ is ultimately run by Zimmons, one of Tony the Tigger’s top boys, and I have yet to see any teeth, there.

      • LFOldTimer

        Go back and read some of the OCGJ reports over the last 5 years. There’s actual substance there. If OCGJ wasn’t exposing rot at the top the supes wouldn’t constantly impugn them and look for ways to sabotage their efforts (ie. reduce stipends, etc…).

        All of the watchdog agencies appointed by the board have been as worthless as mammary glands on a bull moose. Dracula overseeing Frankenstein. And that won’t change. Anyone who actually believes that a board-appointed watchdog agency would expose dirt on the board or any of their hack friends in charge of the county agencies is delusional.

        Expanding the OIR would be a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. It would be multiplying Stephen Connolly by five. ha. Might as well grow a few Cecropia trees behind the Hall of Administration and buy 5 sloths to run the OIR. It would be cheaper and just as productive.

    • BeeBee.BeeLeaves

      R.Scott Moxley is a great idea!

  • Supervisor Shawn Nelson and I interviewed Ethics Commission Executive Director finalists last week. We have forwarded them for final background checks and then to the full Board of Supervisors. The applicants and finalists were top-notch but getting the right candidate who is fair, impartial, non-partisan and transparent and of the highest ideals and ethics is paramount.

    Todd Spitzer
    Third District Supervisor

    • Jacki Livingston

      Forgive me, Todd, but having you interviewing someone for an ethics position would be a bit like having Donald “The Great Grabber”Trump interviewing candidates for harassment prevention. It would be like putting my little terrier in charge of guarding a plate of bacon. Since you will never take any personal responsibility for addressing your own conduct, which is so egregious that you could be disbarred, you should be removed from any part of this process. I suspect you would hire more of the usual, those who will shield you from suffering the justice you deserve for your vicious conduct. You are a coward, a bully, and a front for those who are committing crimes against nursing home patients and ripping off taxpayers. When this was reported to you, with stacks of proof and evidence, and when employees begged for help, you ignored it. Employees reported misconduct of every kind, including drug dealing, criminal fraud, threats and assault. You did nothing. Taxpayers are losing millions, PROVEN. You did nothing. Good employees quit or were forced out. Now organized crime is involved. You do nothing. You didn’t even look at the evidence. People are DYING. You ate a disgrace, worse than Trump.

      • LFOldTimer

        Hey, lay off Trump. At least he has the heuvos to call out the insiders. Not fair to compare him w/ Spitzer.

        • Jacki Livingston

          Well, I was talking about Trump’s record in the area of gender conduct, admittedly not his strong suit. And I did say Todd-ler is worse than Trump. And everything is better with bacon.

        • Cynthia Ward

          LOVE the terrier-bacon analogy.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Oh, and make sure to explain how you were so unhappy when I told Martha Ochoa that you were on my witness list for my workers comp hearing to testify under oath about your negligence regarding these helpless patients and the bribes and kickbacks, you got your wife to assign herself as judge. When I protested, she assigned Louise Armstrong, your law firm client, who said in news articles that she owes you everything. You didn’t have to testify, because a settlement was forced, one that the county never lived up to and has violated. They also have blocked my pension for my permanent disability caused by the assault, injury and abuse you sanctioned. By all means, Spritzer, find someone to keep hiding your shady deals, nepotism, cronyism, back seat promotions and dealing from manager offices. SSA is a cesspool, I can imagine the rest is the same. No honest employee will survive. So what do you and Shawn want? A Jammy Dodger?

    • verifiedsane

      Todd Spitzer has a vision; that glorious vision is seeing his political career sinking into the toilet, just waiting to be flushed. Thanks for coming Todd, and sharing your typical shallow political hyperbole with us; your participation trophy is in the mail.

      • Jacki Livingston

        Yes, Toddy is a legend in his own mind, that is true. *snicker*

    • David Zenger

      Given the fact that the Ethics Commission isn’t designed to accomplish anything except PR, I’m surprised it’s taken you seven months to get that far.

    • LFOldTimer

      Give it a break, Todd. You remind me of Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver. Whatever empty words you offer lost their meaning some time ago. You’re just another empty suit.

    • ocethics

      Mr. Spitzer, when were the vacancies for OC Ethics Commission announced? Were members of the public, business owners, county employees, etc. invited to apply. This is an ethics commission for ALL Orange County constituents, and ALL should be invited to apply. Applicants should be screened and vetted by a third party, and not elected officials. Maybe have a public meeting and forum and ask people how they feel an ethics commission should be established. We need to be the change that encourages open government and utmost transparency!

      • LFOldTimer

        Nice fantasy request, ocethics.

        Never happen. Spitzer et. al. would never give up control over appointing the watchdogs who would oversee their behavior and the behavior of other county officials for obvious reasons. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to orchestrate more fake oversight (see the OIR).

        And the ones they appoint would naturally work at their pleasure. ha.

        Club members need only apply.

  • verifiedsane

    The ruling crooks hiring their own watch dogs….now that’s just precious……Haven’t they already tried this smoke and mirrors approach before; where lots of tax dollars got flushed down the toilet with little or no oversight. When will the citizens wake up and realize that there is no oversight, no matter what they wish to call it or how they package this stinking garbage…California’s government and justice system from Sacramento all the way down to Santa Ana and back again, is one giant special interest criminal ponzi scheme and ruling class influence trading club for profit. The absolute true reality of today is that we the people are being ruled by gangs of self serving narcissist criminals. The party title or affiliation is little more than a silly rouse propagated by the media and the ruling class to keep the ugly and painful truth from YOU!

    • verifiedsane

      Question: who do you actually trust in OC government and their subordinates?

      • Jacki Livingston

        No one who remains. I made the mistake of believing in people, thinking I could trust them. Veronica, Diane, Damian, Tina, Martha, Debra, Connie, Vicki…but no one had the courage to risk their pension and job, or give up a promotion offered, to stab me in the back. There is no such thing as true public service left. It is all a cesspool.

  • David Zenger

    The Auditor-Controller needs his own lawyer. Period.

    • Jacki Livingston

      So true, David.