One of my proudest moments as a columnist came in 2008 when the Orange County Board of Supervisors launched the Office of Independent Review to monitor the Sheriff's Department. I was one of many observers who championed an "independent" oversight board following a horrific jail beating death, some disturbing police shootings, and the federal indictment of a past sheriff.
The office, however, quickly became co-opted by the Sheriff's Department. It has sparked no meaningful improvement of county law enforcement even as a massive scandal involving the district attorney's and sheriff's use of jailhouse snitches has unfolded. Critics were right. That vote created a mini-bureaucracy that offered little more than a veneer of oversight.
That reinforced an important point that, in my zeal, I overlooked at the time: Government commissions are a foolhardy way to try to rein in government agencies. It's a broad principle that can be applied locally and nationally. Often, these commissions are the worst of all worlds. They give the impression of oversight without actually overseeing much of anything.
Fool me once, shame on me. But not a second time. I'm thinking of another proposal on the June coming ballot to create an independent campaign finance and ethics commission in Orange County. "It will be a truly independent body," argue its supporters in a campaign statement. It promises big things: "to hold politicians accountable and ensure our government answers to the people." But the chance it will clean up local politics is somewhere in the ballpark of zero.
The measure is the brainchild of one of the county's best-known grassroots political activists, Shirley Grindle. Grindle is the dogged campaign-finance watchdog who authored the so-called TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) ordinance in 1977. She also rewrote it to simplify it in 1992, and voters approved the changes with an 82-percent "yes" vote.
Anyone can call her and ask for information about who gave how much to what candidate—and she says she can usually get you the information in a few minutes using a system of index cards. "I'm not going to be here forever," said Grindle, now in her early 80s. Her personal monitoring of the county law certainly helps keep politicians honest. Measure A is the result of her 12-year effort to create a formal commission to carry on her volunteer oversight work. This is the first time she's had a board of supervisors supportive of the idea.
As good as the idea sounds to some people, it's deservedly controversial. The commission would have five commissioners and an executive director under the authority of the Board of Supervisors. Board members, by the way, would be among those top county officials whose finance practices and ethics would be under review. So the idea of independence is a stretch, even with tough restrictions on the types of people who can serve on the commission. How many supervisors will appoint people who closely monitor them?
We see the limits of this approach at the state level, where the Fair Political Practices Commission oversees statewide campaign finances and ethics. Because the FPPC doesn't monitor local elections, this commission would handle that in Orange County. It's common, though, for political opponents to game the process to embarrass opponents. The proposed Orange County commission would get subpoena power, so it could access bank accounts and compel politicians to appear before its hearings. That would be good in cases of real wrongdoing, but problematic if the commission adopts more of a political tone—or gets played by a political pro.
"It's a very expensive price tag so supervisors can make accusations," said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the GOP-oriented Flashreport. "As a political consultant, I can make hay with this by filing a complaint and getting a big article, 'Ethical complaint lodged.'" But it will take months or sometimes years to figure out if there was any actual wrongdoing. He sees it as another means for politicians to engage in game-playing.
Consider that one of its biggest champions is Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is planning a run for district attorney. In March, taxpayers flew him to San Francisco as part of a photo op to hand out a $100,000 reward check. The Register reported in November that Spitzer has engaged in "unprecedented spending from a war chest that's paid for $340,000 in travel, groceries, restaurant meals, hotels, office and retail store purchases, a security system and donations to politicians, causes and civic groups." It's legal, but this should send up the usual red flags. Will any such commission see the forest for the trees?
The price tag is unclear. Grindle envisions volunteer commissioners and one full-time executive director, with costs under $300,000 a year. Others predict higher costs, given how fiefdoms grow. But cost is secondary to substance. The real problem is the commission might convince people something is being done to clean up elections—while it does no more to improve ethics than the Office of Independent Review did to improve policing.
And this Orange County example should be a warning to activists throughout the country. Don't expect a commission to provide anything more than window dressing. Don't be as foolish as I was.