Santa Barbara: Where Ethics Is Again Front and Center

By Jeff Giordano   |   August 1, 2023

As most know, our County’s complete lack of ethical standards is something I have raged against. While other counties have a Code of Ethics (something that our Grand Jury recommended in 2020), our County blissfully dances in the darkness without pesky little rules relating to the timing of campaign contributions, acceptance of gifts, hiring of relatives, or the disclosure of compromising outside income. Well maybe, just maybe, things are changing. Allow me to explain:

Last week, a coalition of the willing led by Supervisor Laura Capps (who ran on a platform of Transparency) tackled the issue of conflict within the senior ranks of county government. Specifically, whether Chiefs of Staff and others needed to file a Statement of Economic Interest (Form 700). Through disclosure, this statement helps ensure that special interest consulting fees are not secretly paid to county employees while they are crafting legislation meant to regulate these same interests. 

For years, there have been allegations that Big Oil and Cannabis have paid consulting fees to employees that influence policy. Therefore, while Form 700 filings had been required for some they had not been required for others. Well, by a 5-0 vote this important loophole has now been slammed shut (Brava and to a lesser extent Bravo). This is a nice first step, but let’s not get too giddy as there is much more to do! 

In other counties, for example, rules prohibit former county employees from jumping into cushy lobbying gigs moments after leaving their job. Think about it, your former co-worker is now shilling for an industry that you are charged to oversee – awkward, compromising, and wrong. Oh, and did I mention that our former Deputy CEO is now consulting for Cannabis? We now have 4,467 county employees, which is precisely the number of reasons why we need a Revolving Door policy. Looking back is nowhere, looking forward is strategy!

Over the past weeks the Supervisors have also been addressing how to best implement what had been billed as “the most consequential piece of transparency-legislation in 50 years”: SB 1439, which took effect on January 1. This State mandate requires us to shine a light on the type of pay-to-play politics that, without a Code of Ethics, our County is uniquely positioned to practice. 

Basically, it dictates that Supervisors recuse themselves if they receive $250 or more and are then asked to rule on a contract, license, or permit. As an aside, it’s “interesting”to see maxed-out contributions made to certain Supervisors between “December 30 and 31” – so much for living up to the spirit of 1439. Anyway, without more State/FPPC guidance the whole idea is looking less like a magic bullet than one would have hoped, possibly allowing Supervisors to return the donation pre-vote in order to avoid recusal. QUESTION: Can the donation then be returned to the Supervisor sometime later? Silly. 

Of course, Supervisors can choose to be more transparent by posting – like Supervisor Capps does – their donors. CRAZY IDEA: State mandates aside, let’s do what other counties do – develop OUR OWN clear contribution disclosure requirements and recusal standards that restore our faith in the process because the phrase “we are open for business” should not apply to Santa Barbara County politics! 

Jeff Giordano,
SB County Resident


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