Silent Coup

Secret meetings, shady deals: Life before & after the Orange County bankruptcy

Enter Mittermeier. Of all the high-profile but specious reforms since the debacle, Mittermeier's rise to county CEO exemplifies how very little has really changed in Orange County. As one of its last major acts, the bankruptcy-tarnished Board of Supervisors appointed the standoffish Mittermeier to the CEO job in September 1995. Mittermeier's supporters marketed her as a model of businesslike efficiency, a strong woman for a tough job. Her arrival was heralded as a reform in and of itself. In fact, during her 21-year career, Mittermeier had already established her bona fides as an insider. Since 1990, she had been trusted to run the government's most lucrative cash cow, John Wayne Airport. At John Wayne, Mittermeier honed the skills that have been so useful to her at the County Hall of Administration: keep cash flowing in, and limit public scrutiny of airport finances and operations. Several high-level sources said her appointment to CEO was first privately approved by developers and lobbyists eager to maintain easy access to the county's massive annual budget--$3.82 billion for the 1997-98 fiscal year. No one doubts Mittermeier's skills and intelligence, just her loyalties. Despite her talk about openness and honesty in government, Mittermeier remains the friendly--and female--face of corporate lobbyists and developers. That's not how Mittermeier describes it, of course. Shortly after taking office, she told reporters: "A lot of people think we're bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking bureaucrats, feeding at the public trough. I think they are just going to have to watch what happens." Reavis tried to watch, but she was thrown out of the room.

From the moment the bankruptcy was announced, the political insiders' goal was to convince the public that they intended to clean up their act. "We're leaving no stone unturned," said then-Supervisor Vasquez. Supervisor Stanton, who now teaches business at Cal State Long Beach, guaranteed those responsible for the debacle would be brought to justice. Sheriff Gates boasted, "Government's probably going to be reinvented here." It did not take long to proclaim victory. Only nine months after the bankruptcy, the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times declared the problem fixed: "historic" action by supervisors had "drastically altered the way county government is run." Then-Supervisor Donald Saltarelli--a former Irvine Co. lobbyist who was appointed by Governor Pete Wilson to replace a resigning Vasquez--didn't hold back his enthusiasm in May 1996. "Orange County is back," he said. "We are vibrant, strong, healthy and doing what needs to be done." In this year's State of the County address, board Chairman Steiner said: "Many lessons have been learned. . . . Local government [has been] inextricably altered. What emerged is a stronger county where there is more involvement in the political process [and] more accountability." Such impressive-sounding rhetoric elicits a hearty laugh from Tom Rogers. Last week, the outspoken Republican and lifelong observer of local politics said: "[Mittermeier] is running the county with an iron fist for the developers. It's just pitiful. They certainly talked a lot about serious reform, but it was really never more than a clever smoke screen."

SID, a waitress at Costa Mesa's Memphis restaurant, placed a steaming bowl of down-home gumbo in front of Bill Mitchell, but he stared straight ahead. Mitchell--a private attorney by day and vice chairman of Orange County's all-volunteer, post-bankruptcy Government Practices Oversight Committee--remained silent as Sid noisily slid his turkey half-sandwich plate onto the table. "I was hoping there would be some kind of revolution," he said. "But that didn't occur. The bankruptcy came and went without any real sense of what happened." Under immense pressure in February 1995, the supervisors established Mitchell's oversight committee with a directive to collect information and "evaluate and generate proposals for change in local government." Then-Supervisor Marian Bergeson--who has since resigned to accept a bureaucratic post in the Wilson administration--promoted the committee as a "sweeping audit by outside eyes." Mitchell's group was also billed as a "citizens' committee." But the roster read like a Who's Who of the county's power brokers, including Mittermeier--whose role as interim CEO was to monitor the group. Thirteen of the 15 original committee slots belonged to county politicians, top bureaucrats, major real-estate developers, government contractors, lobbyists or their agents. Mary Ann Schulte of Sukut Construction Inc.--a government contractor--headed the committee. When some in the community balked at the committee's composition, the supervisors added Mitchell, who has directed the nonprofit Orange County Common Cause (an independent grassroots organization), and Bruce Whitaker, a conservative activist with the Committees of Correspondence.

In the oversight committee's first meeting, the Irvine Co.'s representative, Hunt, suggested that the group use what would become an 18-month investigation to focus on "six key questions." Each of the questions concerned privatization, restructuring, downsizing and bloated bureaucracy. The point seemed to be that big government--not corporate-domination of county politics--had caused the bankruptcy. It was a deft move on Hunt's part--a bait and switch in which the bait was a favorite Republican target (big government). What got lost in the sleight of hand was the real cause of the bankruptcy: systemic political corruption in which people like Hunt and Argyros wield tremendous influence. Hunt's committee of insiders declined even a cursory probe of routine closed-door meetings, generous campaign contributions, rampant favoritism and pronounced hostility to public accountability. Mitchell concedes the oversight committee was stacked with insiders, but he's adamant that its 127 recommendations would have nevertheless improved county government. "You can look at the committee and see that we were not a group of bomb throwers," he said. "And yet we still couldn't get any of our reforms through Mittermeier." In a September memo to the board, the CEO claimed the 15-month-old oversight suggestions remain under study. Mitchell doubts it, figuring it's more likely the committee's 145-page final report is collecting dust. "I don't think Mittermeier likes scrutiny," he said.

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