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The Winds of Reform Sweep Across County : Politics: Supervisors, cities, special districts and even Disneyland clean up their acts. Spate of scandals suddenly puts ethics officially back in action.

May 23, 1993|MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Costa Mesa Mayor Sandra L. Genis remembers the old days as not that long ago, when allowing a business-seeking consultant to buy lunch at a pricey restaurant wasn't all that odd.

But in the five years that have elapsed since she was first elected to the council, the political landscape has indeed changed for Genis, and a whole host of officeholders who now wouldn't dare take a gift or a lunch that might need to be reported on a financial disclosure form.

"People are being more careful," she said. "We used to have lunch at Antonello (at someone else's expense) and not think twice," she said. "Now we avoid the issue by going to Denny's or skipping the meal altogether. What was standard practice before is no longer standard practice."

All within the past six months, Orange County has been home to a stunning set of political reforms, from new limits on meals for officials at its chief transportation agency to campaign contribution limits for officeholders in its second most populous city, Anaheim.

Even those new regulations pale in comparison, however, to what happened this past week, when the County Board of Supervisors adopted a virtual ban on all gifts to 1,650 elected, appointed and certain "designated" county officials, if they are in a position to influence decisions by a gift-giver.

The county government's action came one day after the Santa Margarita Water District's board of directors adopted an almost identical ban, going far beyond the provisions of the state's Political Reform Act in approving a strong new ethics policy that forbids all employees from accepting gifts of any value, except for plaques and commemorative mementos "of nominal value."

In the case of the county and the water district, specific instanCes of wrongdoing drove the reform.

Supervisor Don R. Roth's resignation from office and subsequent conviction on state ethics law charges paved the way for government regulation in the form of an ordinance that for the first time provided penalties for gift-givers as well as the takers.

While state law penalizes only officeholders who accept gifts exceeding $250 and then influence government decisions that financially benefit gift-givers, the county's ordinance subjects both county officials and donors to possible criminal penalties.

Roth cast votes benefiting donors who had provided him home improvements, an interest-free loan for housing and other gifts, but did not list those contributions on state disclosure forms as required. He was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine and sentenced to three years' probation and 200 hours of community service.

In the case of the water district, its two top managers accepted more than $60,000 in gifts from bankers, construction companies and engineering firms, several of whom the two men recommended for substantial contracts. General Manager Walter W. (Bill) Knitz and his top assistant, Michael P. Lord, also spent thousands of dollars in district funds on questionable expenses, such as hefty room service tabs, car improvements and stays in luxury hotels.

Both Knitz and Lord, targeted in a criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI and the Orange County district attorney's office, recently announced plans to retire.

Far beyond Knitz and Lord, however, the water district scandal focused new attention on special districts in general.

One Orange County lawmaker has proposed legislation making it mandatory that special districts produce lists of employees who have received gifts of more than $50 and also show which employees are reimbursed with public money in excess of $100 for any meal or other expense.

Another legislator is attempting to restructure voters' rights in the Santa Margarita Water District and a second district whose votes are now apportioned to landowners on the basis of one vote for each dollar of their assessed land value. The proposed law would change the system to "one man, one vote."

Other reformers have suggested that some special districts be merged, or eliminated outright.

In Anaheim, voters approved by a 4-1 margin last November an advisory measure that would limit campaign contributions. The City Council followed up in February, limiting contributions to $1,000 per donor during each election cycle.

Even Disneyland got into the act of reform by announcing in February that it would no longer provide complimentary theme park passes to politicians.

"In today's world, on both sides of the street, everybody has got to keep it to where there is no perception of favoritism," said Jack Lindquist, Disneyland president.

Disneyland's policy grew out of instances in which two Anaheim City Council members were temporarily disqualified from voting on Disneyland's proposed expansion because they had received gifts in excess of state-mandated limits.

Shirley L. Grindle, the civic activist who has been fighting for gift bans and other government reforms since 1969, said the timing for reform of county government and other agencies couldn't be better than this year.

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