OC Supervisors Have Chosen an Ethics Director

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.

Nine months after Orange County voters overwhelmingly approved an ethics commission to enforce county-level campaign finance and lobbying laws, the Board of Supervisors has taken the first step toward its creation: picking an executive director.

A county staff report quietly posted online Wednesday shows they chose Denah Hoard, the senior assistant city attorney for Orange.

There still is no schedule for when supervisors will name members of the Campaign Finance and Ethics Commission, but Hoard was offered the top staff job Feb. 14 at a supervisors’ closed session discussion.

Supervisors will vote on her employment contract Tuesday during the open session part of their meeting, according to the staff report.

Hoard didn’t return a phone message requesting an interview.

As the commission’s top staffer, Hoard will be tasked with enforcement of county ethics laws – including those governing campaign finance limits, lobbying, gifts, and the employee code of ethics.

If her contract is approved, Hoard will leave her current job and start at the county on April 10.

County officials did not announce the selection, and the news took Shirley Grindle – the county’s longtime campaign finance watchdog who co-authored the ethics commission ordinance – by surprise.

In an interview, Grindle said she knew supervisors had chosen one of the two finalists for the job, but didn’t know her name until contacted by a Voice of OC reporter Thursday afternoon.

Grindle said she supported the other finalist for the position, former Anaheim City Attorney Christina Talley, and doesn’t know Hoard. But Grindle said she heard that supervisors chose “a pretty good person” for the job.

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.

She was promoted to senior assistant city attorney – the number-two attorney position in Orange – in December.

After being read Hoard’s past work experience, Grindle said it “sounds like she’s certainly qualified.”

“From what I’ve been told about her background, she’ll do fine,” Grindle said.

For years, ethics advocates have complained about lax enforcement of the campaign finance rules by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office.

“The District Attorney’s office has shown little interest in enforcing voter-approved campaign finance violations,” the county grand jury declared in a reportRackauckas’ office has disputed the allegation.

Supervisors were pressured into putting the commission before voters by Grindle and other activists, who had threatened to collect enough signatures to put their own ethics commission proposal on the ballot.

The county’s proposed employment contract stipulates that Hoard 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.

Hoard will “have none of the due process rights of a regular, full-time [county] employee,” the contract states.

(Click here to read Hoard’s proposed contract and her resume.)

Grindle 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 the law requires such positions to serve under the supervisors.

“That arrangement is not ideal, and we’re just gonna have to see whether the [Board of Supervisors] will keep their hands off her fair and independent evaluation,” Grindle said.

She said several supervisors have told her that they want to make sure the commission director is independent and that the board doesn’t interfere with Hoard’s work.

At the same time, Grindle has been frustrated at how long it’s taking supervisors to set up the commission.

Voters approved it nine months ago at the June primary election, with the commission gaining the support of nearly 70 percent of the vote. Then, the November election campaign came and went without a commission to monitor campaign finance limits.

And with candidates now already fundraising for the 2018 elections, there’s still no public timeline for when the ethics commission will be established, or when the county will accept applications for commission positions.

“I think they’re dragging their feet, big time,” Grindle said. “The voters voted on this, the first part of June last year. And here we are…nine months to get an executive director.”

“We’ll see if it takes ’em another nine months to appoint the commissioners.”

The supervisors’ chairwoman, Michelle Steel, didn’t return a message through a spokeswoman asking when the commission will be established.

Asked the same question, county spokeswoman Carrie Braun said a timeline for applications and appointments will be addressed when Hoard takes office.

“Once Ms. Hoard has begun employment, she will work with the Board on the creation of the commission,” Braun said.

Hoard was chosen through an open recruitment for the position that yielded “a group of highly skilled applicants,” she added.

The new commission director 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.

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 co-authored in the 1970s. The name stands for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics.

Now that the director’s job is being taken by Hoard, Grindle says she wants to show her how she keeps track of the money.

“My interest is in maintaining a tracking system, and I would very much like to sit down with her,” she said.

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 a.m., and public comment will be taken at the beginning of the meeting.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.