County's Strict Ban on Gifts Crowns Shirley Grindle's Career

Her name is Shirley Grindle, and she's got a voice to match.

Stern and a little on the clang-ey side, the Grindle voice sounds like cans rattling. And, oh, how it rattles when she's got something to say. Make no mistake about it, when they come to record the modern history of Orange County, Grindle's voice will be heard above the din.

Although she's had her moments before, these are especially good days for the 58-year-old Grindle, an independently wealthy, retired aeronautical engineer who has been speaking over the last 20 years while a lot of others slept.

She's made a career out of talking about the murky waters that lie between political power and influence. Suddenly, everyone is listening again.

On Tuesday, perhaps the crowning blow of Grindle's crusade came when the Board of Supervisors approved a ban on virtually all gifts to a wide range of county officials. Containing what are considered the most stringent guidelines in the state, the ban passed unanimously.

"However it happened, I have gained the respect of the board over the years," she said late Tuesday afternoon. "I'm very honored that they, after I approached them about having a gift ban ordinance written, invited me to consult with their own counsel to write this. That was quite an honor. I hadn't asked for that. I never dreamt that the day would come that elected officials in Orange County would adopt a ban on gifts from those doing business with them."

Grindle's interest in the subject goes back to the early 1970s, as Orange County was rollicking along on the path from suburban outback to urban sprawl.

"I started out by being appointed to the Planning Commission in 1973," she says. "I was on there for four years. I was probably the best commissioner they ever had or ever will have. I'm just telling you the truth. I was very very dedicated to the job."

The first year, she says, was spent learning the ropes. "The next three were quite an education. I couldn't believe what was going on."

What Grindle got was an earful from builders, architects and engineers who told her that their pipeline to the powers-that-be usually involved taking a little detour to political fund-raisers. Although most people thought that was how the system worked, it offended Grindle.

By 1978, she had spearheaded the successful local initiative known as TINCUP, for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics. It was a conflict-of-interest measure that prohibited supervisors from voting on projects if they had received monies above a certain level from the project's sponsors.

It was the first step along a road that led to Tuesday's vote. The road is dotted with the political tombstones of former supervisors Ralph Diedrich and more recently Don R. Roth, both forced from office over influence-peddling scandals.

"I was fortunate in that I had the experience on the Planning Commission. No. 2, I was a very independent thinker. I was not afraid to rock the boat. Most people are. When I was on the commission, I rocked lots of boats."

The mother of a 30-year-old son, Grindle retired in 1981, having amassed enough to live on from a "tremendous profit" she made in a mobile home park venture. She lives alone in a house in Orange that's paid off.

She makes stained-glass windows and goes to four or five movies a week. She hates slapstick comedies like Pee Wee Herman's movies, but says, "I can't wait until that new Stallone movie comes out--'Cliffhanger.' Have you seen the preview? I was just breathless after the preview."

A thrice-weekly aerobics devotee for the last nine years, she has lately taken up country-Western dancing. "That ought to blow the image of me," she says with a laugh.

She's not sure where her passion for clean government comes from. "I think the whole tradition of wining and dining government officials, particularly elected officials and those who are in power, goes back generations. Probably from Day One in this country. The public has accepted it, even though we've all heard the phrase "wining and dining" and we all know what it means. . . . Most of us would agree it's a way of getting influence, currying favor with those who have decision-making power, but what has amazed me is that this has never been challenged."

While Grindle says there's unfinished business in cleaning up government, she's also looking inward.

"I'm trying to have a little more fun in life because I live alone and I have a granddaughter that's the center of my life. But I can't wrap up my life in her. She's not my little girl, just my granddaughter. I'm 58, and most of my life is behind me, and so you start thinking about what things you're missing out on. But I'm not going away. I like Orange County, although I liked it better 30 years ago. I miss the smell of the orange blossoms. It was nice to get off the Newport Freeway, and one block from the freeway you were in heaven. You could smell the blossoms. Now you don't smell them anymore. There aren't any."

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