Not the Prince

El Toro Airport Watch No. 143

For a guy who called himself a czar, Russia's Nicholas II didn't know a lot about power. During World War I, the Russian army was losing a hundred thousand soldiers each month to the Germans arrayed along the Eastern front. Onto this killing field marched the czar, declaring himself general of that same feckless army. The man had clearly not read his Machiavelli; within months, his name now associated with slaughter and shame, Nicholas II was chased—along with the imperial family—into exile and then murdered by the Bolsheviks.

It didn't take a revolution, but county residents no longer have to worry about our own Czarina Jan Mittermeier. After months of tortured indecision, the county Board of Supervisors finally voted June 27 to sack the secrecy-loving county executive officer and absolute ruler of the county's scorned El Toro reuse program.

In a political obituary, the Los Angeles Times called Mittermeier an "iron-fisted manager" with "political muscle" and "sweeping powers" who brought order to the county following the 1994 bankruptcy.

In fact, especially where El Toro International Airport planning was concerned, Mittermeier showed remarkably poor political skills. Like Nicholas II and the Eastern front, Mittermeier insisted on linking her name with the El Toro disaster.

Does Mittermeier have no real friends? No one who might have slipped her a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince? Writing 500 years ago, Machiavelli advised princes to "devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favor. And again I say that a Prince should esteem the great, but must not make himself odious to the people."

Reading The Prince, Mittermeier might reasonably have compared her experiences with El Toro to those of Remiro d'Orco. After conquering Romagna, a country "overrun with robbery, tumult, and every kind of outrage," Duke Valentino gave d'Orco "the fullest powers" to clean things up. D'Orco came through, but he so outraged the locals with his heavy-handed brutality that the duke now confronted the specter of a populist uprising. Duke Valentino's solution was novel: after everything was running smoothly, he beheaded d'Orco and dumped his body in the marketplace for all to admire. According to Machiavelli, this action "satisfied the populace." Romagna was pacified; the duke was loved.

Mittermeier showed little of the political sophistication for which the Times and others have complimented her in recent days. When anti-airport Measure F passed in March with 67 percent of the vote, Mittermeier must have known that supreme airport boosters George Argyros and First District Supervisor Chuck Smith would look for their own d'Orco. Mittermeier had already dismissed—following the county's disastrous June 1999 El Toro noise tests—airport program manager Courtney Wiercioch. Looking around for necks to chop, the board quickly seized on Mittermeier's.

Yet her dismissal was never inevitable: the board repeatedly offered to free her of all El Toro responsibilities by placing the program under a separate manager answerable only to them. Like Czar Nicholas II, Mittermeier refused, suggesting that the fate of El Toro and her own were interlocked. El Toro c'est moi. Her refusal sealed her fate.

With Mittermeier gone, the board is free to hand off the El Toro program to whomever they please—if they can persuade someone to place his or her head on the chopping block. So far, former John Wayne Airport director O.B. Schooley has refused to take the job on even an interim basis.

Speaking of county government in the years leading up to the 1994 bankruptcy, Mittermeier has said, "There was no one [the supervisors] could hold accountable." No one doubts that Mittermeier changed all that, and it's fitting that she must now live with her success.

 
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