The urgency for government reforms in San Bernardino County comes after the Grand Jury released its annual report, recommending the county establish such a commission and place limits on campaign contributions. It also includes a section devoted to governmental reform.
The 2008-09 grand jury final report – a nonbinding annual review of county government by a panel of private citizens – focuses on the operations of county departments, agencies and officers.
“This attitude of ‘anything goes’ by a few needs to be changed,” foreman Burrell Woodring wrote in his introductory letter.
The report also suggests that the county revise its code of ethics to include a provision prohibiting a public official from using his or her office for personal gain. The current code does not address the abuse of office issues raised in investigations of the assessor’s office, the report states.
“It is clear that we cannot police ourselves and that we are only going to be able to root out corruption and unethical behavior through the establishment of an independent ethics commission,” Derry said.
Over the last year, the county has been hit by scandal at the Assessor’s Office that led to the resignation of Assessor Bill Postmus in February and the filing of criminal charges against three of his former top aides – Adam Aleman, Jim Erwin and Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Rex Gutierrez.
Postmus and his former executive support staff are accused of engaging in widespread timecard fraud and engaging in political activity on county time.
Postmus pleaded not guilty to nine felony counts and one misdemeanor count, including misusing public funds, grand theft and possession of narcotics. He is schedule to be back in San Bernardino County Superior Court for another hearing on Sept. 22.
The ethics commission Derry is proposing would cost about $500,000 a year and consist of about five volunteer commissioners and three paid staff including a director, an administrative clerk and an investigator. The panel would then be charged with overseeing and directing a three person investigative staff.
“We are putting together the final proposal of what an ethics commission would look like,” said George Watson, Derry’s chief of staff. “We will take the proposal to the two workshops that are scheduled for next month.”
The Board of Supervisors is tentatively scheduled to vote on the ethics commission and sunshine ordinance at its Aug. 25 meeting, he said.
Derry said his office was willing to put up $50,000 in discretionary funds from his district and urged his four colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to do the same. Watson told PublicCEO.com supervisors would ask County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer to budget the remaining $250,000 for the commission.
How the county will afford to pay for a commission in a time of tight budgets remains to be seen.
“Quite frankly, we can’t afford not to do this,” Derry argued.
Watson added that with a $4 billion county budget there should be $250,000 in the general fund to support the creation of an ethics commission.
How to select the commission is still being worked out. Derry is proposing a lottery process that would select the five member volunteer panel via random drawing from a pool of qualified applicants, similar to the way Grand Jury members are selected.
“The idea is to select a commission that doesn’t look like it was stack by the board,” Watson said. “It has to be an independent commission.”
In addition to the ethics commission, Supervisor Derry announced his intention to place a “Sunshine Ordinance” on the ballot mandating greater public access to public records and documents.
“These tools have proven very effective in other municipalities,” Derry said.
The ordinance would eliminate the “deliberative process” excuse San Bernardino County officials use to block public records requests.
While citation of the deliberative process is a legitimate reason in a handful of circumstances, San Bernardino County has abused this tool on occasion. Derry said the public has a right to access these documents and should not be thwarted in their effort to adequately assess the actions of their elected officials.
“The amount of effort expended by our county to deny access to these records while simultaneously proclaiming to be in support of open, transparent government is laughable,” said Watson.
Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales said she is receptive to the idea of an ethics commission, but wanted assurances that any commission would deliver the services it is intended to due so.
“Supervisor Gonzales proposed that one workshop focus solely on the proposed formation of an ethics commission,” said Bob Page, the supervisor’s chief of state. “The second workshop would be held so the board can discuss the remaining seven recommendations on governmental reform.”
In terms of how the county would pay for an ethics commission, Page said the actual cost would depend on the scope of authority of an ethics commission.
“As the scope of authority would also impact how many staff would assigned to support a commission,” he said.
Chris Sieroty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org