Orange County supervisors are bringing out into the open a debate that’s long hung over them:

Do they use taxpayer dollars to campaign?

They’ve acknowledged they do.

In fact, this week, supervisors detailed how it works as they tried to block one of their colleagues from holding the kind of public events they’ve long done in the communities that elected them.

This week, an audio recording surfaced from a GOP event detailing efforts by two Republican supervisors to box in Democrat Supervisor Katrina Foley.

The recording is from the March meeting of the Orange County Young Republicans with Supervisor Don Wagner and Diane Harkey, who is the OC Republican Party-endorsed candidate running against Foley this year.

[Click here to listen to the recording, which was provided by Foley’s campaign.]

An attendee asked how Republicans can beat Foley’s incumbency advantage in the election.

“This gentleman [Don Wagner] and [Supervisor] Andrew [Do] and the other supervisors have pretty much kept her boxed, so that she cannot work outside of [the new] District 2, which is now Santa Ana and what?” Harkey said in her response, according to the audio.

“It’s Santa Ana and basically the central part of the county,” Wagner said.

“We are watching her like a hawk. She’s been spending money in the [new] 5th District – county money,” Wagner added.

“And I’ve brought an item to the board to put a stop to that. So we’re watching her.”

Last week, that’s what he did.

Wagner and Do successfully brought forward a proposal banning county supervisors from using county resources outside the cities they currently represent, unless they get permission from the supervisor whose district they want to use county resources in.

County supervisors have gotten in trouble before for using tax dollars to promote themselves during their re-elections.

When Supervisor Andrew Do spent over $246,000 on county-funded mailers featuring himself ahead of his 2016 re-election, the county’s then-Auditor Controller Eric Woolery halted the payments over concerns about a state law meant to block campaigning with tax dollars.

County records obtained by Voice of OC showed Supervisor Andrew Do used voter registration information to target up to a million taxpayer-funded mailers featuring his name as he ran for re-election.

Woolery later allowed the payments after an intervention by county attorneys who report to the Board of Supervisors.

Local election watchdog Shirley Grindle then pressed state lawmakers to take action to block such self-promotions by supervisors using tax dollars.

Sacramento responded by passing a new law banning such mailers within 60 days of elections.

Then, in 2018 a majority of the board challenged their then-colleague Michelle Steel for using county tax money to send 16,000 mailers featuring herself to voters during her 2018 re-election.

“This was Campaign Mail 101,” said DA Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who at the time was a county supervisor.

OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett also raised eyebrows from her colleagues over a four-hour grand opening event for a road extension that featured her, which the county paid over $100,000 for in 2016.

Now, such questions are emerging again as supervisors use tax dollars to host events that promote their names.

This week, four of the five supervisors criticized Foley – whom they often clash with – for using county resources on event booths and concerts that feature her name in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.

Do and Wagner said Foley was campaigning with taxpayer resources, noting the events are outside the new Santa Ana and Anaheim-focused district she’s now representing but are within the district she’s running for re-election in.

“Your tax dollars should go to help you, in your district, where you are represented. And should not be allowed outside of the district – perhaps to campaign for an office,” Wagner said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting after pointing to events county staff helped organize or attend in Newport and Costa Mesa on Foley’s behalf.

“That’s an abuse,” Wagner said. 

Organizing events with county dollars provides “a lot of power to have to reach out to our constituents, but in the process to get our name out there and to some degree promote ourselves,” Do added.

“And when we do events within our own district, it’s easy. There’s no question there. The people we speak to are by definition our constituents. But when we do events that reach [out] to residents in cities that do not touch our district, then it leans more in the direction of self-promotion. And in an election cycle, maybe even campaigning.”

Wagner and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett pointed to a recent photo of Foley and a county booth featuring her name at community events in Costa Mesa.

But Foley says she’s simply doing what all of the supervisors do – and that her colleagues have tried to make her the only supervisor who can’t host events in the area that elected her.

“I’m doing the same thing every board office is doing,” Foley said in a phone interview when contacted by a reporter after Tuesday’s meeting, which she didn’t attend while she recovers from a COVID infection.

“We learned how to order the booths, how to make the brochures…from [Supervisor] Lisa Bartlett’s office, Don Wagner’s office and Doug Chaffee’s office. That’s where we got the templates. We’re doing what everyone else is doing.”

OC Supervisor Katrina Foley

The other supervisors publicly noted they love to do pet adoption events outside their district – which promote their name – and were willing to make exceptions for themselves on it.

“I agree we do need to have some flexibility” to allow that, said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett after Supervisor Doug Chaffee asked if such events would violate the rules they’re trying to apply to Foley.

“Most of the board offices get involved with the pet adoption days. And it takes some funding from the board offices to pay for the pet adoptions. But it’s something that a lot of us like to do. Even though our animal care city is in one city,” Bartlett added, calling again for “flexibility” to allow that.

As for hosting events in Newport and Costa Mesa, Foley noted these cities are in the district that elected her last year to a term that runs through the end of this year.

And she said the concerts had been planned last fall, well in advance of the redistricting process in which the other supervisors opted to have her represent a completely different area from the district that elected her – and for it to take effect immediately this past January, as opposed to after the election.

“There’s no other [supervisor] that had complete disruption and their entire district taken away from them – including the city [of Costa Mesa] in which I live,” Foley said.

She disputes that it’s campaigning, saying she’s merely connecting with constituents and handing out educational information about county services such as recycling. And she says she strictly keeps her campaign away from any events that use county resources.

It was the discussion of Wagner and Do’s proposal on Tuesday when Wagner and Do publicly said Foley was campaigning with taxpayer resources

If supervisors say what Foley’s doing is campaigning – and they themselves in their districts – doesn’t that mean all of the supervisors are campaigning with tax dollars?

Not at all, says Wagner.

“Each of us spends resources in our districts for the benefit of the residents of our districts. She is NOT spending resources in her district (D2) for the benefit of the residents of her district,” he said in a text message to Voice of OC.

“She is spending them in D5 only because she is running for election there. So the residents of D5 get extra county resources while the residents of D2 get fewer.”

Do, Bartlett and Chaffee didn’t respond to text messages asking the same question.

The decision by Foley’s colleagues to shift those supervisorial district boundaries early – at the beginning of this year – is now being challenged by her.

Pointing to recent legal analyses from the state Attorney General and Sacramento City Attorney, Foley says state law now bans changing district boundaries in the middle of a supervisor’s term, as OC supervisors did.

That new law – put into effect by the Fair Maps Act enacted in 2019 – states:

“The term of office of any supervisor who has been elected and whose term of office has not expired shall not be affected by any change in the boundaries of the district from which the supervisor was elected.”

Foley has added an agenda item to the May 10 supervisors meeting asking the board to seek an opinion from the state Attorney General on whether it was legal to have the new districts take effect before the election.

State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) also is weighing in, penning a letter last week to California Attorney General Rob Bonta – who authored the Fair Maps Act – asking him to weigh in on whether OC supervisors improperly made the new new district lines take effect immediately.

The county’s lawyers see it differently, with County Counsel Leon Page saying at a December supervisors’ meeting that the new boundaries would in fact take effect in January.

Wagner says it’s wrong for Foley to “short change” her new temporary constituents in Santa Ana and Anaheim by spending her office’s resources in her old district where she’s now running for re-election.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to abuse and short change taxpayers in your district, even if you just consider yourself, as she said, a ‘caretaker,’ ” he said in a text message to Voice of OC.

“And you certainly should not be allowed to campaign using county tax resources.”

Foley says her colleagues are playing games, by trying to deprive her and her constituents of the same county-funded activities the rest of the supervisors get to do.

“The county’s position is nonsensical. Respectfully,” Foley said.

“Since the [district] number 2 is now assigned to Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Tustin and Orange, I now move with that number. On what planet does that make sense?” Foley said.

“Nobody in number 2 voted for me. You are elected by the people who voted for you. That is what democracy is. I mean, this is just insane,” she added.

“Everything we’re doing is service-oriented. If they don’t like that I have a team of people who are willing to serve, I mean I’m sorry, that’s what I was elected to do.”

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

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You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

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