Despite being dismissed as an “irresponsible and wasteful” proposal by officials last year, the Orange County Grand Jury has again called for the creation of an ethics commission.
The grand jury in a report released this week recommended that county supervisors put the matter before voters as a proposition on the next general election.
“Ethics, campaign and lobbyist reporting oversight and enforcement in Orange County is deficient in a number of areas,” the report concluded. “An ethics body in Orange County would not be bureaucratic, unnecessary, irresponsible, or wasteful, as asserted by the Board of Supervisors.”
Last year the grand jury made a similar recommendation in a 32-page report titled “A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County” but supervisors rejected the proposal.
The latest grand jury recommendation comes as Orange County is pushing legislation that would allow the Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate and enforce campaign finance laws in the region.
The grand jury estimated the cost for establishing an office of ethics and compliance in Orange County would be less than $500,000 per year.
The report also took issue with the county potentially contracting with the FPPC, saying it was concerned the county’s finance law, known as TINCUP, would be invalidated because it’s stricter than the state’s law.
Additionally, the FPPC would be limited to civil, not criminal enforcement, the grand jury said. They were also concerned the agency's independence from officials could be limited because its budget would be under the control of county supervisors.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the concerns about contracting with the FPPC were ridiculous since the agency had already indicated it would enforce the county’s existing finance law and that such language is included in the bill sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana).
“The idea that Orange County supervisors would try and control a body up in Northern California appointed by Jerry Brown is ridiculous,” Nelson said. “How the hell would I control the FPPC?”
Nelson said he doesn’t disagree with the grand jury concerns, but doesn’t believe creating an ethics commission will solve the county's need for stricter oversight. Contracting with the FPPC and continuing to use the district attorney’s office as a tool for criminal prosecution a better alternative, he said.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he doesn’t oppose creating an ethics board, especially if it focuses on conduct and training elected officials.
“It’s long overdue in Orange County,” Spitzer said. “Most elected officials don’t know the basic rules about conflict of interest in campaign contributions; they’re really in the dark and that’s unfortunate and it’s just ripe for people to get in trouble.”
Despite pushing for the county to contract with the FPPC, Spitzer said he would also support the creation of an ethics commission.
“You have to keep a close eye on elected officials' behavior,” Spitzer said.
An ethics commission is absolutely needed, said Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn.
“Anything is better than what we currently have now, which is a free-for-all,” Muir said.
The grand jury report said there was a lack of coordination among the county agencies responsible for ethics and reporting enforcement.
“The grand jury raised some really good points about connecting the dots,” Muir said. “There has been a long history in Orange County of frankly pay-to-play practices.”
The grand jury said if supervisors don't move forward with an ethics commission, they should at least establish Office of Ethics and Compliance charged with receiving complaints, monitoring, and investigating possible ethics law and policy.
Daily Pilot reporter Jill Cowan contributed to this report.
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