In the wake of the County of Orange's 1994 bankruptcy, the largest municipal financial free-fall in U.S. history up to that point, I once offered as a marketing slogan: "Orange County: We're Not Just Morally Bankrupt Anymore." Well come June 7, 2016, the county may finally have a little bit of ethics to brag about as well.
Or, at least, voters that day will have the chance to approve formation of an Orange County Campaign Finance and Ethics Commission that, yeah, I know, doesn't guarantee county government will suddenly be ethical, any more than a police commission ensures unjustified police shootings of citizens stop or a boxing commission ensures that boxers don't take dives or a 9/11 commission ensures that anyone in Congress will read the fucking thing.
But, hey, it's a start, right?
Though an ethics commission to clean up the slime from Orange County elections has been repeatedly kicked around like a snitch's severed head at an impromptu soccer game between drug cartel goons, we can mark Tuesday as the day a proposal to go before voters was finally approved by the Board of Supervisors.
"Elected officials have a responsibility to follow the rules when it comes to campaign finance and government ethics," explains board Chairman and John Wayne Airport greeter Todd Spitzer. "This ballot measure will help fix compliance issues caused by common errors and help educate candidates and elected officials through training and advice, with enforcement penalties implemented in the most serious cases. The ethics ordinance increases oversight and compliance."
If you don't count the non-compliance that will be created to get around the oversight, of course. The zeroed out tax returns of American corporations don't fill themselves out, Mr. Chairman, someone smarter than a politician voted into office in an off-year election takes care of that.
But come on, let us not shit on this political charade, I mean, parade. As some wise sage wrote earlier, it's a start. The board surely got an "Atta boy" from Shirley Grindle, the tireless good government advocate who brought Orange County the campaign reform ordinance TINCUP (which stands for "Time is Now Clean Up Politics") in 1978.
Yeah, that was an awful long time ago. Many who reached this post as opposed to stared blankly at the clicker and rabbit ears were not on this earth in '78–or even '92 when TINCUP was amended. Grindle was here both times (thank God), and ever since she has had to continue closely monitoring county elections to ensure the law was being followed. No one else would.
The TINCUP law regulates campaign contribution limits (currently $1,900 per candidate per election cycle) and other campaign activity for those running for supervisor, assessor, auditor-controller, clerk-recorder, district attorney-public administrator, sheriff-coroner, treasurer-tax collector and superintendent of schools.
When Grindle made it known she could not continue as the county's volunteer campaign watchdog forever, supervisors to their credit formed a special committee to look at the best ways to ensure continued oversight. That panel recently recommended that voters consider the formation of a commission. Did somebody say "teeth?" The ballot measure would include a charter amendment giving the executive director of the proposed ethics panel the legal authority to subpoena the bank records of candidates for county offices. (Fingers crossed … please don't appoint Mike Carona executive director, please don't appoint Mike Carona executive director …)
Grindle, who had once threatened to put a new TINCUP initiative of her own before voters, praised the board for Tuesday's support and vowed to campaign for the measure. "I can't thank this board enough for its cooperation and extreme help you have all given, except for Michelle Steel,'' she said in reference to the lone supervisor who opposed the proposal.
Steel said the county would spend more than $900,000 annually on the commission, up from the $500,000 it does now to monitor campaign finances. (But didn't it say up higher that only Grindle was monitoring campaign finances? Never mind the man behind the curtain, just go with it.)
"As the county recovers from two decades of bankruptcy, this is the last thing we need,'' Steel said. "I hope residents of the county make wise decisions in this matter.''
"There are so many errors in it (that)," Grindle said of Steel's logic, "it doesn't deserve comment.''
To be fair, supervisors Andrew Do and Shawn Nelson expressed skepticism over earlier versions of the proposal, both loathe to adding an additional layer of government. Spitzer credited Nelson Tuesday with working hard with county staffers to arrive at a version of the proposal he could support.
Meanwhile, the chairman added language to the ballot measure that would forbid supervisors from lobbying anyone on the watchdog group. "Not one of us up here could pick up the phone and call the commissioner we appointed to try to influence him,'' Spitzer said. "That's a very important and very good rule."
Between the tweaks by Spitzer and Nelson, Grindle concluded the proposal was stronger than the one hotly debated at the previous board meeting.
"I'm proud to do this," Nelson said of he and Do now joining Spitzer and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett in approving the proposal. "Hopefully it will be supported by the county voters.''
"This initiative today is making it unequivocally clear to our entire county that this board of supervisors won't tolerate people who don't play by the rules,'' Spitzer told the assembled nodding heads. "We'll never use this board to slap the backs of our friends, which has been the unfortunate history of this county."
I can hear it now, blaring from a JWA speaker, Spitzer's voice informing travelers, "Orange County: we're not quite as ethically bankrupt anymore."