If He Only Had a Brain

Stupid is as Jim Silva does

On Oct. 6, the Orange County Board of Supervisors faced a critical question: How much power should be surrendered to Jan Mittermeier, the non-elected county CEO? Mittermeier-whose chief benefactors are real-estate developers and government contractors-had threatened to quit her $650-per-day bureaucratic post if the supervisors refused to further insulate her from public accountability. Because those same real-estate developers and government contractors also control a majority of the Board of Supervisors, it was a foregone conclusion that the autocratic Mittermeier would get her way. On that day, however, an overflow hearing-room crowd quietly awaited enlightened discussion among the county's top local politicians.

"I think if we just stay firm, we'd probably never get from Point A to Point B," said board chairman Jim Silva, who regularly states the obvious as if it were deep philosophical thought. "If there is a straw vote taken, we can take that."

From the outset of the hearing, Silva was in trouble. He appeared oblivious to a detailed, ongoing 30-minute discussion among his colleagues. "After we do all of, uh, the comments and straw votes on the nine individual items [of Mittermeier's proposed deal], we will take a vote on the entire contract," said Silva, slowly reading from note cards prepared by his staff.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer interrupted politely. "Mr. Chairman," he said, "you have a pending vote on the floor."

"Yeah," said board clerk Darlene Bloom. "We do have a motion and a second on the floor, sir."

A dumbfounded Silva-who had happily noted several times during the hearing that he is chairman-turned to Supervisor Bill Steiner, but he said nothing. The silence ended mercifully when Steiner withdrew his motion. The chairman was finally on the same page as everyone else. Or so it seemed. Later, Silva, who had previously advocated changing Mittermeier's title to "executive director," appeared lost again: "I'd like to see, uh, uh, the title, uh, uh, uh, of-let's see; what was it?-uh . . ."

"Executive director?" said Spitzer.

"Uh . . . executive director," Silva said before resuming his unintelligible remarks. "We have a way right now that we don't currently have."

The board eventually voted 3-2 (Supervisors Tom Wilson and Spitzer against) to cave in to a perk-loaded contract that gives Mittermeier unprecedented compensation and control over county government. She also gets to keep her CEO title-although "chief executive officer" became "county executive officer." Worse, it now officially takes four (not just a simple majority) of the five elected supervisors to overrule Mittermeier's decisions in such matters as hiring and firing key county bureaucrats. "Okay," said an excited Silva, who-despite years of talk about holding bureaucrats accountable-flip-flopped positions at the last second to cast the deciding vote for the CEO. "With that, we have finished [agenda] item 102, and I believe the next item will be uh, uh . . ."

"103?" the clerk said.

"Item 103," said Silva.

Four years ago, a prominent local political expert swiped a line from Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins to describe Silva: "shit for brains." Whether you accept that view, rest assured that the 54-year-old former real-estate salesman and high school civics teacher comprehends the next item on his personal agenda: keeping his $93,000-per-year job as Orange County's 2nd District supervisor. On Nov. 3, voters in such cities as Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos will decide between-to be generous-the "charisma-challenged" Silva and fellow Republican Dave Sullivan, an articulate, even personable Huntington Beach councilman and retired orthodontist.

The onetime sleepy race has grown so bitter and it carries so many ramifications that it has replaced the Loretta Sanchez-Bob Dornan congressional matchup as the most watched local election of 1998. The reason? The county's controversial plans to build an international cargo and passenger airport beside dozens of residential communities in South County. Silva adamantly supports the proposed airport; Sullivan-who is garnering hero status in places like Irvine, Laguna Beach, Lake Forest, Dana Point and Coto de Caza-opposes it. Whoever wins will have the power to single-handedly decide the airport's fate (and thus how tens of billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent) because the other four supervisors will remain split on the issue next year.

But the airport hoopla has also helped bury Sullivan's best line of attack against Silva: character. People may not mind whether Silva is a moron (after all, he could be a benign moron), but they probably care whether he is honest.

The controversy over Mittermeier's contract illuminated three key facets of Silva's character: that he doesn't mind reneging on his positions; that he is a shill for the county's developers, who quietly lobbied him to give the CEO everything she wanted; and that he has no qualm covering up his flip-flops and misdeeds by lying. Such behavior incensed the reform-minded Spitzer, whose 1997 arrival at the county Hall of Administration was as welcome as a can of Raid at a roach convention. "It is unbelievable that Jim Silva tells the public he is going to do one thing-then he breaks his word to the voters," said Spitzer. "It goes to his integrity and honesty." Spitzer endorsed Sullivan last week. Silva responded in typical fashion, inadvertently proving that in his view, county government should be secretive. Spitzer, he said, is a "hyperambitious leak machine."

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