County voters may have say in campaign reform

Ever notice when candidates run for office they’re all for campaign finance reform and transparency and, once elected, their tunes change?

Knowing who is funding candidates and political agendas can explain a lot about the special interests behind them.

“Follow the money” is more than just a famous line from the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” about the Watergate scandal. It’s become the catch phrase for those wanting reform in order to unveil corruption and conflicts of interest within this arena.

And folks are getting creative.

John Cox, a Republican business executive, committed $1 million to a November ballot measure that would require state leaders to wear the names of their top donors on their clothing, much like NASCAR drivers do.

“Lobbyists and fundraisers are the only ones who are going to vote against it,” he told this week.

Certainly money muddies the political ethical waters, and expecting elected officials to police themselves is tricky at best.

So Mario Mainero, former chief of staff to then-Supervisor John Moorlach and now a law professor at Chapman University, is taking the issue to O.C. voters this June.

In an commentary for Voice of OC, Mainero wrote, “County voters will have the opportunity to amend the county charter to create a nonpartisan, nonpolitical Ethics Commission to enforce these county ethics laws: the County Campaign Reform Ordinance (TINCUP); the Gift Ban Ordinance; the Lobbyist Registration and Reporting Ordinance; and the prohibition on revolving-door lobbying and misuse of county equipment provisions of the county code of ethics.”

I talked with Mainero about this ambitious effort.

Though the county already has these ethics laws in place separately, he explained, no one is really enforcing them.

Mainero feels by grouping them together and giving the oversight commission subpoena power, this is a game changer.

“The law is to basically keep people honest,” he says.

Mainero says the county charter needs to be amended by voters to prevent future supervisors from changing it.

Working with county political watchdog Shirley Grindle — who has been tracking candidates and their contributions for decades — Mainero says this new system would basically replace Grindle’s efforts, taking them to a new level.

The amendment calls for an executive director, the only paid position, and five non-paid commissioners.

Each supervisor gets to appoint one person. But the kicker here is that no one who is politically involved can be appointed — that means lobbyists or their employees, county employees, union officials or officers of political parties, etc.

“It greatly constricts who can serve, other than just regular citizens,” says Mainero.

In addition, the executive director and commission will create ethics training programs designed for those seeking and those already in office so they don’t inadvertently break the law.

Mainero says instances where someone violates a law unintentionally can be resolved quickly if the person corrects the issue after being contacted by the commission. The matter will be kept private so it can’t be used by the candidate’s opposition.

However, if the issue is not resolved promptly, it will become public with a subpoena and further legal action on the table.

Mainero tells me the amendment is supported by all the supervisors — except Michelle Steel.

He says she objected to the cost of hiring the executive director.


There’s so much wasteful spending in government. This seems like a small price to pay to keep the system honest.

Safeguards like this wouldn’t be necessary if special interest money wasn’t continually invited into the political arena by politicians in the first place.

If passed, can this amendment help us locally?

You bet.

Mainero says if approved, cities countywide could contract with the commission rather than trying to recreate versions of the law themselves, as Newport Councilman Keith Curry is attempting to do.

In a mass email sent to constituents before Tuesday’s council meeting, Curry proposed giving the city attorney “full power to enforce the provisions of our campaign laws” and the ability to appoint a “special prosecutor where conflicts of interest may exist.” Presently the city attorney can do neither.

Curry also wrote that he wants to “prohibit fundraising by all candidates in non-election years except for the first six months following the election so that debt may be retired.”

And like Mainero’s amendment, Curry wants lobbyists and their clients to register with the city. They do on a state, county and federal level.

Newport Mayor Diane Dixon has proposed creating a citizens working group to study the issue.

So now they have to discuss whether they want to create a commitee, which would mean finding people to serve on it, study the issue and then come back to council with a recommendation. I wonder how long that will take.

My guess ¿is ¿ just long enough for Dixon’s supporters in political consulting and campaign financing figure out how to play their next move here.¿ Passage of this ¿doesn’t benefit them in any way.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at