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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Cleaning Up the Act

May 22, 1993

Finally, there are some silver linings on the ethics front. The Orange County Board of Supervisors this week approved what is believed to be the toughest ethics law in the state, banning nearly all gifts from firms that did business with the county in the previous 12 months.

Covered are not just the five supervisors but more than 1,600 county employees and members of boards and agencies such as the County Planning Commission.

The new law is good, and overdue. It's unfortunate that it took the resignation of Don Roth as supervisor and his guilty plea to seven ethics violations to prompt a re-examination of existing law, but at least the situation helped motivate the board to seek a remedy to the problem. The ordinance drew applause from the county chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, plus the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Also belatedly getting on the ethics bandwagon is the Santa Margarita Water District. After The Times reported the free-spending ways of its general manager and his assistant, the FBI and the Orange County district attorney's office began investigating. Both officials have announced retirement plans after being suspended with pay for six weeks. Both deny wrongdoing.

The district was forced to admit that its only ethics code was state law; now it properly has come up with regulations of its own, covering matters like gifts and expense reimbursements. The district's new rules crack down on mutual back-scratching, such as when one employee buys dinner for another and puts it on the expense account and the beneficiary later returns the favor.

The regulations also sensibly bar dependents from working for firms that do business with the water district, as has happened. By themselves these overdue ethics reforms are not enough: Strict enforcement of the new rules will be welcome as well.

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