Santana: The Lack of Ethics Commission

I’m starting to wonder whether we should just call it the Lack of Ethics Commission.

It’s been 14 months since Orange County voters overwhelming approved a county board of supervisors’ very tame plan to implement a Campaign Finance and Ethics commission.

Yet so far, only Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who helped write the ordinance, has named an appointee to the five-member panel that is supposed to help better regulate and educate on campaign finance in our county.

“Failure on their part to appoint Commissioners is not acceptable,” said local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, who wrote the county’s first campaign finance ordinance in 1978 and worked with Nelson to craft the ethics commission ordinance that went before voters in the 2016 June Primary election.

Imagine, how does the commission’s Executive Director Denah Hoard work on something as challenging as scrutinizing the ethics of politicians without a strong communitywide board of directors, especially in a model where the executive charged with calling balls and strikes is appointed by the very people they have to call out?

The short answer is, she probably doesn’t.

Not without strong community backup.

That’s what the board of directors – albeit supervisors’ appointees – were supposed to provide.

Not even bothering to appoint them is pretty lame, not to mention an insult to voters after so much time.

So far, this version of an Orange County ethics commission seems like another expensive wash of an oversight agency.

Unfortunately, it seems like more of the same kind of empty, government oversight machinery – financed as always by local taxpayers – brought to you by Orange County Supervisors.

Much like the vacant Office of Independent Review or the County Performance Auditor. These two, so-called accountability reforms, have largely been funded but frozen, left without any sort of leadership or direction for several years.

Even Auditor Controller Eric Woolery has effectively been neutralized – in terms of checking improper county spending – because he has yet to secure his own legal counsel.

In the meantime, there’s little regulation on the myriad tricky situations that arise with the challenging, even competing, rules on campaign finance.

This is the real challenge of holding public office as a county supervisor.

More and more, these folks are fundraising from the very vendors they are approving contracts for.

Now I’m sure that appointing your own special prosecutor to look into your own campaign spending sounds nutty if you’re a county supervisor.

But when you think it through, there’s much to be said for having competent professionals that can opine, in real time, about questions involving the timing and conditions of campaign contributions.

Consider Nick Gerda’s recent story involving Supervisor Nelson, who handled by himself an odd receipt of wine from a D.C.-based lobby shop he help secure a county contract.

Now, for some reason, these lunkhead lobbyists returned Nelson’s support by sending him wine in a county with a gift ban ordinance. Another contractor sent Nelson cigars.

Nelson, in turn, reports the gifts in his campaign finance records as basically paying the lobbyists back for the wine and cigars from his campaign finance account.

Super odd.

Now, Nelson should have been able to call up a fully functioning ethics commission here and ask for some direction, even get a decision, on the odd situation facing him.

Cover.

You’d think his expert campaign aides would have advised him better, to have just returned the wine and cigars – along with a note about the gift ban ordinance to our new county lobbyist.

Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get that advice.

He should have.

I spoke with Nelson after our story ran and he voiced concerns that publicizing the issue was unfair to him.

He disclosed the odd contribution, he said. He paid for it with campaign funds, which could be a separate problem for him under state law. But Nelson insists it wasn’t a gift.

Calling him out in the press for a perceived ethics violation on this was just unfair, he insists.

“Can I give you the cigars and the wine and we’ll call it even?” joked Nelson.

Now, I get these issues aren’t simple.

I don’t think he sold himself for wine and cigars.

Heck, he even helped Grindle write the ethics commission ordinance.

Yet the optics here are absolutely newsworthy.

Nelson’s creativity creates new precedents. New loopholes.

To me, the entire affair underscores that Orange County Supervisors – who lets just stipulate are all decent people trying to make a difference and fundraising in a challenging environment – need better oversight, better advice.

Better engagement.

Maybe this is also sign that it’s time to start thinking about amending the county ordinance altogether and giving the ethics commission much more independence, a bigger budget, along with a more vigorous training and advice mandate.

Can we really expect politicians to police themselves?