O.C. watchdog wants her work continued

Times Staff Writer

It is the message no Orange County politician wants to hear: Shirley Grindle is on the phone. If money is the mother’s milk of politics, Grindle is the health inspector who makes sure the milk is not tainted.

For nearly 30 years, she has recorded every dollar local politicians have received. In rough numbers, that’s about 50,000 contributors she’s kept tabs on. She wrote the law that limits campaign donations to county candidates. And she’s never taken a nickel in pay.

For all this, she is both loathed and loved, her name forever linked with two words of warning: Shirley Grindle -- political watchdog.

Now 72, Grindle is concerned about her legacy and who will carry on her work.

“I’m not going to be here forever. Who the hell is going to keep track of them when I’m gone?”


She is betting there will be a dearth of volunteers and wants the Board of Supervisors to establish a county Fair Campaign Practices Commission to enforce the 1978 law she wrote, known as TIN CUP, or Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics. The ordinance applies to officials elected to county offices such as supervisor, sheriff and district attorney.

The proposal, like TIN CUP, has supporters and critics.

Former Supervisor Roger Stanton said Grindle’s suggestion “is a great idea.”

“She’s had a lot of good ideas over the years and has never played favorites,” Stanton said. “She’s been a great public asset.”

But Supervisor Chris Norby, who is board chairman, said a commission would only " harass well-meaning candidates and their supporters who want to participate in the political process.”

“You can put me down as a no vote,” said Norby, who was fined $10,000 in 2005 by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission after Grindle complained that his state campaign reports did not list the names and employer information of some donors.

Norby said he also opposed the current $1,600 contribution limit because he said it restricts donors’ free speech rights and give incumbents an unfair fundraising advantage. The limit applies to individual donors for each county candidate for every election cycle.

“For Shirley to suggest we spend public money to continue what was her own personal hobby is not the direction I want to go,” Norby said.

Grindle, a grandmother who relaxes by playing softball in a senior women’s league and going to movies, is not discouraged by such critiques. She has spent most of her life fending off criticism and accomplishing the unexpected.

Divorced, she has lived in the same house in Orange for almost 40 years. She said she graduated from UCLA in 1956 with a degree in aerospace engineering in an era when young women were more likely to be encouraged to study home economics.

Grindle said she spent the 1960s testing nose cone materials used by space vehicles re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Grindle’s civic work has been exhaustive but decidedly low tech. In tracking tens of thousands of contributors, she catalogs her information on 5-by-8 index cards she organizes in about 25 boxes kept in a converted bedroom that serves as her elections office.

She does not use a computer, choosing instead to type the date, amount and recipients of the political contributions made by individual donors.

Predictably, politicians are not tripping over themselves to support Grindle’s plan for a county ethics commission. But voters may.

Supervisor Bill Campbell said Grindle had talked to him several times about a commission over the years.

“I’m not excited about the idea of putting down another layer of government,” he said. “But I’ve learned never to say no until I see a proposal in writing.”

Supervisor John Moorlach said he preferred more disclosure of candidates’ campaign statements and making uncensored copies of them available online for wider public scrutiny.

Candidates, he said, can be just as effective in a watchdog role as Grindle.

“If you’re running for office, don’t you think opponents are going to scrutinize these forms looking for the smallest illegality?” Moorlach said.

None of this makes sense to Grindle, who said complete transparency of the source of donor money can best be provided by a commission.

Eight California cities have ethics commissions, including Los Angeles, according to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

“If the supervisors don’t like this idea, well, what’s their idea?” Grindle asked. “The problem is that politicians have never liked the idea of anybody monitoring their fundraising. It was like that in 1978, and it’s like that now.”

If history is an indicator, do not bet against Grindle.

Fourteen years after getting the TIN CUP ordinance passed, she persuaded supervisors to ban all gifts, including doughnuts and coffee, to county executives from anyone doing business with the county. The ban was later modified to allow employees to receive up to $5 in gifts.

Grindle said it cost $3,500 to place the TIN CUP ordinance on the ballot. In 1992, an amendment to limit contributions was adopted by 85% of the voters.

“I’d put my money on Shirley getting this commission established,” said Stanton, the former supervisor.

Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, said Grindle is almost certain to get the commission established if supervisors reject it and she goes to the voters again.

“The public is ready for more regulation and politicians are ready for less,” Stern said. “If she goes the ballot route, she’s likely to get 90% of the vote.”

Grindle said lawyers are writing an ordinance that would establish the commission but declined to say when she would present it to supervisors.

She envisions a five-member panel screened by the Grand Jurors Assn. of Orange County and led by an executive director with administrative enforcement power.

As in Norby’s case, Campbell and Moorlach said they have had to correct anomalies in their campaign statements after getting calls from Grindle. But their violations were minor.

Last November, Campbell was forced to return a $1,500 contribution from Verlyn Jensen because it violated the TIN CUP limit (Jensen had previously contributed to Campbell during the same election cycle).

Jensen, a lawyer and lobbyist, is among the more than 50,000 contributors Grindle has tracked. She has been recording his contributions since 1981.

Jensen said he gets “along fine with Shirley.” He said Grindle also tracks his wife’s contributions. “I’ve almost had to give her my financial statements. Sometimes you can’t keep track of who you give to, so you’ve got to depend on her,” Jensen said. “I welcome the fact that she keeps track of my spending because I’m not used to getting refunds from politicians.

“That check from Campbell was a surprise,” he said, laughing.