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Denah Hoard, a longtime public agency lawyer, on Tuesday was hired as Orange County’s executive director of a still-unformed ethics commission that ultimately will enforce county-level campaign finance and lobbying laws.
Her appointment comes more than nine months after voters approved the creation of the commission, which will also enforce laws about gifts, conflicts of interest and the employee code of ethics. The commission itself still hasn’t been created and there is no timeline for when that will happen.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has been a prominent advocate for an ethics commission, praised Hoard as having “impeccable” credentials and a clear commitment to not being political.
She was the “perfect candidate,” Spitzer said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where he described how he believed she would perform her job. He was the only supervisor who spoke on the issue and the board unanimously approved Hoard’s contract.
Hoard will handle violations of county campaign finance limits in a discreet way, Spitzer said.
“That’s the best way to handle things. Train people, get ‘em to comply. If they make a mistake, you get them to correct it in a timely manner. No hoopla, no headlines, no embarrassing, you know, press releases. Just comply, know the law, do the best you can,” Spitzer said.
“It’s not a punitive system. It can be punitive, only as a last resort,” he added.
“If we do it right, and I think with her leadership we will, you won’t even basically know [her office] exists. It just will do its job, and it will be a kind of a quiet bureaucratic office that will just call balls and strikes and take care of things.”
Shirley Grindle, a longtime campaign finance watchdog who co-authored the ethics commission ordinance, said that’s exactly how the job should work.
“That’s what I have been doing. I don’t have a problem with any of” Spitzer’s comments, Grindle said in a phone interview after the meeting.
“Most of the [campaign limit] violations are accidental acceptance of contributions over the limit. And that’s what you take care of privately. You don’t go to the press and embarrass everybody. So that’s what he’s saying.”
Opponents of the commission proposal were concerned it would be used by opposing candidates to embarrass each other, Grindle said.
So it’s set up in a way where candidates have a chance to fix violations, and if they refuse then it would become public by going before the ethics commission, she said.
Hoard, who has worked as a staff attorney for the cities of Santa Ana and Orange, is scheduled to start at her new job on April 10.
For years, Grindle has nearly single-handedly tracked campaign contributions to county candidates and called out violations of the county’s campaign finance limit law, known as TIN CUP, which she wrote in the 1970s. The name stands for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics.
She is now in her 80s and advocated for a commission to continue her work after she’s unable to do it.
“I’m glad they finally got someone on board,” Grindle said. She said she’s happy about the appointment and that Hoard is qualified.
But she’s also concerned how much longer it will take for supervisors to set up the commission, which was approved by voters last June.
“My God, I’ll probably die before it gets going,” Grindle said. “I don’t want to be in the grave worrying about this.”
A county spokeswoman said recently that Hoard will start working with the board on creating the commission once she takes office next month. But there was no mention at Tuesday’s meeting of when it will be up and running.
A lawyer since 1994, Hoard worked as an assistant city attorney for Santa Ana from 1999 to 2007, a legal counsel for the California State University system from 2007 to 2012, and an assistant city attorney for Orange starting in 2012.
In December, she was promoted to senior assistant city attorney, the number-two attorney position in Orange.
Hoard is slated to receive $185,000 per year, plus the same benefits package as other executive managers at the county. Her total compensation package would total just over $291,000 per year.
She has yet to speak publicly about her appointment.
Her new employment contract stipulates that she will work “under the direction of the Board of Supervisors,” rather than the ethics commission or county CEO.
County supervisors are elected officials who are among those whom the commission is supposed to enforce campaign finance rules.
The contract says Hoard will work “at the sole pleasure,” of the board, and supervisors will be able to fire her at any time for any reason.
She will “have none of the due process rights of a regular, full-time [county] employee,” the contract states.
Grindle has said she doesn’t like this arrangement, and wanted the director to report to the ethics commission. But, she said, the county counsel’s office said such positions are legally required to serve under the supervisors.
Some supervisors have told Grindle that they want to make sure the commission director is independent and that the board doesn’t interfere with Hoard’s work, Grindle said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.