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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

We Just Can't Afford to Let Public Officials Accept Gifts : County supervisors have acknowledged that it's a bad idea. A flat ban is needed here and elsewhere to eliminate a bad practice and worse perception.

March 12, 1993|SHIRLEY GRINDLE | Shirley Grindle has been an activist for campaign reform and government ethics in Orange County since 1970.

In the wake of Supervisor Don R. Roth's resignation, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the institutionalized practice of receiving gifts from those who have business before the board.

Board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder hit the nail on the head when she said: "It has to do with the fact that if they weren't on the fifth floor (working for the Board of Supervisors), nobody would even buy then a cup of coffee." This recognition that the sole reason gifts are given to supervisors and their aides is their position, not personal fondness, leads to the conclusion that the gift giver is seeking something in return. While rarely an explicit "quid pro quo" is discussed, the gratuity at minimum results in the gift provider ingratiating him or herself with the county official. The purpose of the ingratiation is to personalize the relationship. Thus, when the vote occurs before the board affecting the gift giver, the matter becomes clouded by the personal relationship, and the decision is no longer based solely on the merits of the project and the best interests of the county.

The intent of the gift giver--to obtain favorable results from those in power--is obvious. For this reason many corporations have strict policies against its employees receiving gifts from vendors, suppliers or anyone else who conducts business with the firm. Corporate America understands the gift giver's intent and the negative effect it has on the decision maker. In many professions, abstaining from receiving gifts is incorporated into their code of ethics.

The "why not?" of giving gifts is clear. What is not clear is the "why?". Why should public officials and their staffs be entitled to receive gifts at all? No one has yet explained this.

The problem is not just the impact on the decision-making process; it is the appearance that such gift giving affects the decisions. Board Chairman Wieder said, "It's not the law--forget the law--it's the perception." Right now the public's perception of elected officials is low. It is low nationwide and lower still in Orange County following the disclosures regarding Supervisor Roth and the conduct of his staff. This negative appraisal of elected officials is directly related to the belief people have that special interest groups and the rich unduly influence government decisions. Ross Perot gathered 19% of the presidential vote largely due to his ability to tap into the disenchantment voters have about the current state of the political process. In President Clinton's State of the Union address, he specifically addressed this lack of confidence in government and requested campaign finance reform and legislation to reduce the influence of lobbyists.

The banning of all gifts would simplify the lobbyist ordinance which is currently being drafted by the county counsel's office at the request of Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. This ban would completely eliminate any potential for conflict-of-interest violations which were the crux of the allegations made against Supervisor Roth. A total ban would be easy to administer, while a partial ban would require extensive reporting and record-keeping and would continue to invite abuse as to the valuation of gifts. Further, the ban should include the broadest possible definition of gift.

Orange County has an opportunity to be the first government entity in the state to ban all gifts to all elected and appointed county officials, their staffs and to all other county employees. It is time that this practice of accepting gifts be recognized for what it is--a way to gain personal influence with our government officials and thereby achieve decisions favorable to the giver or their clients. This practice is to the detriment of voters and serves no legitimate governmental purpose.

The county board plans to formally adopt an ordinance to ban all gifts. Enacting such a ban shouldn't stop there. The rest of the cities in Orange County, and counties and cities throughout California, should follow suit. And, in fact, the state Legislature should also ban gifts at the state level.

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