FPPC Takes A Step Backwards On Ethics

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.

  3 comments for “FPPC Takes A Step Backwards On Ethics

  1. just asking?
    March 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Interestingly enough the cities that did not have a problem with appointments used a mayor selection process. That is the mayor in a moment of infinite wisdom selected anyone, including themselves for various paid positions. This is somehow more democratic than a public discussion and a public vote.
    FPPC was way off on this issue, the latest ruling and vote is hopefully a return to a logical and public process for appointments. The majority of which are not compensated.

  2. March 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Its amazing the FPPC would turn a blind eye to this mini-corruption. Board members for SCAG can make over $11k a year just to attend meetings. Tustin Mayor, John Nielsen, madr over $4k a year for attending Sanitatiin board meetings. OCFA is no slouch either when it comes to handing out public cash to board members. Now you know why Jerry Amante wants the council pay measure placed on the ballot. Council pay pales in comparison to the board pay.

  3. just asking?
    March 20, 2012 at 10:32 am

    SCAG appointments are handled by ACCOC and B.O.S., not city councils. The FPPC rulings never included these groups. (they should have!)

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