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The Common Sense of Common Limits : Supervisors Should Agree on Rules for Gifts to Aides

The late Jesse M. Unruh, the irreverent state treasurer who previously had been a powerful Assembly speaker, was often quoted in Sacramento as saying: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, (love) their women and still vote against them, then you don’t belong up here.” Unruh was referring to lobbyists, whose influence he was dismissing summarily. But, as special interests well know, it is human nature that picking up the check or giving people gifts or campaign contributions can kindly dispose them to the giver.

Recognizing this, there are laws that restrict campaign contributions to legislators and other lawmakers. In Orange County, the members of the Board of Supervisors, for example, can’t vote on matters concerning anyone or any firm that has given them $1,874 or more in campaign contributions over a four-year period. That current amount was arrived at by adding cost-of-living increases to a $1,000 limit adopted in 1978. The restrictions, which came after county political scandals, are among the toughest in the state. They are commonly called TIN CUP for the “Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics” campaign that was waged to get them adopted.

Gifts--whether they be in the form of presents, tickets or meals--come under a different set of rules set by the state Political Reform Act of 1974 and are aimed at preventing conflicts of interest. The rules require supervisors and certain county employees, including supervisorial aides, to publicly disclose gifts from those who do business with the county. Recently, statements filed with the county registrar of voters indicate that 35 aides to the board’s five supervisors accepted $9,650.13 in gifts in 1989, primarily from developers and others involved in the building industry who had matters before the board. Most of the gifts came in the form of lunches and dinners--sometimes for political events that are part of the aides’ job duties. But there also were outright presents--baseball, ballet, theater and movie tickets, a Newport Beach Parade of Lights yacht cruise, Christmas gift baskets, golf rounds and fashion shows--that were given to aides.

Aides don’t vote on matters before the board. But part of what they do is keep track of development and other projects so that they can help supervisors make intelligent decisions. At times that means sitting down to a working lunch with a developer or builder, who may pick up the tab. But it must be remembered that the lunch is probably offered at least with the hope that this will provide an “in” with the supervisor’s office.

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To avoid public embarrassment for the aides, it is important for individual supervisors to limit what their employees can receive from those who want something from the board. The supervisors’ policies now vary widely, from barring almost all gifts to imposing virtually no restrictions on aides.

The supervisors ought to agree to common limits, so that standards don’t vary. In setting them, common sense is needed, but they should be fairly low.

Shirley Grindle, a self-appointed watchdog of county government and author of the TIN CUP reform law, would like to see board members preclude the acceptance of all gifts by staff and limit business discussions to the office. This may be excessively restrictive. Still, as Grindle rightly pointed out, “There’s no way it will ever be perceived by the public as other than wining and dining. . . . It always looks bad when it comes out in public. It never looks good.”


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