The Irvine Co.s Manchurian Supervisor

Wilsons flip-flop on CEO proves the specter of outside interests controls Orange County government

Photo by Jack GouldJust weeks after a takeover by the Chicago Tribune—the paper that brought America the infamous 1948 banner headline "Dewey Defeats Truman"—the Los Angeles Timesdramatically claimed in a major April 11 website story that Orange County CEO Jan Mittermeier had been officially axed.

Of course, the Times' mistake (explained later as an "inadvertent posting") is understandable. By all accounts, Mittermeier—the county's controversial top bureaucrat known for her abrasive, dictatorial style and outrageous penchant for secrecy—was well on her way to the unemployment line when the Board of Supervisors met in a closed session on April 11. The firing seemed so likely that Mittermeier—no dummy whatever her many other faults—had hired prominent plaintiff attorney Wylie Aitken and cleaned out her desk.

But this is Orange County, and no key public-policy decision is finalized until the Big Boy headquartered in a tower overlooking Fashion Island speaks. If you doubt the puissance of Irvine Co. executive Gary Hunt, remember it was he who temporarily moved management of the county's $3 billion annual government operation from Santa Ana to his posh, ocean-view office in the days following the 1994 bankruptcy. None of the rest of us could ever display such raw power.

Real insider influence, however, displays itself only when necessary. For at least three years, Hunt essentially remained quiet as public debate raged over Mittermeier's fitness for her perk-loaded $160,000-per-year post. Three of the five supervisors (Jim Silva, Cynthia Coad and Chuck Smith) had guaranteed that Mittermeier was safe, even after she hid key government travel records and arrogantly stated that she would be the one to decide what information her elected bosses needed to see.

But the CEO's disastrous leadership of the county's plan to cram an international airport in the heart of residential Irvine prompted Smith—a fervent backer of the proposed airport—to abandon Mittermeier in recent weeks. Conventional wisdom held that a new board majority (Tom Wilson, Todd Spitzer and now Smith) would fire the embattled CEO on April 11. On that morning, the hiring of an interim CEO was listed on the board's closed-session agenda.

Enter Hunt, who single-handedly shatters the notion of representative democracy in Orange County.

When the county's most prolific real-estate developer (he and his colleagues are the largest campaign contributors to all of the county's top politicians) picks up his phone and dials, the fifth floor at the Hall of Administration listens. It was Hunt who—as the Weekly first disclosed—put Mittermeier in office in September 1995 as bankruptcy-shocked supervisors watched impotently. Hunt's interest in the CEO's job is bottom-line simple: along with the county's other developers, the Irvine Co. relies on local taxpayer subsidies to boost the profitability of their private construction projects. Hunt correctly anticipated that Mittermeier would never challenge that lucrative arrangement. For five years, the CEO has skillfully protected the financial interests of her private benefactors. Not once has she sided against their special-interest wishes.

But Smith's surprise defection from the CEO threatened to derail the taxpayer-funded gravy train. That called for drastic action at Irvine Co. headquarters. On April 10—the day before the vote—Hunt had a secret lunch with Coad, who some thought might join the anti-Mittermeier bloc. In private telephone calls made "on behalf of Orange County's business community," Hunt said he told other supervisors, including Wilson and Spitzer, that the CEO must stay.

Unlike the supply-side economic policies of his former boss (Ronald Reagan), Hunt's behind-the-scenes voodoo worked. Coad remained committed to the CEO, and Wilson—a man who has in the past voted to fire Mittermeier and who once described her as "contaminating" county government—flip-flopped, leaving a red-faced Smith and a startled Spitzer in an unlikely minority. Mittermeier would remain as county CEO.

None of this is shocking if you know the history of Thomas W. Wilson. As a Laguna Niguel city councilman and mayor in the late 1980s and early '90s, Wilson rarely—if ever—voted against developers when it counted. In 1996, then-Governor Pete Wilson had reportedly settled on Pat Bates as his choice to replace resigning 5th District Supervisor Marian Bergeson. But the governor's pals at the Irvine Co. wanted Wilson, who was eventually selected and wasted no time reassuring South County voters that he would never approve the proposed airport—a project covertly backed by the Irvine Co.

To much ridicule from the local establishment, the Weekly pegged the new supervisor as "Best Irvine Co. Sleeper," a politician who could talk and vote against the airport as long as he was in the powerless minority. The real test, we opined at the time, would come when Wilson faced the possibility that his vote would guarantee a major anti-Irvine Co. decision. We suspected he'd fail that test.

Even Wilson seemed to realize that his odd vote signaled that the game was up. Wilson normally acts and speaks with the energy of a tired, hapless fisherman; following the shocking 3-2 vote to keep Mittermeier, he immediately handed out an urgent, incoherent press release in hopes of rationalizing his move. In a county famous for political non sequiturs, Wilson's bizarre press release might be tops. He claimed he joined two adamantly pro-airport supervisors (Silva and Coad) in their support for the pro-airport CEO because he wants to kill the proposed airport. (Re-read that sentence if you must.) Sadly, gullible members of South County's anti-airport movement have already twisted themselves in knots to accept Wilson's pathetic gibberish.

Police detectives say that guilty parties sometimes inadvertently provide confessions or clues of their crimes. Wilson may have made that mistake, politically speaking. After conferring with Hunt and changing his vote, the supervisor said, "I know that from the outside looking in, the specter of special, outside interests controlling the board is more prevalent than ever."

How true.

Register your comments with Supervisor Tom Wilson at 714-834-3550.
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