The 1985-86 Orange County Grand Jury, after examining whether former supervisorial aides exercised undue influence in the awarding of public contracts, on Thursday recommended tightening the process to avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest.
"In a county where two previous supervisors have been indicted, we feel caution should definitely be the watchword," jury foreman Gerald Charlton said at an Orange County Civic Center news conference.
Marwin Gonsior, chairman of a jury committee that examined the issue, said complaints from citizens and news reports about supervisors' questioning contract procedures led the jury to delve into the question for the first time.
Gonsior said some critics had contended that certain companies won county contracts, despite inferior bids, because they had retained lobbyists who had close relations to individual supervisors or were former supervisorial aides.
Allegations Not Supported
There are numerous lobbyists in Orange County who have worked for a past or current board member.
One former supervisor, Philip Anthony, was convicted in the late 1970s of laundering campaign funds with former supervisor Ralph Diedrich. Diedrich himself later was convicted in a separate bribery case.
Neither Gonsior nor Charlton would name individuals or companies whose contracts were investigated by jurors, adding that they found insufficient evidence to support the allegations.
"We did not have enough evidence to justify subpoenaing people and information," Charlton said. "What we did find were relationships that were highly questionable. Legal, but on the shaky side."
The focus of the inquiry turned to the contracting procedures themselves, which jurors found deficient in several areas.
First, jurors found a lack of standardized contract award procedures within county agencies and within individual departments.
Also, there was a lack of information about bidders attached to the final list of competing firms for a particular award submitted to supervisors. Finally, jurors found that staff members did not make recommendations to supervisors ranking finalists.
"We're not attempting to indict any contractor," Charlton said. "If we have a problem, it's with the process. . . . We were basically trying to solve a problem rather than nail someone to the cross."
'Should Be Justification'
Jurors recommended that a standard policy for contract procedures be developed and that more pertinent information about each of the bidders and the proposed project be made public for board members. They encouraged the county staff to develop a ranking procedure for supervisors instead of giving them three top bidders to select from without direction.
"There should be some justification in the public record to support why you should go with one contractor over another," Gonsior explained.
Jurors also recommended full disclosure to board members of all the firms bidding on large, politically sensitive or otherwise non-standard contracts, not just the highest-ranked proposals.
Gonsior said jurors were concerned that they could not ascertain the total dollar amount of all special consulting contracts awarded by the county and recommended improving auditing procedures to make that information available.
He also suggested increased efforts to screen potential contractors for their capability, financial solvency or other important factors, to eliminate unqualified applicants.
Lobbyist Bar Suggested
To eliminate any improper influence, Charlton suggested that lobbyists be barred from promoting a project after formal bids have been submitted.
"Technical people ought to talk to technical people so that you have the most competent people evaluating these contracts," Gonsior said.
Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who has called for an internal investigation of contract procedures, disagreed sharply with many of the jury's recommendations.
He said staff rankings and the limiting of post-bidding contacts to technical staff would preclude the very openness that jurors were trying to achieve.
"Staffers aren't accountable to the Brown Act," he said in reference to the state law designed to prevent public officials from transacting public business in private.
"What we need to do is get it out in the open, otherwise we would never know about a problem."