Reporting from Sacramento — Local elected officials can vote to appoint themselves to paid positions on government boards, the state ethics watchdog panel decided Thursday, changing a rule that addresses conflict-of-interest accusations against dozens of city council members in Orange County.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission voted 3 to 2 to exempt local elected officials from conflict rules that prevented them from voting on their own paid appointments and instead required that information about the boards be posted on the Internet, including the amount members are paid.
"We believe we are getting a lot more disclosure from this,'' said John Wallace, the panel's acting executive director.
In opposing the change in regulations, Commissioner Elizabeth Garrett said she found it disturbing that elected officials could vote on their own paid appointments, and Commissioner Ronald D. Rotunda said it is "mind-boggling'' that city officials were arguing that no conflict of interest exists.
"The conflict is they appointed themselves to get some extra income,'' said Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor. "You are in a position to appoint yourself. To me that just seems wrong.''
The issue arose after 40 city council members in Orange County received warning letters from FPPC Enforcement Chief Gary Winuk. The letters told that they had violated the conflict rules by voting on their own appointments to transportation, water, fire and other boards that paid them more than $250 a year. Winuk warned the council members that they could face fines if they continued to vote on their own appointments.
A petition to change the state regulation was submitted by a group of cities involved, including Anaheim, Dana Point, Irvine, San Clemente, La Palma, Yorba Linda and Newport Beach.
Attorneys for the city officials said votes on appointments should not pose disqualifying conflicts because service on the paid boards was simply an extension of the work the council members were elected to do, and the income is taxpayer money.
The ban on voting had created a substantial burden on cities, some of which have trouble getting a quorum to approve appointments when multiple members are forced to recuse themselves from the votes, said Ash Pirayou, an attorney for the cities.
Anaheim City Atty. Christina Talley said: "We think that really does hamper local government and the ability to get well-rounded discussion and a real representative who is interested in a job, and have that discussion in open.''
Rotunda said the conflicts were a serious concern, noting that city officials have been charged criminally in Bell for making significant extra income through appointments.
"What they did in Bell was criminal,'' Rotunda said. "We don't want to tell people that, like Bell, you can vote on your own appointment.''
The commission also voted Thursday to levy $30,000 in fines against former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after a ballot measure committee he had formed spent $1.1 million on matters unrelated to initiatives.
The FPPC found that the ballot measure committee improperly spent the money in 2009 on television and Internet advertisements outlining the Republican governor's position on the budget negotiations with Democratic legislators.
"We made the decision to settle the matter rather than continue fighting and accrue tens of thousands in legal expenses," said Adam Mendelsohn, a spokesman for the former governor.
The commission also voted to delay posting financial interest statements by 2,500 judges on the Internet after representatives said they feared that easy access to the information would endanger them . The delay will allow the commission staff to determine which information should be excluded from posting on the Internet
The California Judges Assn. requested that the statements detailing their investments and real estate holdings be kept at state offices for public inspection to make it harder for people with ill intent to determine where judges and their family members live and work.
"Even the redacted forms can lead to harm,'' said San Diego County Superior Court Judge David Rubin, president of the California Judges Assn.