This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
Orange County’s newest county supervisor, Don Wagner, is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday afternoon at a ceremony paid for by his campaign, after defeating Democrat Loretta Sanchez in a close-fought election this month.
Wagner, a Republican and former state Assemblyman, served as mayor of Irvine starting in late 2016. He comes into office as supervisors face a host of issues ranging from homelessness to where a veterans’ cemetery should go, to problems with mental healthcare delivery.
“I’m looking to switch hats from mayor of Irvine to the broader county issues” and getting involved, Wagner said in an interview Tuesday after county supervisors certified the election results.
“There’s a ton of stuff going on. Obviously homelessness was an issue that was big in the campaign” and has been big countywide, Wagner said, adding: “There’s going to be no lack of things” to do.
Wagner’s swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Championship Soccer Stadium within the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
Wagner’s victory for the 3rd District supervisor seat restores a Republican supermajority of four of the five supervisors. Wagner defeated Sanchez, a former congresswoman, with 42 percent to her 37 percent of the vote.
The official invite says it’s an invitation from the county government itself, while being paid for by Wagner’s election campaign and RSVPs going to Wagner’s campaign fundraiser.
The invitation features the County of Orange government seal, and just under it states: “The County of Orange Requests the Honor of Your Presence.”
Further down, the invite says it was paid for by Wagner’s supervisor election campaign, that the event is “By Invitation Only,” and to RSVP to Wagner’s campaign fundraiser, Anne Hyde Dunsmore.
Wagner, in the interview, said his campaign is paying for the event and anyone can come.
“It’s paid for by the campaign. [The] campaign is footing the bill entirely for the swearing-in and for the reception afterwards,” Wagner said. “If anybody wants to come by, they’re welcome.”
Asked if there is any fundraising involved with the event, Wagner said, “Nope. Not at all.”
Wagner said he wasn’t sure if someone checked to make sure it’s okay to use the county government seal, but that it’s not a campaign event.
“[I] do not know if there was a check, but it’s not a fundraising event. It’s not a campaign event. It’s the official swearing in,” Wagner said. “We are not doing any fundraising off this event. [It] should be fine.”
Asked whether permission was obtained to use the county logo, County Counsel Leon Page and county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said in a statement: “It’s an official County event. It is customary to use the County seal on invitations.”
State law says it is illegal for local government officials to use, or allow other people to use, “public resources for a campaign activity” or for personal purposes.
Another section, California Elections Code 18304, says it’s a misdemeanor to use a county seal “in any campaign literature” when doing so “in a manner that creates a misleading, erroneous, or false impression that the document is authorized by a public official.”
Asked whether it enforces these state laws, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, said in most cases county district attorneys are in charge of prosecution.
“The Attorney General has concurrent authority to prosecute any crime. However, in most circumstances, the district attorney prosecutes crimes such as these absent a conflict of interest or other unusual circumstance,” Becerra’s office said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
Becerra’s office said it did not have information about the most recent times the AG’s office has brought enforcement actions over these code sections.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, in a phone interview Wednesday, said the invitation doesn’t raise legal issues for several reasons, including that state law bans use of the seal when it’s used to deceive voters.
“This is after the election. There’s no intent to deceive voters,” Spitzer said.
Regarding the use of campaign funds and staff for an official government event, Spitzer said that’s allowed because campaign money can legally be used for officeholder expenses.
“It went to the [swearing-in] event, and it was a hybrid” with some county staff present, while Wagner’s campaign apparently covered the cost of the facility and food and drinks.
“It was definitely a hybrid but that’s not inappropriate,” Spitzer said. “Our campaign accounts are also officeholder accounts, and we are legally allowed to utilize our campaign accounts for campaign-related expenses and also officeholder-related expenses.”
“In this case it was not a campaign event,” but rather the official county swearing-in, Spitzer said.
The county Board of Supervisors oversees the sprawling $6 billion-per-year county government in charge of law enforcement budgets and contracts, homeless services, mental health programs, child protective services, county regional parks, as well as where the county’s first veterans cemetery might be, among many other duties.
Wagner and Sanchez were each supported by thousands of dollars in campaign money, with the largest financial support coming from a handful of companies and unions rather than individual donors.
Wagner received major campaign support from Great Park developer Five Point, which gave to the Friends of the Great Park PAC, which in turn gave to the Engage OC committee that spent directly on ads supporting Wagner.
Sanchez, a former Congresswoman, received major financial backing from the largest union for county workers, the Orange County Employees Association, and the county firefighters’ union, through their independent expenditure committees.
Wagner’s win likely cements a strong Republican supermajority on the Orange County Board of Supervisors until at least 2021, and a likely GOP majority until at least 2023.
Many public addresses by elected officials in OC, such as state of the city addresses, have shifted in recent years toward being private events where attendees pay a particular group, like a chamber of commerce, a minimum amount to enter.
County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett plans to give her State of South County address next month at an a $50 per-person event organized by local chambers of commerce.
One of Wagner’s early public appearances as supervisor could come in federal court next Tuesday, where a large-scale hearing on homelessness is scheduled.
It’s being held by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is presiding over a new lawsuit asking him to block anti-camping enforcement against homeless people in five south county cities, including Irvine, until the cities provide enough shelter beds as an alternative.
The suit also requests a court order blocking the cities from issuing any more development permits until they comply with state law requiring them to designate a zone where a homeless shelter would be allowed.
For Tuesday’s hearing, the judge invited all county supervisors; the mayors, city managers, and police chiefs of all 34 cities in Orange County; the full board of the CalOptima healthcare agency for low-income people; CalOptima CEO Michael Schrader, Sheriff Don Barnes; the county’s public health officer, Eric Handler; and the lead lawyers for homeless people, Carol Sobel and Brooke Weitzman.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.