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Law's Loophole Needs Closing

March 17, 1985

In May of 1984, the last Orange County Grand Jury asked the Board of Supervisors to modify its campaign reform ordinance by closing a loophole that allows donations in excess of the law's limit. Several supervisors said they needed more time to study the issue.

Now, some 10 months later, the current Grand Jury has made the same request, and the supervisors seem to be going into their same stall response of "we'll look at it to see whether a change is needed." That says to us that the board never really took the time to study the issue after the first Grand Jury request and still may not intend to do so.

It is encouraging to see the Grand Jury persisting, for two reasons. One is that the loophole should be closed. The other is that grand jury panels haven't always had the tenacity to follow up on prior, worthwhile recommendations that government can easily ignore given the one-year tenure of grand juries.

The campaign reform ordinance the jury wants clarified was adopted by the supervisors about six years ago after it qualified as a ballot initiative and seemed certain of passage.

The ordinance prohibits a supervisor from voting on issues affecting a contributor from whom the supervisor has received more than $1,534 in the last four years.

Last year, however, it was discovered that Donald L. Bren, the Irvine Co. board chairman, had made a $1,000 personal contribution to Supervisor Bruce Nestande and had also donated another $1,800 through the Donald Bren Co., in which he owns a major interest. Nestande voted on an issue affecting the Irvine Co. after receiving Bren's donation. That raised the question of whether contributions from a company's majority owner should be considered the same as a contribution from the company.

The 1983-84 Grand Jury, which didn't believe Bren intended to violate the campaign reform law, last year asked the county board to remove any ambiguities and amend it to make clear that a majority owner and his or her company are considered as one in determining the donation limit. The county district attorney's office joined the Grand Jury in the request. The county counsel issued an opinion that the supervisors could make the change because they would not be "deleting or changing" the intent of the law. Nothing happened.

This time the board should act. The campaign reform ordinance became law because residents wanted to keep the supervisors from voting on matters affecting large donors. Clearing up the ambiguity won't change the law's intent. Leaving it as it is, however, compromises it. If the supervisors continue to ignore obvious flaws, their attitude will encourage an erosion of public confidence and possibly even lead to another costly initiative.

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