Bankruptcy? What Bankruptcy?!

OCs financial meltdown, five years later

Such impressive-sounding rhetoric elicited a hearty laugh from Tom Rogers when the Weekly interviewed him that year ("Silent Coup," Dec. 19, 1997). The outspoken Republican and lifelong observer of local politics told us, "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."

"I was hoping there would be some kind of revolution," Bill Mitchell—a private attorney by day and vice chairman of Orange County's all-volunteer, post-bankruptcy Government Practices Oversight Committee—also told the Weekly at the time. "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 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."

Mitchell, who figures the committee's 145-page final report is still collecting dust, says, "I don't think Mittermeier likes scrutiny."

Mittermeier is symbolic of this secretive new order. She threatened to quit unless the supervisors granted her additional power—and picked up a private-sector-sized severance package and hefty pay raise; was given the right to unilaterally fire any department head as well as the right to sign millions of dollars in contracts without public discussion; and demanded that the supervisors grant her unprecedented independence from democratic oversight. Driving the point home, Mittermeier sought—and got—a requirement that four of the board's five supervisors must agree to overrule her decisions. In an instant, Mittermeier had become the most powerful official in Orange County, more powerful than her elected supervisors.

Don't Drink the Water

Bankruptcy, schmankruptcy: Harvey Conway works in a county water-quality agency whose budget and responsibilities have grown dramatically since the 1994 financial free fall, swelled by federally funded programs and the cash to carry them out.

So why is Conway bitching about the bankruptcy?

Because he's being worked to death. While the workload in Conway's agency has increased substantially, its manpower has decreased because county officials steadfastly refuse to hire replacements for employees who quit.

Welcome to Post-Bankruptcy Water-Quality Politics.

Eager to portray themselves as fans of limited government, the county executive officer and Board of Supervisors have severely restricted new hires. That leaves existing workers to pick up the slack and take on new responsibilities as ordered by constantly changing state and federal requirements.

"Before the bankruptcy, we had 18 employees," said Conway (not his real name). "We have 15 now, but our workload has doubled."

Working your staff like galley slaves is likely to spur even more employee defections. But the CEO and supes have an answer for that, too: they've abandoned those responsibilities, "shifting" them (to use the county's preferred term) to non-county agencies and the private sector.

In some cases, that's meant putting businesses in charge of policing themselves. Take the county Health Care Agency's Environmental Health Division, which is supposed to crack down on illegal toxic dumping; clean up hazardous-materials spills; and monitor public-health standards for beaches, drinking water, food preparation and public swimming pools. Confronted with steep budget cuts, Environmental Health transferred responsibility for much costly water-quality testing to the water companies that make up the Orange County Sanitation District.

That's like putting a steel mill in charge of testing for air pollution. It's in the best interests of the Sanitation District—which treats sewage for water companies in 21 Orange County cities—that its tests show a shit-free ocean, or at least a human-shit-free ocean. If the district fails its own water-quality tests, it could be subjected to heavy fines or sued under the Clean Water Act. Worst of all, if it's determined its waste is chronically fouling local beaches, the district could lose the permit that allows it to discharge sewage out to sea.

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