Politicians Feel Her Watchful Eye

There are some Orange County officials who will probably be surprised to know that Shirley Grindle doesn't live in a coven and raise bats and mice. As a matter of fact, she lives in a modest but pleasant ranch-style home in Orange, has a large, black, shaggy dog, and works creatively with stained glass. Except, of course, when she isn't bird-dogging campaign contributions to the county supervisors to make sure that there is no whisper of a conflict of interest in any of their votes.

Shirley Grindle is the former Orange County planning commissioner who 10 years ago led the fight for passage of an ordinance that specifically prohibits a member of the Board of Supervisors from voting on or influencing a decision that "will have a material financial effect . . . on a major campaign contributor of that member" (defined as any person or company donating more than $1,622 to a supervisor over the previous 48 months).

Since its passage by a thoroughly reluctant Board of Supervisors in 1978, Shirley Grindle has given teeth to the law by performing the watchdog function that the district attorney's office admits it has neither the time nor manpower to handle.

Grindle has what she calls an "ego wall" in her family room. On it are mounted the trophies of two decades of public service, including--among numerous others--a prestigious award she won last year from Common Cause.But she says that by far the most important to her is a plaque signed by 164 citizen and homeowners groups "with affection and deepest appreciation . . . for unsurpassed honesty and integrity and excellence in her service to the people as Orange County Planning Commissioner, 1973-76."

At the bottom is a quote from American historian Louis Adamic that reads: "There is a certain blend of courage, integrity, character and principle which has no satisfactory distinctive name but has been called different things at different times in different countries. Our American name for it is guts."

Grindle has been living up to that description for most of her 53 years. (It says a great deal about her that her printed biography lists her birth date; no cutesy stuff here.) She came off a Nebraska farm when she was 3 years old to Southern California where she grew up in Long Beach. (Her father served on the Long Beach Planning Commission at the same time Shirley was an Orange County commissioner.)

From early childhood, she was scrupulously honest with herself as well as others. "The only way to be popular in my junior high school was to be good looking, which I wasn't, or to get the attention of boys in some other way," she recalls. "So I took their classes--like advanced math and machine shop. It helped that I also had some talent in those areas. I never liked working with women, especially in those days, because I was too outspoken."

Seniors at Long Beach Wilson High School today get to wear class rings their entire senior year because Grindle was outraged to find that her class couldn't and pushed through a petition that got the rule changed. Four years later, she was the only woman engineering graduate in a class of 600 at UCLA.

"We were coming into the Space Age," she says matter-of-factly, "so I decided to go into aeronautical engineering."

She did very well very quickly. Within three years she was listed in "Who's Who of American Women" and was working on methods for testing the heat shields that protect our astronauts when they re-enter the earth's atmosphere. Her last work in that field was on the tiles that protect the skin of the current space shuttle. In between these activities, she got married, had a son, got divorced and moved from Los Angeles to Orange County.

She found Orange County when she grew dissatisfied with Los Angeles and "just got on the freeway one day and started driving south. I saw all these nice homes and open spaces. It was God's country and the Board of Supervisors hadn't ruined it yet, so I stayed."

She left her engineering job in 1970 and started a consulting firm. (She holds a state contractor's license as a general engineer.) Three years later, ConRock decided to dig a gravel pit in her neighborhood, and Grindle's life turned in a new direction. She organized the homeowners in the area to block the gravel pit, went to the mat with ConRock--and found she enjoyed it.

It took four years and 20 public hearings, but Grindle and her group won. All this brought her to the attention of Supervisor Ralph Clark, and when a second aide was budgeted for the supervisors in 1972, Grindle applied for the job with Clark. She would have been the first woman aide on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, but when Clark finally offered her the job several months later, she turned it down "because I didn't want to change my life and go back to full-time work."

Instead, Clark appointed her to the Planning Commission--which would have been a part-time job for anyone but Shirley Grindle. For four years, the last two as chairman, she cut through red tape and fancy talk to the bone and marrow of the commission's business.

"But," says Grindle, "this appointment totally changed my life once again. It was really an education to me to learn how government decisions are made. All development projects came before the commission. The Board of Supervisors didn't always follow our recommendations, but I got to know all the players in the game. And I learned how campaign money was raised. At least a dozen developers and architects and engineers came to me and complained that they were being pressured for campaign money by supervisors. When they had the courage to come to me, I knew it must be getting pretty bad."

So in 1977, Grindle resigned from the commission and with the help of assistant county counsel Ralph Benson called a meeting of 19 interested civic and professional organizations to create and get on the books an ordinance that could effectively deal with the conflict of interest problem. Benson wrote the model law that was finally approved by this group.

For the next nine months, Grindle led a drive to get this ordinance on the ballot--the first county initiative ever attempted. When almost twice as many signatures were obtained as necessary, the supervisors saw the handwriting and passed the ordinance, thereby keeping it off the ballot.

Since then, Grindle has embarked on her "third career." In 1980, she took a class in stained glass and--typically--embraced it all out. She now works two days a week in a commercial stained-glass plant and also has a workshop at home where she does windows for her friends and neighbors for the cost of materials. This leaves her plenty of time to pore over campaign contributions and cross-check them with matters before the board--and report anything that she perceives as a violation of the conflict-of-interest ordinance.

To date, no one has been prosecuted under the ordinance, but there have been plenty of what Grindle calls "near misses"--that is, situations where a supervisor's vote has been questioned and he has usually backed down without any prosecution taking place. But the principal benefit, Grindle says, is that "we've established rules that apply to all the players. Fair rules. They know we're watching, so they don't do it.

She says she is "approached all the time by citizens urging me to run for public office, but I'll never do that because I am simply incapable of asking other people for money. I think the price of running for office is corrupt in itself." Her answer: "Public financing based on a proved number of supporters."

Meanwhile, she is "very happy with her life the way it is." Her married son lives nearby (no grandchildren), and she takes what she calls an "adventure trip" every year. Typically, her favorite adventure is river rafting--and she doesn't know how to swim.

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