Silent Coup

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

Late last month, Todd Spitzer was driving home from the gym and talking to a reporter on his car telephone. "One of the things I hate about our county government is that we ask people to volunteer their time, and then we blow them off if we don't like their suggestions," he shouted over a weak phone connection and the sounds of passing traffic. "That's absolutely irresponsible." As passionately as Orange County's newest and youngest supervisor, 37, tackled each question, you'd wonder if he was paying attention to the road. "To use a Marine analogy, I see it as my job to take back the territory, to help lead, to ask tough questions and get honest answers," said Spitzer, a former deputy district attorney who trounced ex-Assemblyman Mickey Conroy in 1996. "The board can't continue to do things like we did in the past." In a Dec. 11 guest editorial in the Register, Spitzer wrote, "The power structure in this county continues to operate with an insider's mentality." Make no mistake: Spitzer casts himself in the role of white knight and Mittermeier as the reform-crushing villain. It promises to become an epic battle on Civic Center Drive. He likes to ask questions; she recoils at inquiries. Spitzer said: "She does things in secret. She has lied to me, and she thinks she is running the county." Nevertheless, on Dec. 9, Mittermeier--who didn't return the Weekly's calls for an interview--walked out of an unprecedented two-hour, closed-door job-performance review relatively unscathed, despite receiving an "unacceptable" rating from Spitzer. "I can only speculate that the power structure is so entrenched that most board members are afraid of the risks of holding county officials accountable," he said.Spitzer doesn't rule out a future showdown. "I know there are important people looking out for Jan. Time will tell. Given my style, will they come out and try to crush me?" Spitzer asked. "I can promise you that I will continue to chip away. I'm not giving up, and I am not getting tired."The battle has moved faster than expected. On Nov. 10, South County Supervisor Tom Wilson sent the CEO a memorandum requesting monthly travel and meeting schedules of county employees working on the El Toro Airport Master Development Plan. It was a no-brainer: a supervisor (the people's representative) asked the CEO (a county employee) to provide him with information about important public business. But Mittermeier's terse, high-handed response sent a shock wave through the halls of county government and sparked a media frenzy that has not subsided."I have reviewed your . . . request, [and] I will not be providing you such a schedule," Mittermeier wrote to Supervisor Wilson. "[Your] involvement is unnecessary for the formulation of good policy decisions." Spitzer came swiftly to Wilson's side: "Who in the hell does she think she is? She can't censor information to an elected official." Wilson said the insubordination "confirms the perception that the CEO is indeed in control of the Board of Supervisors." Supervisors Jim Silva, Chuck Smith and Steiner rushed to her defense, arguing that Mittermeier had their permission to withhold records from the two anti-airport supervisors. Nine days into the fracas, with Wilson and Spitzer exploring disciplinary possibilities, Mittermeier partially backtracked, blaming her insubordination on exhaustion. Bull, said Rogers, the former GOP head: "She was doing exactly what the establishment and the developers wanted her to do. They want her to be strong because she is not accountable to the public." Shirley Grindle has been trying to clean up Orange County politics and government since the 1970s. The Orange resident and retired engineer has studied campaign contributions to the supervisors, lobbyists' activities and how the county's lucrative procurement system works. In the late 1980s, Grindle tracked the county's largest contracts and came away with definite opinions. "The whole system stinks," she said. "Orange County's procurement system is the most corrupt in the state. We've been trying to get them to clean it up for years, but it's just stall, stall, stall." Connie Haddad, a past president of the local League of Women Voters, agreed. "If there is one thing they know how to do," she said, "it's drag their feet." Grindle is particularly incensed that county contracts are not automatically awarded to the "best bidder" as determined by a neutral selection process. At present, supervisors choose winners from lists of the top three bids; it's a system, Grindle said, that is open to corruption. "The lobbyists need to be taken out of the process," she said. On Jan. 27, the supervisors are scheduled to consider procurement reform. But don't hold your breath. Mittermeier will make her own recommendations, all of which result in additional power for her office. Under current policy, the CEO can approve consultant deals worth less than $25,000 without board permission or knowledge. Mittermeier wants the threshold raised to $100,000. She also wants more flexibility to ignore competitive-bidding procedures. But Mittermeier may not have waited for board permission to covertly increase her own authority. County records also show that the CEO made at least one deal for $24,999, or $1 below the amount necessary for board approval. During the last fiscal year, she also circumvented the board by unilaterally awarding a contract for $21,000 and later approved a "change order" for $256,290. During the 1996-97 fiscal year, she authorized $2.64 million in change orders for 26 contracts. "The CEO has been a real stumbling block for reform," said Grindle, who acknowledges that Mittermeier supported at least one post-bankruptcy reform: restrictions on campaign contributions to supervisors from financial advisers like Merrill Lynch. "It is very difficult to get information out of her," Grindle said. "Outsiders like me who get involved have been cut off, and I think there have been times when she has deliberately given out erroneous information." Spitzer said handing Mittermeier more unchecked power would be negligent: "You would hope we learned from the bankruptcy that there is a problem with giving someone a blank check of authority. That would be the epitome of proving nothing has changed."At the board's Nov. 25 night session, Chairman Steiner was absent. Silva presided. Mittermeier--who sits in front of and below the wooden half-moon-shaped dais where the five supervisors sit--was giving a long-winded explanation concerning some bureaucratic nuance. When she finished, Silva--who usually avoids extemporaneous speaking in favor of reading note cards word for word--said, "Thank you, Madam Chairman." The audience moaned. Spitzer didn't say a word.

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