Three Orange County supervisors have abstained from voting at least seven times in recent months while serving as members of other agencies because of a once-obscure state law that prohibits participation in decisions that affect campaign contributors of $250 or more.
"The way things are going, you may not be able to vote on anything," a staff member joked as Supervisor Don R. Roth left an Orange County Transit District board meeting this month. During the meeting, Roth abstained on a vote involving a new telecommunications system. Just two weeks earlier, Roth abstained on a transit district vote awarding development rights to a firm that will build the new Golden West Transportation Center in Huntington Beach.
The reason for the abstentions: Roth had received campaign contributions from firms affected by the decisions.
Last Thursday, opposing interpretations of the law caused two members of the same agency to take different actions.
Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, sitting as a member of the Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, abstained from a vote on a contract, while Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young, armed with a lawyer's opinion, said he would vote regardless of whether he had received a campaign contribution.
The dilemma: Jim Erickson, the attorney for the agency--which oversees plans for two freeway projects--said the law does not apply to it; County Counsel Adrian Kuyper disagrees.
The law, known as the Levine Act, went into effect Jan. 1, 1983. Aimed at curtailing alleged fund-raising abuses by members of the state Coastal Commission and other agencies, it was authored by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), then an assemblyman. It states that no agency member may accept $250 or more for 90 days after a vote that grants an entitlement, license, permit or contract. The prohibition even covers contributions to "agents" of officials, such as staff members and campaign workers.
The law also requires officials to declare a conflict and abstain from voting if, within the prior year, they have received $250 or more from a person or firm that would be affected by the decision.
During the last three months, Roth, Vasquez and Supervisor Roger R. Stanton have abstained from voting while sitting as members of transportation and land-use planning agencies because they had received at least $250 from firms with business before them.
Paradoxically, the law doesn't come into play when officials vote as members of the boards or councils to which they were elected. It applies only when they serve as representatives to other agencies, such as the Orange County Transit District.
Recently, all of the officials asked about the law said they had never heard of it. But partly because of those inquiries, there has been a sudden rush to invoke the law as a reason for not voting.
"I'm playing it safe," Stanton said. "Even though I've been given legal opinions that say I don't have to abstain, I don't need a campaign hit piece thrown at me that charges conflict of interest."
Stanton recently abstained on a Local Agency Formation Commission vote to postpone a matter that affected the Baldwin Co., one of his campaign donors.
Stanton also has abstained on votes at OCTD and the Orange County Transportation Commission that affected Parsons, Brinkerhoff, Quaid & Douglas, an engineering consulting firm that has won several contracts for design studies involving Santa Ana and Riverside freeway improvements. The company donated $250 to Stanton in May.
Vasquez, meanwhile, went so far as to abstain two weeks ago during a committee meeting, not a regular session, of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency. "I'm not taking any chances until this issue (about the law's impact) is resolved," Vasquez said. The committee decision: to recommend that a company expedite environmental reviews. That company had not contributed more than $250 to Vasquez's election campaign, but one of its competitors had.
Roth said he had felt compelled to abstain on a vote that only involved having OCTD invite bids from four telecommunications firms, not actually selecting one. One of the bidders was ConTel, which had purchased a $250 ticket to a Roth fund-raising dinner.
Abstained From Vote
In an earlier vote, he abstained when OCTD awarded development rights for the Golden West Transportation Center to Property Ventures Inc. over Wing Development, which had contributed $400 to Roth last August. Stanton, who received $250 from Wing in June, was absent.
So far, none of these abstentions has affected the outcome of a major decision. That's because the boards of OCTD, OCTC and other county agencies have their staffs work out most disagreements before public votes, which are then mostly unanimous.
But lawyers for the agencies say that this may not always be the case, and they have drafted legal opinions defending their clients' right to vote in most circumstances.
After drafting an opinion that states that the law doesn't even apply to members of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, TCA lawyers are worried enough to recommend seeking a formal ruling from the state Fair Political Practices Commission--just to be sure.
The result will be critical to future decision-making by agency members on collection of fees from developers, many of whom contribute to political campaigns. The fees will help pay for planned new south county freeways.
Walter Zelman, Southern California director of Common Cause, a citizens group that monitors campaign spending and related laws, said he has no knowledge of anyone checking on public officials' compliance with the Levine Act.
"I guess someone has fallen down on the job a little," Zelman said.