Companies seeking work with the Orange County Fire Authority could soon be required to publicly disclose political donations they make to influence the election of local officials who sit on the fire board.
The authority board voted 12 to 7 on Nov. 18 to ask attorneys to draft the regulations and to return for a final vote.
Critics contend that companies use third-party donations to get around local campaign limits and curry favor with board members. Members are appointed from 22 city councils; the board also includes two members of the Board of Supervisors.
Urging the change was outgoing director Chris Mears of Irvine, who protested a $10,000 donation by Medix Ambulance Co. in 2002 to a slate mailer run by Ed Dornan, a longtime political ally of Irvine Mayor Larry Agran. Multiple mailings by Dornan's Hometown Voter Guide urged voters to back Agran and his chosen candidates.
Contributions to third-party political organizations "are legal dodges used by big-bucks donors to manipulate the process," Mears said this week. "These mailers are heavily disguised to prevent average members of the public from determining who is behind them and how much has been given."
Voting against the requirement was Supervisor Chris Norby. He argued that existing campaign laws are adequate to protect the public without increasing the complexity of running for office.
"I see no evidence that it's needed," Norby said. "There has to be a certain amount of trust among board members that our motives are above suspicion."
In August, Mears complained after Agran backed Medix for a six-year contract with the Fire Authority to provide ambulance service in Irvine. Mears, who represents the city on the Fire Authority board, said he suspected political back-scratching and steered the contract to another company when it came to vote. Agran insisted his support wasn't influenced by the Medix money.
At about the same time, Doctors Ambulance Service complained to Aliso Viejo officials that a representative of Councilman Greg Ficke had asked for a campaign contribution while the city was considering its new ambulance contract. Ficke denied any involvement.
State law requires any member of a regional body such as the Fire Authority who has received $250 or more within 12 months to disqualify themselves from voting on a contract involving the donor. The member also must notify the board in writing of the contribution.
Officials further are barred from soliciting or accepting $250 or more while a contract award is pending, and for three months after it is awarded.
However, companies can give unlimited amounts to so-called independent expenditure committees and slate mailer organizations, which often spend freely in local elections.
In addition to expanding its disclosure rules, the authority could go a step further and require members to abstain from voting on a contract involving bidders who had supported them through an independent committee.
Whatever final details emerge, the move is overdue, said Shirley L. Grindle, co-author of Orange County's campaign reform ordinances.
"This is a step in the right direction of getting full disclosure, of really getting behind where the money's coming from to elect these officials," she said.
Joining Mears in supporting the new regulations were Cynthia Adams of Aliso Viejo; Ken Blake of La Palma; Tracy Worley Hagen of Tustin; John Larson of Seal Beach; Chris Lowe of Placentia; Don McCay of Buena Park; Mike McGill of Cypress; Marilynn M. Poe of Los Alamitos; Susan Ritschel of San Clemente; Brenda B. Ross of Laguna Woods; and R. Craig Scott of Laguna Hills.
Voting with Norby in opposition were Bob Bell of Villa Park, James V. Lacy of Dana Point, Russell Paris of Westminster, Gail Reavis of Mission Viejo, Mike Whipple of Laguna Niguel and Supervisor Tom Wilson.