The first reading of the COIN ordinance passed unanimously yesterday afternoon, after a few requested edits from my colleagues. Accordingly, the major media outlets have it covered. The first piece is from the Laguna Beach Patch, courtesy of City News Service, which concisely explains that there was no real discussion in opposition to the ordinance, other than an unprofessional cantankerous display (not worthy of the term “debate”). But, how does one argue against transparency?
The second piece is from the OC Register and relates that my proposal was referred to as a big diversion with an argument that actually was, ironically, a diversion tactic. I had the chance to speak to the Orange County Financial Society last week. One of my PowerPoint slides was from my previous presentation to them on September 21, 2006. The presentation, titled “An Agenda For The Next Four Years – “Retiree benefits grow into ‘monster’ – Taxpayer burden $510,678 a family (USA Today, May 25, 2006),” provided fifteen possible solutions. Number 14: “Labor negotiations could be done in public.” I referenced an OC Register article from August 8, 2006 (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Streetcar Warning — June 16, 2014 or http://www.flashreport.org/blog/2014/06/16/civic-openness-in-negotiations-coin/). This was not “political,” but rather another method to address the root causes of what now ails government municipalities from the city of Detroit on down. I stated during the meeting that the Brown Act makes early collaboration with my colleagues next to impossible, let alone a precise dialogue with representatives of the County’s bargaining units. However, I tried to message my intentions at Board meetings, through my UPDATES, and through e-mails from Human Resources and from my office. I fit requested appointments into my calendar, including a meeting with Tom Dominguez (which resulted in my missing the excitement of four goals being scored by the Netherlands against Spain).
The third piece is from the Daily Pilot. The fourth piece is from the Voice of OC. I also stated during the discussion that I do not believe, nor does County Counsel, that this ordinance is a “meet and confer” requirement under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. As an aside, the employee unions have not provided an ordinance on negotiating for contracts, but if they wish to be the low bidder in applying for employment contracts, I’m all ears. As to campaign contributions, the public employee unions are the biggest players on the field and, through their campaign contributions, now run Sacramento. This argument, coming from a labor leader, is not only disingenuous, it provides another demonstration of the word chutzpah. Wikipedia helps out with a reference to Leo Rosten and his book, The Joys of Yiddish, which defines chutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to."
The fourth piece is a bonus on the COIN topic from Union Watch. The writer provides a local perspective in the process of an Orange County city adopting its COIN ordinance.
The final piece is from the OC Register and addresses the most recent Orange County Grand Jury report. The Grand Jury concludes its term on June 30th, so it is report publishing time. It is my suspicion that the Grand Jury seems to know something that we don’t, but they are impotent to address it. And the District Attorney’s efforts to address perceived corruption has now not been satisfied by two Grand Juries. Therefore, another layer of government must. Really? I don’t know why this is the Grand Jury’s remedy. But, proposals that come at a significant cost and are designed to address a seasonal concern (campaigns occur every two years), are difficult to implement when the County has no resources and is currently dipping into its reserves. I would find it more helpful to review a study that shows that similar efforts in neighboring counties have saved more than the costs that were expended. For the record, I did propose two ballot measures concerning Tin Cup, it did not have a positive outcome (see MOORLACH UPDATE — TIN CUP — July 27, 2010 and the LOOK BACKS in MOORLACH UPDATE — OC Register — February 7, 2013). After the Board did not approve my second attempt to let the voters decide to allow an option to utilize vote-by-mail for Supervisorial special elections yesterday afternoon, I doubt I’ll be trying a second attempt on the Grand Jury’s second recommendation.
Supes OK More Scrutiny of Labor Negotiations — After Fiery Hearing
The leader of the county’s largest union representing public employees made multiple outbursts during the meeting.
Posted by Penny Arévalo (Editor)
Orange County supervisors today tentatively approved an ordinance allowing more public scrutiny of labor negotiations, but not before hearing multiple outbursts from the leader of the county’s largest union representing public employees.
The board unanimously approved the first reading of the Civic Openness in Negotiations Ordinance, modeled after one in Costa Mesa, that would primarily allow officials to release updates on contract proposals with labor as they are being considered.
Traditionally, those negotiations routinely happen behind closed doors and are announced when they are finalized.
"The only time the public ever finds out about these things is after the board has voted," Orange County Board Chairman Shawn Nelson said.
Supervisor John Moorlach proposed the ordinance.
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, ridiculed the ordinance as a "big diversion," and claimed that his union has uncovered, through a more than yearlong investigation, that the supervisors have been collecting "millions of dollars" in campaign contributions from companies that have received substantial contracts with the county.
"Some of you like to say that doesn’t influence your vote, but people aren’t stupid enough to believe that," Berardino told the supervisors.
When Nelson tried to tell Berardino that he had exceeded his public comment allotment, Berardino shouted back that the board members did not want to hear embarrassing information about them.
"You don’t want this discussion. You don’t want the people to know," Berardino said.
Nelson noted that Berardino’s union was able to gather the information about the campaign contributions because they are publicly disclosed.
The board will consider final approval of the ordinance next month.
–City News Service
Supervisors move forward to open up labor talks
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE / STAFF WRITER
Discussions on county contract negotiations with unions will be more transparent, the Orange County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday. Labor groups say the board should meet with them to hash out the transparency issue and have threatened to appeal it to the state Public Employees Relations Board.
The board unanimously gave a green light to the first reading of an ordinance proposed by Supervisor John Moorlach that gives the public the opportunity to review contracts with organized employees. Called Civic Openness in Negotiations, Moorlach said the ordinance, which will be reviewed again July 15, will prevent the approval of labor contracts with little or no public scrutiny. The ordinance, dubbed COIN, would follow a similar one passed in Costa Mesa in 2012.
Supervisors voted 5-0 in favor but made a few tweaks to Moorlach’s proposal. The ordinance, if passed in July, would require the board to report all formal offers and formal counteroffers from closed sessions. When a labor contract is proposed, the county auditor-controller would estimate the financial impacts of its terms and also the current contract’s terms. The information would be posted on the county website and be available for comment by labor groups and the public.
Moorlach last month suggested a 10-day public review period, but Supervisor Janet Nguyen urged him to consider a 30-day time frame, to which he agreed. Among other changes approved, supervisors will not be required to report informal conversations with labor representatives. Board Chairman Shawn Nelson was among those asking for this requirement to be eliminated.
“I don’t want to make a mistake if I don’t remember who I spoke with,” Nelson said.
At Nguyen’s urging, the board agreed to a provision that would automatically repeal the ordinance on Jan. 1, 2017, unless the board votes to extend it.
Nick Beradino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, was the only labor representative to speak during the public comment session and he urged the board not to proceed, suggesting that politics are behind the ordinance. The association is the largest employee labor union in Orange County, representing 18,000 employees.
“I think this idea is a big diversion,” Beradino said, suggesting supervisors should be more transparent with their campaign contributions. “We’re prepared to show you the math and how this board excludes contracts (from public scrutiny) they have with their campaign contributors. We have 14 interns working for 14 months and we found this board has taken millions of dollars in campaign contributions.”
Beradino appeared at the speaker table a second time, continuing to intensely protest the board’s discussion. He suggested supervisors may want to make other government contracts public, including a multimillion-dollar computer contract. Nelson asked Beradino to leave the podium.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, which represents 1,950 sworn members and 4,500 retirees, was at the meeting in the morning. He had planned to speak but did not return to the afternoon session. The association submitted a demand to bargain the issue to Nelson following the meeting.
In the demand letter, AOCDS said the ordinance is unconstitutional and that its proposed language and timing contribute to unfair labor practices.
In an interview about the proposal, Dominguez said he supported transparency when it’s executed correctly, but added he was disappointed Moorlach didn’t reach out to him or the association to discuss COIN.
“There is no basis for this,” Dominguez said. “No one is making an issue out of this. He needs to be fair and transparent to the taxpayers. He’s an accountant, a spreadsheet guy who looks at data. The county has an obligation under the law to negotiate. This represents a change in working conditions.”
County officials, however, insist that the proposed transparency provisions are not something they need to confer with unions about.
Moorlach said he has had his eyes on the ordinance since Costa Mesa passed it – and even before, when he saw the results of county labor contracts approved with little or no review. He said it was one of the items on his bucket list he had hoped to accomplish before ending his term.
Supervisors move toward open negotiation law
By Jill Cowan
The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that officials say will make often-contentious and opaque labor contract bargaining processes more transparent.
The Civic Openness in Negotiations ordinance — which requires that both sides make their offers public before an agreement is reached, among other provisions — now moves to a second reading and possible final approval.
Supervisor John Moorlach proposed the county version of COIN, an ordinance that has been in place in Costa Mesa since 2012.
This week, he said he had set out to accomplish pension reform during his term as a supervisor, and an ordinance like COIN would contribute to that goal.
Labor leaders, however, have blasted COIN both at the county and city levels, saying it’s a political ploy designed to distract from larger issues.
Contracts with outside agencies, they’ve said, deserve the same level of scrutiny as contracts with the county’s own employees.
"I think this is just another idea that’s probably a big diversion," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., the county’s biggest union.
But supervisors agreed that the ordinance was a step in the right direction, and their discussions on the measure have focused on its finer points.
For example, while the ordinance as proposed included a provision that board members disclose any communications about negotiations that they or their staffers have with any known representatives of any unions in question, in the final version, that requirement was eliminated.
Supervisor Pat Bates said she believed that COIN presents an effective way of "showing that the final deals that are struck with our employee organizations are in the best interest of the public." However, she said, it was unfair to single out discussions with union representatives, while members of other groups could freely share their thoughts with supervisors.
After some discussion, the board also took up suggestions by Supervisor Janet Nguyen to extend the time members of the public will have to review the financial analyses of different offers from 10 business days to 30 calendar days and to insert a sunsetting clause, which ensures that an incoming crop of supervisors will have to reassess the ordinance before Jan. 1, 2017, when it is now set to expire.
Ultimately, board Chairman Shawn Nelson said, the ordinance is straightforward in its intent: to open up a process typically done entirely behind closed doors.
"I don’t care about Costa Mesa. I don’t care about cute acronyms," he said. "This is simply about the public and the press knowing what the deal is before it’s a done deal."
Proper signature gathering
At the meeting, the board also voted to put off deciding whether to move forward with an ordinance prohibiting county employees from gathering signatures for election nomination papers at work.
The proposed ordinance was prompted by allegations that county Assessor Webster Guillory gathered employee signatures for his reelection nomination papers during work time, Supervisor Todd Spitzer said — although he stressed that the measure would send a helpful message, regardless of Guillory’s behavior.
The process for enforcing the rule proved to be the sticking point, after Spitzer presented a new version of the ordinance that he said took into account potential sources of contention.
The new version more specifically defined "workplace" in response to concerns that the term was overly vague.
Spitzer said the revised version also addressed concerns raised by union representatives, that the rule as originally written would affect employee association elections. Moving forward, union activity that’s already recognized as legal will be exempt from the rule.
The item is set to be back before the board July 15.
Labor Disclosure Ordinance Passes Amid Heated Debate
By NICK GERDA
Orange County supervisors on Tuesday approved a new ordinance they say will increase public scrutiny of labor deals, amid fierce criticism from union leaders that the measure unfairly singles out employees and ignores billions of dollars in private-sector contracts.
The unanimous 5-0 decision sets up a major confrontation between labor and county leaders that’s expected to play out in court.
The ordinance, known as Civic Openness in Negotiations or COIN, was brought forward by Supervisor John Moorlach, who argued that it will give residents a better chance to weigh in on proposed labor agreements.
“It’s been kind of frustrating that there was a long history of negotiations being done in closed session” and then approved immediately, Moorlach said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting. “There was just hardly any constituent or voter input.”
“I think this would be good for government. I think it would be good for the bargaining process” as well as expedite it, he added.
Labor leaders, meanwhile, criticized supervisors for not having the ordinance cover all government contracting, including with private companies that finance the supervisors’ political campaigns.
“You’ve spent all this time talking about the money that county employees take out the front door. Meanwhile there have been billions – and the grand jury just identified it – going out the back door,” said Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association.
“It’s being carried out by lobbyists and your campaign contributors.”
According to last week’s grand jury report, most of the county’s budget, or $3.1 billion out of $5.4 billion, is spent on private sector contracts.
The union also announced that it has assembled a team of 14 interns to track campaign contributions and votes by supervisors.
Every local union that represents county employees filed a complaint about the ordinance by the end of the day, Berardino said after the decision. According to the labor groups, the ordinance triggers a requirement to meet and confer with employees under the state’s Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.
Berardino also said the ordinance would likely be challenged through the legal system.
“We will go to the Public Employment Relations Board and continue with every legal remedy that’s available,” said Berardino, referring to a state agency that recently ruled against the county in a labor dispute.
Among other provisions, the COIN ordinance requires public disclosure of formal offers and counter-offers for labor contracts, a more detailed financial analysis of proposed agreements and the posting of proposed agreements 30 days in advance of voting on their approval.
Moorlach took issue with calls for all large contracts to be opened up under COIN, saying there’s “a world of difference” between labor negotiations and talks about other contracts.
“The processes are completely different and the dollar amounts are dramatically different,” said Moorlach. “So I’m having trouble appreciating that argument.”
Chairman Shawn Nelson, meanwhile, said the ordinance has nothing to do with campaign contributions.
“This is purely to make sure that deals are not truly done until the public” is brought in, Nelson said.
The ordinance originally required supervisors to disclose outside conversations they or their staff have had with labor representatives.
But after concerns from Supervisor Pat Bates, her colleagues ended up stripping that from the ordinance.
“In terms of the disclosure, I feel it…unfairly targets just the labor organizations and their representatives,” said Bates.
“If it’s to be an open process, then we shouldn’t just [disclose] the communications with labor negotiators or the union representatives…and not disclose that we also talked to so-and-so of such-and-such organization.”
At one point during the discussion, supervisors joked about possible penalties for violating the ordinance, which provoked a reaction from Berardino.
“It’s not that funny,” he shouted from the audience, before walking up to the podium.
Spitzer said he was out of order.
“Why don’t you give us a chance? You cut us off at 3 minutes,” Berardino replied. “I’ve seen a lot of other people get a lot more time…but we get cut off.”
“Why you don’t you want information for the public on the IT contract? You didn’t want to put that out there. You don’t want that because it’s all diversion,” said Berardino, referring to a Xerox contract where the firm raised its price by $11 million after being chosen as the winning bidder.
In response, Spitzer said he took the time to accommodate the union’s concerns this week about a campaign signature ordinance he put forward.
“I haven’t taken a dime from the union. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t want to know what their interest was,” said Spitzer.
Spitzer added that he “led the charge” to fire inmate monitoring firm Sentinel Offender Services, which a county auditor said committed “gross negligence,” despite taking several campaign donations from the firm.
“What is unequivocally clear is that we continue to do our jobs,” said Spitzer.
The debate comes against a backdrop of significant pressure on public pension plans, with the county’s unfunded liability rising from just over $1 billion in 2004 to more than $5 billion today.
Over the last decade, a combination of benefit increases, market losses and changes in actuarial assumptions have all contributed to the skyrocketing of unfunded liabilities.
Singling out the benefit increases, a representative of the Lincoln Club of Orange County “strongly” encouraged supervisors to pass the COIN ordinance on Tuesday.
Labor leaders, meanwhile, have emphasized that county workers have already taken major steps to address the pension issue. Most county workers, led by those represented by OCEA, now pay the maximum amount into their pensions allowed by law.
OCEA also worked closely with supervisors to develop a process for current employees to opt in to a lower benefit tier. The so-called “hybrid plan” has so far been stalled at the federal level.
As for legal challenges to COIN, supervisors and labor groups are at odds over whether the meet-and-confer process was required.
In a recent memo, Moorlach claimed the ordinance doesn’t have to be bargained because it “does not impact the wages, hours, or terms and conditions of employment for County employees and does not impact the negotiation of ground rules for current or future labor negotiations.”
That drew a rebuke from union leaders, with OCEA demanding in a June 13 letter that county officials meet-and-confer on the issue.
County supervisors didn’t address those legal questions at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs also argues that the county must negotiate the ordinance with employees.
“Although we feel that the proposed COIN ordinance is unconstitutional, as written, and its proposed language and timing constitute an unfair labor practice, we feel it necessary to go through proper channels before you illegally attempt to adopt and implement it,” wrote the deputy sheriff’s union president, Tom Dominquez, in a letter to Nelson on Tuesday.
In recent years, county supervisors and the City of Costa Mesa have lost high-profile lawsuits involving benefit and workplace challenges, costing taxpayers millions.
In 2011, the California Supreme Court threw out a county lawsuit seeking to overturn the 3-percent-at-50 pension formula for deputy sheriffs, after more than five years of legal battles in lower courts where the county consistently lost but appealed.
In May, an administrative law judge ruled that the county improperly imposed terms on more than 500 attorneys employed by the county.
And in Costa Mesa, which was the first jurisdiction in Orange County to adopt COIN, labor officials have tied up the city’s outsourcing efforts in court for years.
Costa Mesa has spent more than $1 million in legal fees so far in the case, with a judge on Tuesday rejecting the city’s request to throw out the suit.
Orange County’s COIN ordinance comes back for a second, and final, approval by supervisors on July 15.
You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.
Sham Version of COIN Passed by Union Influenced Fullerton City Council
Here is a postmortem on the final passage on June 17th of the Fullerton version of a “Civic Openness in Labor Negotiations (COIN)” ordinance:
During the council meeting a few of citizen activists tried valiantly to persuade two other Fullerton council members in addition to Council member Bruce Whitaker to reject the City of Fullerton’s sham version of labor negotiation reform. Activist Diane Hickey and I presented a comparison between the two tales of “good” government. The real version known as the Costa Mesa version and then the sham version foisted upon us at council last night by Human Resources Director Gretchen Beatty.
It was pitiful to watch Council members Jan Flory, Jennifer Fitzgerald and Doug Chaffee do their phony acceptance speeches for this so-called reform measure.
Ms. Fitzgerald offered that she would be supportive of removing the language that would allow her with two additional council members to waive the requirement for an independent negotiator under all circumstances. But as Gomer Pyle used to say – “surprise, surprise” – she never offered that as a motion. Had she done so, it would have allowed the entire council to strip that awful part of the ordinance.
Council member Flory stated the five components necessary for a good C.O.I.N. ordinance as expressed by Orange County Supervisor Moorlach in an article he recently wrote was indeed included in our draft ordinance. But of course, Ms. Flory did not even offer up one of those tenets as an example. Why take the time and effort to include even one fact in your argument when it is so much more fun and so much easier for Ms. Flory to provide the 10 people or so left in the audience at 11 p.m. with hyperbole instead? Council member Fitzgerald strongly disagreed with Council member Greg Sebourn’s comment that after reading the five components necessary for a good C.O.I.N ordinance, that he was hard pressed to see those components in our proposed ordinance. Please note that Moorlach’s comments and his five main components for a good C.O.I.N. ordinance follows very closely to the Costa Mesa C.O.I.N. ordinance.
Here are the five components as stated in Supervisor’s Moorlach’s article as follows:
1. “Independent Negotiator – As is current policy, the County will hire an independent negotiator that is not impacted by any outcome in the negotiation process. Past practice had county staff, who were subject to the same provisions as the bargaining unit they were negotiating with, negotiate on behalf of the Board of Supervisors. Independent negotiators remove this conflict.
2. Cost of Contracts – Current practice has the county budget office analyze the costs of any contract proposal. Under COIN, the independently elected Auditor-Controller will take on this responsibility. This ensures an equal playing ground for both labor organizations and the county as both will be given the ability to comment about the analysis.
3. Offers and Counteroffers – This ordinance would require that all offers and counteroffers be disclosed to the public within 24 hours.
4. Board Disclosure – Each member of the Board of Supervisors will be required to disclose any and all verbal, written, or electronic communications they have had with an official representative of a recognized employee organization.
5. Contract Approval – This ordinance will require that, before the final proposed contract is placed on the Board agenda, the Memorandum of Understanding will be posted to the County website.”
Well Council member Flory, since you failed to support your claim that Fullerton’s “COIN” ordinance includes these five conditions, I thought that I would take a stab at it. As someone who is independent and also an auditor, I believe I can easily either verify or nullify your claim, examining each condition one by one. To reiterate: Council member Flory stated that all 5 components laid out by Supervisor Moorlach were part of the Fullerton labor negotiation ordinance.
COMPARISON OF MODEL COIN ORDINANCE (MOORLACH) WITH FULLERTON’S SUPPOSED COIN ORDINANCE:
1. Independent Negotiator: Under Moorlach’s component, an independent negotiator is a requirement for all negotiations. Under Fullerton ordinance Section B.1. Principal Negotiator second paragraph states as follows: “The requirement for an outside negotiator may be waived by a majority vote of City Council.” It is also not required when there is not a significant change to the bargaining agreement. Therefore, the first component is optional, and not required under the Fullerton ordinance.
2. Cost of Contracts: Under Moorlach’s component the independently elected Auditor-Controller reviews the costs of proposed contracts and provides the information to all parties and the public before any contractual finalization can take place. In the Fullerton version it states at A.1., Annual Analysis of Costs and Liabilities, second paragraph, as follows: “The annual fiscal analysis shall be submitted to the City’s independent auditor during the course of the annual City financial audit.” Under Fullerton law, there is no requirement to provide this information prior to the signing of the labor negotiation contracts, relegating the independent auditor’s information worthless because the public does not receive it in a timely manner. Therefore, the second component’s only purpose is not carried out under the Fullerton law.
3. Offers and Counteroffers: Under Moorlach’s component “this ordinance would require that all offers and counteroffers be disclosed to the public within 24 hours.” Under the just passed Fullerton ordinance, there is no such requirement that states how quickly all offers and counteroffers are to be disclosed too the public nor to the council. Therefore, the third component is not carried out under the Fullerton ordinance.
4. Board Disclosure: Under Moorlach’s component “each member of the Board of Supervisors will be required to disclose any and all verbal, written, or electronic communications they have had with an official representative of a recognized employee organization.” Again, there is no such language included in the Fullerton ordinance. Therefore, the fourth competent is missing from the Fullerton ordinance.
5. Contract Approval: Under Moorlach’s component “this ordinance will require that, before the final proposed contract is placed on the Board agenda, the Memorandum of Understanding will be posted to the County website.” There is no such language included in the Fullerton ordinance requiring the M.O.U. to be posted to the City of Fullerton website. Therefore, component number 5 also is not met by our Fullerton ordinance.
I believe that based on my component-by-component analysis, Fullerton Council member Flory has some explaining to do to the members of the Fullerton public. Since Mayor Chaffee and Council member Fitzgerald also agreed with Ms. Flory and voted for the Fullerton ordinance maybe they should help Ms. Flory with her response.
Not one of the key components of a good C.O.I.N. law as described by Supervisor Moorlach is included in the Fullerton ordinance.
About the Author: Barry Levinson has lived in Fullerton for 25 years with his wife, Susan, and his son, Brett. He currently serves as Chair of the Fullerton Parks and Recreation Commission. He has been an advocate for the restoration of both sound fiscal policies and accountability in government. He has worked as an internal auditor and manager in both private industry and with the CPA firm Ernst and Young.
Grand jury insists ethics police needed
Call for oversight epitomizes clash between jurors, county supervisors.
By TERI SFORZA
This just in from the “Um, sorry, but we won’t be taking no for an answer!” department:
The grand jury is again smacking around the good County of Orange, insisting that it is woefully deficient in the ethics and transparency arena, and insisting that it enter the 21st century by creating an independent ethics commission to “serve as a check and balance on government officials, employees and candidates.”
Los Angeles has one. San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Ventura and San Bernardino have one. But O.C.? The third-largest governmental jurisdiction in California? With a budget of $5.6 billion (of which $3 billion is contracted out)? Nope.
“The Board of Supervisors should place a proposition on the next available general election ballot to establish an Orange County Campaign Reporting and Ethics Commission, similar to commissions in other jurisdictions in California,” the grand jury said.
If you have a strange sense of deja vu, it’s because last year’s grand jury hit on essentially these same points, and was blasted by a highly offended county Board of Supervisors. The county already has “a host of coordinated accountability and oversight mechanisms … for addressing improper behavior,” the supes said, and an ethics commission would be just “another bureaucratic structure at taxpayer expense” that would be “practically unnecessary … irresponsible and wasteful.”
Ooh! There’s little we at The Watchdog love more than a spitting cat fight over public policy, and this year’s grand jury has its claws out.
“A staff of approximately three to five could hardly be called bureaucratic,” the grand jury fired back in its report released Tuesday. “Would establishment of an ethics body be irresponsible? The Grand Jury finds it hard to understand why uncovering unethical, illegal and corrupt behavior by those in positions of public trust is irresponsible. Indeed, it is irresponsible not to uncover, investigate and prosecute such behavior.
“Would establishing an ethics body be wasteful?” it continued. “The Grand Jury is proposing an estimated expense for an ethics body that is less than 0.01of 1percent of Orange County’s total budget.” At no more than $750,000 or so a year, the potential cost is outweighed by the potential benefits, “including coordinated oversight, transparency, independence, and creating an atmosphere of deterrence to law violations and corruption that could contribute to improving overall trust in local government,” the grand jury said.
While the 2013 grand jury chronicled a litany of corruption dating back to the 1970s – citing 43 county politicians indicted from 1974 to 1977 alone, which some supes felt unfairly tarnished those in office today – the 2014 grand jury stuck to the high road, examining what the county now has in place, and how independent ethics panels are structured and operate.
The short version is, there are lots of tentacles in O.C. right now, but no central brain to coordinate action and connect the dots, and little to no enforcement, the grand jury found. A half-dozen different agencies are charged with various bits and pieces of reporting and oversight – the district attorney, the registrar of voters, the clerk of the board, internal audit, the grand jury itself – and none is truly independent of the Board of Supervisors. The supes either appoint these folks or control their purse strings.
To their credit, the supes do understand that adjustments need to be made on the ethics front, and are moving toward engaging the state Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce O.C.’s campaign finance law.
That has several drawbacks, however, the grand jury said: Independence would still be an issue, as supes would have to approve the contract and set the budget; it would be limited to civil – not criminal – enforcement; and it wouldn’t do much to coordinate the various tentacles already at work.
Orange County needs a better system, where Average Joes can easily access information, and where the tools and technology that can help detect less-than honorable behavior are at an independent commission’s fingertips, the grand jury said.
O.C. “is very wealthy, and land and economic development are still very active here,” it argued. “When such robust development and economic activity is combined with the size and scope of government activity in general today, unethical attempts at self-enrichment and increased power tend to follow.”
The supervisors have 90 days to respond to the grand jury in writing. This time, as last time, there are mixed feelings.
Supervisor John Moorlach said he’s worked with his share of politicians whose behavior was questioned – former Sheriff Mike Carona, former Treasurer-Tax Collector Chriss Street, and former public administrator/public guardian John Williams, to just name a few.
“But the grand jury isn’t saying, ‘Here’s the problem we’re trying to solve,’ ” Moorlach said. “And they apparently don’t feel that they’re able to be the antidote to corruption, or that the D.A. is either. They don’t like the idea that we’re using the FPPC. I don’t know what to say – I’m sorry they’re so frustrated. I sort of wish I could figure out what the frustration is about.”
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who wrote a dissenting response to the grand jury last year, finds the ideas intriguing.
“I’ve said for a long time we have to have oversight of our politicians in O.C.,” Spitzer said. “As long as you have politicians overseeing politicians, it makes the process political. There are two sides to it: the money side, and the ethics side. I think we bit off half of it with the FPPC overseeing our campaign contributions. It’s an important step. But it’s only half of the equation.”
CONTACT THE WRITER: tsforza
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