making local government more ethical

Current Ethics Reform I - Orange County and Oakland, CA

Over the last few weeks, while I was putting the finishing touches on the second edition of the book Local Government Ethics Programs, there was a lot of action in the area of ethics reform. In the next few blog posts, I will summarize the action.

Orange County, CA
According to an article yesterday on the Voice of Orange County website, a grand jury report laid out a 40-year chronology of corruption in the county, and recommended the creation of a comprehensive government ethics program for the county. It's an excellent report (but of course I would say that, since it quotes from my book Local Government Ethics Programs several times).

However, the county board of supervisors wants none of it. It unanimously (with one abstention) rejected the the establishment of a blue ribbon commission to recommend ethics reforms, and in a written response said that the grand jury’s finding that Orange County lacks effective ethics oversight of its public officials was “irresponsibly broad, vague, and not substantiated in the report." It also said that the grand jury report "did not demonstrate that the existing network of oversight functions has failed to catch and correct unethical behavior once it occurs."

While the board of supervisors focused on enforcement, the grand jury did not. It emphasized that the goal of a government ethics program is to increase the public trust and prevent ethical misconduct. The board of supervisors disrespectfully ignored this.

The board of supervisors listed a number of alternatives to a government ethics program:
the District Attorney’s Office
the Internal Audit Fraud Hotline
the Grand Jury
the California Attorney General
the Fair Political Practices Commission
the Office of Independent Review
In order, these "alternatives" are:  Criminal, criminal, criminal, irrelevant, weak and did nothing to prevent past ethical misconduct, provides oversight of sheriff's office only and not about conflicts of interest. In short, they are not alternatives at all, just a smokescreen.

One supervisor abstained from the vote and drafted a separate report calling for a committee of retired judges (why always retired judges?) to recommend an independent ethics program. But then he backed away from the idea of an independent ethics commission, saying he would consider a proposal to discuss a relationship with the state ethics commission, like San Bernardino County's. But San Bernardino County's relationship is limited to campaign finance matters. Such a relationship would not likely create a full government ethics program, although anything is possible.

According to an article on the KTVU website this week, an Oakland grand jury looking into a particular teen center development concluded that the City Council provide the city's ethics commission with sufficient authority and funding to enforce the city's ethics code, and that elected officials receive ethics training every two years, with proof of compliance.

Unlike in Orange County, the city's mayor and administrator agree with the grand jury that the EC needs adequate staffing and additional authority. They also agree on the need to shield contracting, hiring, and management of staff from "inappropriate political influence."

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics