An ethics officer could soon start having some sort of oversight role in Anaheim in the aftermath of one of the biggest public corruption scandals to rock Orange County.
On Tuesday, Anaheim City Council members unanimously voted to create an ethics officer position and have staff come back with options to explore what exactly that person’s responsibilities will be.
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The decision comes after FBI agents and independent investigators concluded that Disneyland resort interests and lobbyists essentially control Anaheim City Hall.
Now, the City of Orange, Irvine and even San Diego could see proposed reform measures.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava have called for a series of reform proposals to be debated in public this fall.
“We haven’t gone through all of the reform measures that we are going through,” Aitken said. “We need to discuss and decide what we want this person to be the arbiter of.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“I definitely agree that we need to have an ethics officer,” Rubalcava said.
Rubalcava was also detailed in Anaheim’s independent 353-page corruption report.
Investigators alleged she used Anaheim First, a Chamber of Commerce created resident advisory group, to help get her elected. Investigators say the group was a political data mining operation.
Creating an ethics officer position to oversee the city’s lobbyist registration and campaign finance in Anaheim was one of several reform recommendations investigators made to the city in a July corruption report.
“The position should be a regular employee position, nonpartisan and based on merit and that cannot be removed but for proven misconduct, incompetence and/or malfeasance,” investigators wrote.
The proposed reforms also come after former Mayor Harry Sidhu pleaded guilty last month to lying to federal investigators about passing critical information to an Angels consultant in an effort to ram through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign support.
Anaheim wouldn’t be the first in OC to have an ethics officer.
City Attorney Rob Fabela said the County of Orange employs an ethics officer – a lawyer who reports to the Board of Supervisors and oversees lobbyist registration, campaign contribution issues as well as ethics training for staff and elected officials.
There is also one at the Metropolitan Water District.
Other cities like Oakland and San Diego have ethics commissions with appointed officers, Fabela said.
Councilman Carlos Leon voiced support for having both an ethics officer and an ethics commission – potentially formed through a charter amendment that would have to be approved by Anaheim voters.
“The Ethics Commission could potentially be structured so that we’re not making it essentially another political body, rather an independent sort of oversight,” he said.
Some of Leon’s colleagues pushed back against a commission, saying it would be politicized.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks supported having an ethics officer that reports to the city attorney, but raised concerns of an ethics commission.
“I get a little more concerned about an ethics commission of community people that are going to try to opine on legal, factual issues,” Meeks said.
Rubalcava said the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission already handles much of what the ethics commission would be responsible for.
“I have some major concerns about having people appointed as commissioners who are just members of the public, who are appointed by political bodies,” she said. “We see some of the public comments that come up from some of our commissioners and it’s very one-sided in some cases, depending on who appointed them.”
She also questioned if the officer needs to be an attorney.
Councilman Jose Diaz suggested the city share the county’s ethics officer, but his colleagues argued that it was better for Anaheim to have its own position not shared with another government entity.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said, also supporting having an ethics commission.
Councilman Steve Faessel, who sits on the Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors, said the district’s ethics officer is always busy and he supports creating one in the city, but still has to think about whether the city should have an ethics commission.
Councilwoman Norma Campos Kurtz said she liked the idea of a contracted ethics officer and suggested the position be insulated from the city council “so that person doesn’t serve at the whim of the council … it should be someone that has more stability no matter what the council is made up of.”
But Faessel disagreed and said the city council should have authority over the ethics officer.
“It’s important that the position be guaranteed to the maximum extent that we’re able to do, but the individual still needs to be under the control of ultimately us in some way,” Faessel said.
“Maybe this individual doesn’t work out to our satisfaction. If there’s some contract, we can’t touch them and then what do we do?”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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