Ordinance aimed at limiting campaign conduct in county offices

The proposed ordinance is one sentence long.

"No person may solicit for the nomination paper for any local, state or federal office the signature of any county employee at his or her workplace," it reads.

But Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who hopes his colleagues will agree to move the measure forward Tuesday, said it's one that should have already been implemented — before questions arose over county Assessor Webster Guillory's alleged circulation of his reelection nomination papers at work earlier this year.

"I want this ordinance to send a strong message of two things: Number one, don't engage in political conduct on county property. You're more than likely to end up in trouble," Spitzer said Thursday. "Number two, don't wait until the last minute to get your signatures."

Asked whether his proposal was sparked by Guillory's alleged conduct, Spitzer responded, "Completely."

Though, he added, "Irrespective of the alleged conduct of Mr. Guillory, we should have prohibited this a long time ago."

Guillory, who was first elected in 1998, raised eyebrows by submitting nomination papers signed almost entirely by his own employees, according to a complaint and documents sent to the Orange County district attorney's office.

According to the nomination papers, all of the signatures were obtained March 7, the deadline to file.

The complaint — which was submitted May 13 by Jorge Lopez, a former assessor's office staffer who was one of Guillory's opponents in this month's primary election — alleges that Guillory misused public money by taking taxpayer-funded work time to circulate the nomination papers.

He also alleges that employees were pressured into supporting Guillory's campaign, which he called inappropriate.

The district attorney's office has confirmed that it is looking into the matter, but officials declined to elaborate on the investigation.

Guillory did not respond to calls for comment. However, he told the Orange County Register in May that employees who signed his nomination papers did so outside the building, during breaks.

According to county spokeswoman Jean Pasco, the county has no specific policies forbidding campaigning in the workplace, although it's illegal to ask for campaign funds in public buildings and civil servants can't use government resources, such as a county email system, for political business.

Spitzer's ordinance would be the first to address the issue of workplace campaigning at the county level, Pasco wrote in an email.

Regardless of whether Guillory broke any laws, the fact that he apparently gathered signatures from employees during work hours shows poor judgment, said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor at USC's Price School of Public Policy.

She said laws typically don't control the way signatures are gathered in public spaces or in private workplaces.

It struck her as unusual that the ordinance would be necessary, because "there aren't very many cases of a county official needing signatures on a quick basis."

She added that the ordinance, as written, could be considered ambiguous. Does "workplace," from a legal standpoint, include break rooms and outside the front door of the office building?

Spitzer said the ordinance isn't meant to infringe on employees' free-speech rights, that they should be able to talk about politics in public areas outside of work — even on the sidewalk outside a county building. Mostly, he said, it's aimed at erasing possible ethical gray areas.

"I don't like the fact that county employees are put on the spot at their workplace," he said. "If they say no, they could risk upsetting their actual boss, or someone who could become their boss."

In any case, Kingsley Vertenten said, the fact that a candidate needs to gather nomination signatures from employees at the eleventh hour could be a bad sign for that person's fitness to earn votes.

Lopez said that while the ordinance would be "fine and dandy," it could be too little too late.

"My point is, prohibiting something that was already done — it doesn't make it right," Lopez said. "If we don't stop him now, he's going to get elected in November."

Fallout from the scrutiny, however, may have already had an effect on Guillory's chance at another term.

While other incumbents in county offices, such as Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen, cruised to victory in this month's election, Guillory is headed for a runoff in November against former state Board of Equalization member Claude Parrish.

Guillory drew 46.4% of the vote — less than the 50% required to win outright — while Parrish earned 44.2%. Lopez, meanwhile, got 9.5%.

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