Tuesday, April 16, 2013

(Orange) County Grand Jury Calls for Ethics Probe into OC Government

By TRACY WOOD (AP), Voice of OC -

The Orange County Grand Jury, citing the county’s 40-year history of political corruption, Monday recommended creation of an independent ethics commission to advise elected officials of ethical pitfalls and increase public confidence in government.

“Trust in government is dependent upon officials that place the public interest ahead of their own,” according to the 32-page report titled, A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County.

The report aims to establish a high standard for local government, saying the appearance of impropriety is “equally [as] damaging” as actual wrongdoing.

The panel recommends the Board of Supervisors create an a blue ribbon commission to study government ethics programs within California and around the nation and, within a year, propose an Orange County ethics reform program that includes oversight.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson took immediate issue with the grand jury, saying the ethics of any oversight body or blue ribbon commission would be no better that than the ethics of the elected officials who appointed them.

It’s up to the news media and the voters to hold government officials accountable, he said in a telephone interview.

“A truly informed public that votes is the ethics commission,” said Nelson.

Yet in its report, the grand jury notes that while Orange County is the sixth largest county in the nation, Los Angeles-based commercial television and radio stations don’t generally cover Orange County or city government and many community newspapers that acted as watchdogs have shut own over the years.

The grand jury report said key provisions of the blue ribbon commission recommendations would include the ability of the ethics body to offer formal and informal ethics advice to both public officials and government employees.

It also would include a hotline for government employees and members of the public to report suspected unethical conduct.

The ethics oversights body should “be free to act without political interference have jurisdiction over each County department, agency,

commission, and board and joint powers authority regardless of whether the head of such a body is elected or appointed[and] have ethics-related jurisdiction over the elected leadership of the County,” according to the grand jury report.

In addition, it said, “the oversight body must have the authority to enforce compliance through the use of warning letters, administrative settlements and the issuance of annual public reports.”

Decade after decade, since the early 1970s, Orange County has been rocked by one political scandal after another that sent members of the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, a member of congress, some of the state’s biggest political donors and dozens of others to prison.

In addition, there was the 1994 county bankruptcy, at the time the largest in the nation by a government body.

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