Last week, the Fair Political Practices Commission took a dramatic step backwards in its enforcement of ethics regulations affecting elected officials. In a 3-2 vote, the FPPC passed a rule that will exempt city council members from conflict-of interest regulations that prohibited them from voting on their own appointments to paid boards and commissions.
The LiberalOC reported first in September 2011 on this issue when we discovered potential violations and complaints were filed by a Santa Ana resident alleging that City Council members Claudia Alvarez and Vincent Sarmiento violated conflict-of-interest rules when they voted on their own board appointments in 2011. That complaint resulted in warning letters from the FPPC on February 1st and 2nd (here & here) and in the council revoting an all existing appointments to correct those and other possible violations.
Major local media however didn’t catch on until the LATimes reported on February 20th about FPPC warning letters sent to 40 Orange County officials in response to a series of complaints filed by Tustin painter, Matthew Delaney. The warning letters from FPPC Chief Enforcement Officer Gary S. Winuk. Mr. Winuk also issued the letters to Alvarez and Sarmiento.
The Commissions decision, which seems to strive to remove a level of administrative burden regarding such appointments, is none the less an open door to corruption and payback for political favors and slights. While in many cases the votes on such appointments are unanimous, in others they are close and the result of political favoritism. A clear example of this is the scenario which played out in Tustin regarding their outside board appointments. Jeff Gallagher of Our Town Tustin blog describes what happened when the council made the appointments to the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors.
When Mayor Nielsen was nominated by his two cronies, he left the room for the vote. The vote did not go exactly as planned as the Right voted to approve the nomination and the Left, unsurprisingly, voted against it. Here is where the shell game comes in. In a subsequent nomination, John Nielsen was again nominated by Jerry Amante. After Nielsen left the room, in one of the most unethical displays I could imagine, Boss Tweed Amante then nominated Beckie Gomez for the same position, thereby assuring a majority vote for “their man” Nielsen, for the alternate on the Orange County Fire Authority. Ah, but then, he doesn’t have to drive as far.
To add insult to injury, John Nielsen actually had the nerve to say afterward, “I think it made it more of an open process for everybody involved and it gives everyone an opportunity. It just happened to be the way it kind of fell.” Wrong. It happened exactly the way you and your cronies planned. Talking the city staff into creating the “open process”, which violated common rules of procedure and allowed ethical jumps to get what you wanted, does not make the process any less jaded just because it may pass muster (barely) with the FPPC.
While the decision made on March 15th does not reverse the warning letters already issued, it provides a gaping hole in ethics rules governing future appointments. At a minimum cities that wish to follow the spirit of the ethics and conflict of interest laws should enact policies or ordinances that prohibit members from voting on their own paid board appointments.
I wonder if any cities will take up the challenge to act ethically in spite of the commissions recent rule change.