Orange County Seal

Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 8:35 pm | Updated: 8:02 am, Wed Sep 17, 2014.

The County Board of Supervisors Tuesday rejected, for the second time since last year, a grand jury proposal for stronger ethics oversight of county government.

The vote apparently was 5-0, but Supervisor Janet Nguyen objected to certain sections of the supervisors’ response to the grand jury, causing confusion over how her vote should be recorded. Exactly how the overall vote will be officially recorded won’t be known until Wednesday.

In their June report, the grand jury called on the Board of Supervisors to help create a strong, independent county ethics “program” to police the conduct of county officials and lobbyists.

“Ethics bodies work effectively to deter, detect, and punish ethics violations,” said the detailed report. “Vigorous ethics monitoring and enforcement is necessary to develop and maintain trust in government.”

Supervisors disagreed.

“I would agree that creating something new – just another level – is duplicative” and not probably getting to the heart of issues, said Supervisor Pat Bates at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting.

“I would be very, very concerned with anybody that’s appointed to have subpoena powers that are currently restricted to our law enforcement officials.”

The issue is pitting supervisors against grand jurors and the county’s rank-and-file employees.

Jennifer Muir of the Orange County Employees Association told supervisors on Tuesday that county workers support the grand jury’s proposal.

“Your county workforce stands with the grand jury” in their call for an ethics commission, said Muir, the union’s assistant general manager.

Muir noted that last year’s grand jury described Orange County as a “hotbed of corruption.” The most recent grand jury reiterated calls from the prior year’s panel for an ethics commission.

Supervisors, meanwhile, have disputed the grand jury report, saying it mostly refers to old examples and that proper oversight is already in place.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer called for a wide-ranging dialogue on ethics next year, when he will likely be the supervisors’ chairman.

“I really do think we need to have a comprehensive discussion, both of the campaign contribution issues and the ethics issues,” he said.

Supervisor John Moorlach suggested ethics reform be looked at as part of a review of the county’s charter next year.

“It would be real nice to pursue a charter commission and just do a thorough charter for the county that would address a lot of the concerns and tie everything together so we address ethics and campaign reform reporting in that document,” said Moorlach, who volunteered to serve on the commission. He leaves the Board of Supervisors at the end of this year because of term limits.

Chairman Shawn Nelson said there were practical problems with an ethics commission, like who would be appointed to preside over it.

If someone doesn’t like the way the government is run, he added, “you don’t just invent the fourth branch of government…I don’t know who is sort of the ultimate moral authority to appoint that branch.”

In her comments Tuesday, Muir reiterated calls from union officials for an across-the-board transparency measure, known as CRONEY.

The ordinance would shine a light on how large private contracts are negotiated, she said, and give the public more time to evaluate the costs of contracts.

If supervisors don’t adopt the ethics commission, “at the very least adopt CRONEY,” Muir urged.

“I think the taxpayers believe that when you approve $133 million for a contract, the contract is going to cost $133 million, not $133 million plus a change order” or extra charges for electricity or overtime, she said.

Muir asked the supervisors to schedule a future discussion of the proposed CRONEY law. Board members didn’t show interest in doing so.

As a reason for not pursuing a commission, Supervisor Janet Nguyen pointed to the state’s decision to take away $73 million per year in funding from the county.

“We do not have the funds” for a commission because of that, said Nguyen.

The grand jury, meanwhile, estimated the yearly cost of an ethics commission at about $500,000, or less than 0.01 percent of the county’s total annual budget.

Their report said the percentage is roughly the same as the city of Los Angeles, which is far larger than Orange County, spends on its ethics commission.

Nguyen also pointed out that one of the supervisors’ major rebuttals to the grand jury was largely a moot point.

As an example of stepping up oversight in the wake of the grand jury report, the board’s response pointed to the supervisors’ efforts to hire the state political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC, to enforce local campaign finance limits.

But, as Nguyen pointed out, the state Legislature recently killed the bill that would have allowed the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to take over enforcement.

Spitzer, meanwhile, said there was a school of thought, advocated by political watchdog Shirley Grindle, that supervisors were looking at the FPPC approach as a “shiny object” that doesn’t address the numerous other ethics concerns from the grand jury.

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