Saturday, July 4, 2009

San Bernardino Print Email Font Resize SB supervisors are skeptical of Grand Jury reform recommendations

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/02/2009 07:13:24 PM PDT

Members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors weighed in Thursday on the Grand Jury's recommendations for limits on campaign contributions and establishment of an ethics commission to help thwart corruption and the perception of it.

The Grand Jury's 2008-2009 report released Wednesday included for the first time a special section on proposed governmental reform.

After learning that the Board of Supervisors raised more than $2.3 million, collectively, over a five-year period from special interest groups, land developers and others, the panel recommended the county put a cap on campaign contributions.

Board Chairman Gary Ovitt said Thursday he doesn't have a problem with that recommendation, but also believes there is nothing wrong with the reporting system the county has in place.

The campaign finance forms used by elected officials, called 460s, list each contributor and the amount they contribute. They are available online or at the county Registrar of Voters, Ovitt said.

Like some of his colleagues on the board, Ovitt said the problem with putting a cap on contributions is that it can force the money underground.

"The only issue that caps bring is that you wind up with political action committees (PACS) playing a bigger role," said Ovitt, adding that the general voter is typically not aware of most PACS, what they stand for and who's behind them. And typically, Ovitt said, it is difficult to research them.

A political action committee is a committee formed by a special-interest group to raise money for their favorite political candidates. Committees can also be formed by political candidates to benefit their political allies.

Nonetheless, putting a cap on campaign contributions could help restore public trust, Ovitt said.

"I don't really have a problem with looking at some real caps in supervisorial races," he said.

He believes an ethics commission would be prudent, and said he's been looking at other counties that have them including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

The main problem, he said, is cost. Each of the commissions he researched had overheads of more than $1 million annually, and some cost more than $2 million to operate.

"A million dollars right now would be a tough nut to crack because of the budget issues that exist," said Ovitt, adding that the other issue to grapple with is how commission members would be selected and ensuring they are immune to political influence.

He said the board should bring the issues of both campaign finance reform and the feasibility of an ethics commission to the table no later than the fall. First, the county has to deal with its budget issues, appointing a new treasurer/tax collector and a permanent assessor.

In addition, the county is suing former Assessor Bill Postmus, four former members of his executive support staff and political consultant Mike Richman in connection with a scandal involving reports of widespread timecard fraud and political shenanigans in the Assessor's Office that occurred in 2007 and 2008. It reportedly cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, money the county is trying to recoup in its litigation.

"Maybe at the end of summer we can start looking at this more earnestly," Ovitt said of the Grand Jury's recommendations.

Third District Supervisor Neil Derry said he hopes the Grand Jury's recommendations will provide the momentum to get an ethics commission up and running, despite the county's budget woes.

He and Second District Supervisor Paul Biane have been researching the feasibility of such a commission for several months.

"We're going to come up with a number of proposals. We were hoping to have a workshop, but were hit by the budget," said Derry, who said Los Angeles County's ethics commission has received a lot of positive feedback.

Derry, however, isn't sold on the idea of putting a cap on campaign contributions. He said the state has campaign finance limits in place and it has had no bearing on the amount of money spent on state elections.

Like Derry and Ovitt, Supervisor Paul Biane believes that political action committees and other third parties would drive the money underground if limits were placed on campaign contributions.

"I think the same thing has happened at the state level as well," Biane said. "I think if you look at San Bernardino County and the way we do our reporting . . . it's pretty transparent about who's supporting which candidates."

Though he is all for an ethics commission, he cautions it will not eliminate the problem of unethical behavior.

"I still think you're going to have issues arise in the future. It goes on in every organization," said Biane. "In my opinion, it would not bring to an end the large problems that tend to creep up in counties."

First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt was unavailable for comment, as was Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales.

Bob Stern, executive director of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said more than a dozen counties across the state have set limits on campaign contributions for elected officials, and the time has come for San Bernardino County to do the same.

"They're behind the curve on a lot of things, and I think the (Grand Jury's) recommendation is a solid recommendation," said Stern.

While not the panacea of political reform, limits on campaign contributions help significantly in restoring public trust in their elected officials. They are crucial in supervisorial races, which typically are noncompetitive, and ensure candidates cannot raise exorbitant amounts of money, Stern said.

First and foremost, the county should put in place an ethics commission, Stern said.

"They need to have a group that is just designed to look at ethical questions in the county," he said. "It's a very important signal to the public that they get that they have to change the way they've done business."

joe.nelson@inlandnewspapers.com, (909) 386-3874

http://www.sbsun.com/news/ci_12744929

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