Should local elected officials look more like grand jurors, only signing up for a one-year term with a modest stipend to look over public budgets and hold appointed leaders accountable on a regular basis?

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

That’s exactly what an overwhelming majority of San Bernardino voters decided last November, creating the ultimate term limit.

Just one.

Pay was set by the voters at the median salary for local residents, estimated at $60,000 annually by ballot initiative sponsors.

The political class has been fighting it ever since.

In fact, Sacramento is on the verge of outlawing it. 

San Bernardino’s county board of supervisors immediately took the ballot measure to court.

A hearing in that case is expected tomorrow in San Bernardino Superior Court, at 10 a.m. in department S23 in front of Judge Donald Alvarez. 

It’s the second time San Bernardino voters have tried such a ballot initiative to curb supervisors’ power. A  similar vote back in 2012 was ultimately stymied by county officials — who sponsored a competing measure on the ballot. 

So far, those kinds of governing gimmicks have worked in preventing the emergence of true citizen legislators in San Bernardino. 

Here in Orange County, supervisors have been fighting similar reforms since they bankrupted the county back in 1994. Back then, former legislators like Republican Marian Bergeson and others floated the idea of part-time supervisors. 

Years back, the county switched from a general law county (more subject to Sacramento) to a charter (more flexibility in governing structures) in order to allow for special elections for vacant offices as opposed to gubernatorial appointment. Recently, an Ethics Commission also was added to the county charter. 

Thus, changing the charter isn’t that far a stretch. 

Supervisors recently tried to get out in front of any kind of reform effort by themselves taking action to extend their terms, potentially for decades. 

Over the past year, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett worked to engineer three separate attempts to set up a misleading ballot initiative establishing a 12-year lifetime term limit on office. The proposed lifetime term limit would have exempted incumbents and reset the clock for many of the current crop of county supervisors already in office.

Two times that Bartlett proposed the idea, I wrote columns before the item was taken up. 

Residents reacted and the item was tabled.  

Earlier this summer, while I was on vacation Jeeping through Northern California forests, Bartlett once again resurrected the plan, an effort that this time was narrowly approved. 

To their credit, Supervisors Don Wagner and Katrina Foley publicly dissented against the scheme. 

Orange County residents got super lucky thanks to the fact that Gov. Gavin Newsom didn’t want any competing measures on the upcoming September recall election. 

Thus, the supervisors’ efforts were quashed by Sacramento legislation barring any new local ballot measures in the recall election.

Yet by most accounts, they will be back with an effort to extend their terms.

Given how little media coverage county supervisors attract, these super-well-paid politicians  know they can afford to be brazen in their attempts to hold onto power. 

Supervisors know that as incumbents, they are essentially protected from electoral challenges, given the broad fundraising opportunities that authorizing government contracts brings with it, along with their taxpayer-funded media mailers. 

These days in Orange County, they don’t even have to legislate much in public – given they cut their meetings in half years ago to only meet two times a month. 

Not one member made any public tweak to this year’s $8 billion budget. 

And most recently, they barely listen to public comment.

In recent months, county supervisors have systematically taken away people’s rights to comment – limiting comment time periods to an insulting 30 second slot, condensing public comment or just moving the section to the end of the meeting, making hundreds of residents wait in the hot Summer sun. 

Last month, Do canceled a public comment opportunity that 116 people signed up to speak on, publicly acknowledging what has angered so many public commenters about the lack of county supervisors hearing their concerns. 

“I don’t know if the public comments will necessarily guide how we think,” Do said at the Jun 8 meeting.

This week, at Tuesday’s meeting, when the last resident finished speaking, Do let out a deep sigh.

“I keep expecting public comments to be over. Are we in fact over now?” he said.

Large numbers of residents — many of whom are frustrated by and questioning the state and county’s pandemic response — continue to show up at supervisors’ meetings, hoping for an interaction with lawmakers, a chance to offer suggestions and even question conventional thinking.

Instead, they leave vocally frustrated over being ignored.

This past week, Do even canceled the ability of his own colleagues to offer their own public comments before the meeting adjourned.

Moving forward, board comments will only be heard after the meeting has adjourned — something virtually no city council in Orange County does.

Combine that with the total cancelation of any kind of regular public press briefings or even bi-weekly public updates at supervisors’ public meetings about the ongoing pandemic, which continues to have so many realtime public policy implications.

Don’t forget the total lack of transparency on how more than $1 billion in federal relief is being spent by the county government — spending our newsroom has had to go to great lengths to document. 

All of this isn’t exactly being lost on community groups like OC Tax, which have been critical of the lack of transparency on COVID contracting, or resident groups that don’t agree with how the county has handled mask mandates, policies or vaccination verification. 

One group of residents is so angry at being consistently ignored and restricted at public comment, that they have started formally organizing to recall all five county supervisors.

“The great disrespect they are showing to everyone is abhorrent,” said Brian Isley, a Laguna Beach resident who is heading up recall organizing efforts against all five supervisors. 

“These people think they are above the law. They treat people like second class citizens,” he said. 

Isley laments the lack of a “spirited dialogue,” on Coronavirus response, funding, preventative measures and vaccine verification policies.

“That’s what’s really missing in this whole thing,” he said. 

The same concerns can be heard in Orange County from homelessness activists – pushing supervisors to be more thoughtful.

Or most recently with boaters living at Dana Point Harbor — urging supervisors to be more sensitive regarding steep boat docking increases at the public harbor. 

When asked why he got this involved, Isley echoed Tom Murphy, who works with the citizen’s organizing group in San Bernardino that passed the one-term limit. 

“This is not partisan,” Isley said. “It’s not Democrat or Republican.

It has to do with our rights, our freedoms.”

Murphy, who heads up the Red Brennan group, named after a well-known grand juror in San Bernardino, told me their effort to go the ballot drive route — targeting the structure of office — also was not about ideology, but the cost and effectiveness of government.

“It’s not right vs. left,” Murphy said. “It’s the governing class against the governed.”

Murphy says elected leaders have gotten too far away from the people and the popular idea of term limits needs to be boiled down into its most basic form to spur the development of citizen legislators, not politicians. 

After hearing about the Red Brennan group’s efforts, Isley acknowledged the recall may not be their “final effort.”

That’s probably why the governing class is working to take this option off the books.

Sacramento is getting ready to throw embattled supervisors like those in San Bernardino and Orange County a huge safety net, saving them from any future efforts to impose term or pay limits.

Meet AB 428, sponsored by Palm Springs Assemblyman Chad Mayes, which would take away the rights of Californians to set a one-term limit on any politician or limit their pay.

I was able to watch a hearing of our State Senate’s Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee earlier this week on AB 428 and was stunned to see it narrowly get by a committee vote. 

Sen. Connie Leyva spoke eloquently against the bill, saying it looked like “a work-around” to a popular protest in San Bernardino. 

“To me, it looks like a work around. The voters voted. We didn’t like it, so we’re telling them what to do,” she said. 

Leyva, a Democrat whose district includes San Bernardino, said she thinks a one-term limit is a terrible idea. 

“But this is a work around. People voted on Measure K. It looks like we in Sacramento are telling them what to do.”

“It looks bad,” Leyva said later before casting her vote. 

Assemblyman Mayes publicly responded to Sen. Leyva, insisting that the legislation has nothing to do with the popular protest in San Bernardino, but was more about good government. 

In fact, Mayes amended his bill to make certain it only applies going forward. 

Yet hearing the arguments against a one-term limit actually made me take a second look at the idea. 

According to Mayes and others in the elected class, it takes them quite a while to actually understand the jobs they are vying for. 

That’s not a very good defense of professional politicians.

By the time someone has reached the county board of supervisors, they’ve likely been an elected official for some time.

Why do we need to provide taxpayer-funded on-the-job training?

Not only that, most of the county budget is a pass-through from federal and state allocations. 

OC Supervisors have almost $1 billion in discretionary spending, out of a county budget of nearly $8 billion. 

And most of their discretionary spending — along with about 75 percent of supplemental budget requests — goes to law enforcement year after year, meaning the allocations don’t really change much. 

Now, one of our State Senators from Orange County — Democrat Josh Newman — who was a majority vote on AB 428 defended his position, saying lack of participation — not professional politicians — is the problem. 

“I get that people can be justifiably frustrated and/or cynical about politicians these days,” Newman said. “But I would say that, rather than applying drastic changes to term limits and official pay, a better solution to this problem would be to combine encouraging greater participation while reducing barriers to entry and removing other advantages enjoyed by incumbents, thereby bringing greater diversity and rigor to the process of choosing who represents us.”

Yet I don’t see this current crop of Orange County supervisor adopting any of those kinds of measures to spur more public participation. 

In fact, they are very much moving the opposite direction.

After covering public agencies for several decades, I seriously wonder whether a one-term, citizen legislator could do any worse than the full-time county supervisors we employ today. 

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