O.C. Ethics Code Limits Lobbying by Ex-Officials


Orange County supervisors Tuesday banned former employees and officials from lobbying the county for one year after leaving their jobs, part of a new ethics code that continues reform of the way local government conducts its affairs.

"They went further than we thought they would," William R. Mitchell, president of the Orange County chapter of Common Cause, said of the lobbying ban. The provision prevents some employees and officials from immediately trading county jobs for lucrative private-sector posts that take advantage of the contacts they have made, supporters said.

Responding to criticism last week from activists that the proposed ethics code was too weak, the board included the lobbying provision--proposed Tuesday by Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez--as a last-minute amendment before approving the new policy 4-1.

Adoption of the policy, which takes effect immediately, was seen as another in a series of actions by a county government responding to public concerns that it was tainted by scandal.

"It's the fallout of Don Roth," Mitchell said, referring to the former supervisor who resigned under pressure weeks before he was convicted of seven misdemeanor counts of violating financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws. The public's anti-government mood also influenced the supervisors, Mitchell said.

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley voted against the ethics code to protest the lobbying provision and, he said, because he would be "betraying" county employees by supporting a policy that questioned their integrity.

"I don't think you can ever legislate integrity," Riley said. "To (approve) this is an embarrassment on them. If you want to put it on an elected official, so be it. . . . I just don't believe there is that kind of a lack of integrity."

Other board members, however, said they supported the code and lobbying amendment, not because they doubted the ethics of county personnel, but to eliminate any perception of impropriety.

"If following the law and abiding by ethics and moral common sense is painful, then you don't belong here," said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton.

"The feeling was that it can't hurt," board Chairwoman Harriett M. Wieder said.

Common Cause official Mitchell estimated that half of all lobbyists who come before the board are former county employees.

"I know the business community feels there is a system in the county in handling bids that assists those lobbyists who came from the county," he said. "It creates . . . a perception of undue influence."

But Vasquez said he is unconvinced that a "revolving door" between government and the private sector actually exists. The ethics code will protect against future impropriety, he said.

As approved, the county's ethics code applies to all government employees and elected officials, including the board. Only five other counties in the state have similar policies, county official said.

County officials said that most of the code's provisions are already part of state laws and county ordinances or resolutions, and apply to all county employees. Some of the resolutions covering conflicts of interest, however, excluded elected officials.

The new policy approved by the board applies those same provisions to all elected officials as well, County Counsel Terry C. Andrus said. Mitchell, who expressed concern that the new code did include board members, agreed to accept Andrus' interpretation of the language "for now."

Under the code and state laws that it refers to, officials and employees are prohibited from using county property for personal gain; discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex, religion, social relationships and other factors; or having conflicts of interest or engaging in political activism that interfere with official duties.

Seizing on the publicity of the Roth case, several activists earlier this year began what ultimately would become a successful campaign for reform of county government. In May, the board passed the strictest ban in California on gifts to county employees.

The gift ban followed revelations that Roth accepted numerous gifts, meals, vacations and deferred rent on a home from people and companies with business before the county, then voted on their projects.

A year earlier, the supervisors adopted an ordinance limiting to $1,000 the amount of money anyone can contribute to campaigns of candidates to certain elected county offices.

The ethics code is the latest reform advocated by representatives of the Orange County League of Women Voters, the the chapter of Common Cause and longtime activist Shirley L. Grindle. They first proposed a written ethics code to the county in July.

"I'm pretty pleased with what they passed," Grindle said after Tuesday's meeting. But, she noted, there were several differences between the code they proposed and the one the county passed.

The reformers had hoped to make the code an ordinance, rather than a policy, which would have allowed them to impose criminal sanctions for violations. Additionally, the group wanted to prohibit honorariums for county officials, but Andrus said that such payments are already restricted by state law and the county's gift ban.

Ethical Highlights

The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted a new ethics code for all officials and employees, including the supervisors themselves. Among other things, county employees:

* Are barred from lobbying county government for "one year after leaving their jobs"

* May not use county-owned equipment or property for personal benefit unless specifically authorized by the board as "an element of compensation"

* Cannot engage in any business, or have a financial interest that conflicts with their duties or might "impair independence of judgment or action"

* May take part in political activity as long as participation "does not interfere with the proper performance of county duties"

Source: Orange County Counsel's Office

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World