Anaheim and Santa Ana Need Ethics Commissions

In the wake of ethics concerns dogging Orange County’s two largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, both cities seem to need an effective way to maintain organizational oversight and accountability for the ethical behavior of their employees, commissioners, and elected officials.

Kris Murray

Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray

We have seen ethical conflicts of interest involving contracts being directed to companies in which senior staff have a financial interest in Anaheim (here). In both Anaheim and Santa Ana we have seen Council members voting (here and here) on matters in which they have a financial interest. And in Santa Ana, we have had Council members violating the city’s Code of Ethics and Conduct Ordinance by voting on matters that involve significant campaign contributions from interested parties before and after the vote, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Alvarez’s verbal rant at a council meeting where she compared the business practices of Jewish businessmen Irv and Ryan Chase to ethnic cleansing  and stating that renting from them was like renting from Hitler.

Absent the cities adopting charter amendments to independently elect a City Attorney who could enforce ethics laws, the only option is for there to be an independent body appointed in each city with the assigned task of enforcement  of ethics laws through administrative and legal remedies.

There is a model that has worked successfully on Southern California. It is the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. From the Commission’s website their mission is to Preserve the Public Trust:

As an independent voice for more open and responsive City government, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission acts through its voter-established mandate to preserve the public trust. Through meaningful public disclosure and effective education, the Commission is committed to supporting and equipping an informed citizenry. Dedicated to upholding the public interest, the Commission shapes, administers and enforces City ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws that ensure Los Angeles elections and government decision making are fair, transparent and accountable.

The commission is a body appointed by elected city officials, so it isn’t entirely void of influence. But because it has a clear independent mission with the authority to take real action to correct violations, it has proven to be an effective means of helping ensure public trust and confidence.

In his story Friday in Voice of OC, Adam Elmahrek asked Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies about the recent revelations from Anaheim. Westen recommended that the city create an ethics commission:

The revelations show a clear pattern of inattention toward possible conflicts of interest. He points to the absence of important safeguards against the threat of city insiders using their authority for personal gain.

Which is the reason, he said, an independent watchdog is important.

“It’s inevitably always a conflict to have city employees do it, because they have to potentially blow the whistle on their bosses,” Westen said. “There has to be some independent review so reporters don’t have to spend the rest of their lives figuring it out.”

City staff cannot be effective arbitors of these issues as there are potential conflicts that might arise from their enforcement of the rules that involve their supervisors, managers, or elected officials. The City Attorneys of both cities face the same difficulties and we have witnessed time and time again their refusal to even point out an error or enforce an ethics policy.

Claudia Alvarez takes bitter pill of rebuke from Santa Ana residents (Photo: Chris Prevatt)

Given that the City of Santa Ana will be taking up the review of their Code of Ethics and Conduct on Tuesday December 6th at 5:30 pm this is an idea that should at least be looked in to. The City Council’s attempt to correct the abhorrent behavior of Mayor Pro Tem Alvarez resulted in a lengthy council discussion and rebuke from her colleagues that Alvarez called a distraction at the very next meeting, and a closed forum discussion of Jewish/Latino relations that was more a victory celebration for Alvarez and her supporters at taxpayer expense than a real effort at repairng the damage Alvarez caused. Throughout the forum participants invited by Alvarez harped on what they believed Irv and Ryan Chase were doing wrong and the PBID dispute that sparked Alvarez’s rant. The City has refused to provide an accounting of how much in staff time and other resources were dedicated to the event where many of the attendees were hand selected by Alvarez.

It is time that both cities take a real interest in addressing their conduct as agents of the people in a way that protects the public right to know and curbs inside and back room deals. Santa Ana Council members Sal Tinajero and Vince Sarmiento, you’re on deck first. So what’s your plan? Something new, or business as usual?