A Hammer in Search of a Nail

Published with the Flash Report

Recently, the Orange County Board of Supervisors considered two competing proposals to establish an ethics commission to oversee campaigns and elections for county offices. Of course, there was no dispute for the need to ensure that our County elected officials and candidates conduct their campaigns with the highest level of integrity and ethical standards.

The issue at hand was whether the county actually needs an ethics commission at all, and if so, how much would it cost. For those of us living in Orange County, not only do we demand to know that our elected officials are honest in how they conduct themselves; but equally important, we also need to know that elected officials are honest and ethical in how they spend and manage our hard-earned tax dollars.

A primary concern about creating a new government bureaucracy to oversee campaigns and elections is that it would only affect a relatively few number of candidates running for the 12 county offices – Supervisor (5 districts), District Attorney, Sheriff-Coroner, Auditor-Controller, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Assessor, Clerk-Recorder and the County Superintendent of Schools.

Many people incorrectly believe that a County ethics commission will oversee campaigns for all candidates within Orange County including those running for city councils, water boards and school districts. A County ethics commission will have no jurisdiction over those government offices.

Running an ethics commission can be costly. The City of Los Angeles spends over $1.9 million dollars a year just for staff alone with an annual budget of $2.7 million. San Francisco spends $3.9 million, and with just 5 employees, San Diego City spends $1.0 million. Keep in mind, these are cities. Because the cost is so high, Orange County will be the first county of the 58 counties in the state with a full service, fully staffed ethics commission if one were to be established.

Estimates are that an Orange County ethics commission would cost a minimum of $500,000 per year. More realistic estimates are well over $1 million per year. Moreover, the proposed ethics commissions provide for the use of private attorneys, who are given blank checks to perform detailed investigations – money that taxpayers foot regardless if wrong-doing is discovered or not. Considering that only about 25 candidates run for county offices in an election cycle, the County could be spending $20,000 or even much more than $40,000 a year per candidate.

Today, TINCUP, our County Campaign Reform Ordinance, is already enforced by the State Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the County District Attorney. Additionally, the County Registrar of Voters audits campaign finance statements to make sure candidates fill them completely and correctly. These reports for most candidates, those genuinely and actively running a campaign, are already found online for the public to review.

Before I can support a proposal to create an ethics commission, I would ask my colleagues on the Board to ensure that there is a need and verify that an Ethics Commission will have an impact on compliance. As the County recovers from the two decades long bankruptcy, the last thing we need is a million dollar golden hammer in search of a two penny nail.

An accomplished tax fighter, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel represents the 2nd District, which includes the communities of Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Seal Beach and Stanton.