League of Women Voters Urges Supervisors to Drop Plan to Change Ethics Commission

The Orange County Board of Supervisors. From left: Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, Todd Spitzer, Lisa Bartlett, and Andrew Do. (Photos by Nick Gerda and Katlin Washburn)

The League of Women Voters is “disappointed and dismayed” by the Board of Supervisors’ plan to give supervisors more power over the ethics commission that was approved last year by county voters and called for supervisors to back off.

The supervisors’ plan “jeopardizes the independence of the commissioners,” Michelle Musacchio, member of an Orange County chapter of the League of Women Voters, told the Supervisors Tuesday, reading from a letter on behalf of Susan Guilford, president of both the Orange County-wide and Central Orange County chapters of the League of Women Voters.

At their July 10 meeting, three of the five supervisors expressed support for changing the terms of the ethics commissioners, aligning them with the term of the supervisor who appointed them and allowing the supervisors to choose how long the appointee would serve on the commission. Four supervisors would have to support the plan for it to go into effect.

The ethics commission was approved last June by over 400,000 Orange County voters with approximately 70 percent of the vote. The commission’s bylaws state the members shall serve staggered three-year terms. The term lengths for the first set of five commissioners will be randomly selected and commissioners may not serve more than two full terms.

Supervisor Andrew Do, who favors the term changes, suggested during the July 10 meeting commissioners should “serve at the pleasure of the supervisor” who appoints them.

Musacchio, an Irvine resident, read the chapter president’s letter opposing the proposed changes during public comments.

“We believe this jeopardizes the independence of the commissioners,” the letter said. “Specifically, we reject the proposal that commission appointees have terms concurrent with the appointing supervisor.”

She said while the ethics commission’s bylaws allow for technical, non-substantive changes to “further the purposes of the ethics commission,” the supervisors’ proposal is “anything but non-substantive.”

Musacchio also read a statement on behalf of all the League of Women Voters’ Orange County membership calling for supervisors to reconsider the proposal and take steps to assure that ethics commissioners can work independently and “free of political influence.”

In an interview with Voice of OC on Friday, Guilford said the League of Women Voters studied the issue of ethics in Orange County government for years before voting and adopting the statement in 2015, which Musacchio read on behalf of the organization’s local membership at the Tuesday, July 25 meeting.

“Staggered terms for commissioners that do not match the term of their appointed supervisor will clear away any suggestion of undue influence upon the supervisors and thereby safeguard the original purpose of the measure,” Musacchio said.

The supervisors have the power to appoint all five of the ethics commissioners and can remove any with four votes from the board. At their July 10 meeting they unanimously appointed Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s nominee, Peter Agarwal, a Fullerton bank branch manager, Anaheim Chamber of Commerce board member and previous Nelson appointee to other county boards and commissions.

At their July 10 meeting, the supervisors also directed County Counsel Leon Page to look into action they can take to change the rules for commissioner’s terms, but did not discuss the topic at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at joseochoa.voc@gmail.com.