Ministry of Propaganda

The county grand jury looks like a marketing firm for the powerful

The ethnic makeup of the county's new grand jury isn't great—11 of the panel's 19 members are still white—but it's better than it has been, and for that reason alone, it has been called the most representative grand jury in Orange County's history.

None of that diversity appears in the grand jury's latest work. The mid-February report's title suggests the propaganda uses of the new and unproved jury: "A Silver Lining: Orange County Today."

Ostensibly an examination of how the appointed and immensely powerful county executive officer has changed local government in the aftermath of the 1994 county bankruptcy, the report only praises the Orange County Board of Supervisors for adopting an all-powerful CEO and for "using sound business methods."

The result is five pages of jovial, ahistorical cheering for the corporate bosses who shed democratic accountability in the "dark days" following the bankruptcy.

"[E]xecutives from the Orange County business community . . . volunteered their time and expertise to negotiate with the financial markets to stabilize finances and debt obligations," says the grand jury in the report's first paragraph. "Residents of the county should extend their respect and gratitude to these selfless, responsible volunteers, for the task was formidable."

What residents really ought to extend is their boot to the ass of the grand jurors.

The true history of the bankruptcy begins in early 1995 with "volunteers" who were anything but "selfless." Shell-shocked by angry public reaction to their $1.7 billion bankruptcy, county supervisors quietly handed the reins of local government to an elite, highly secretive assembly of Newport Beach businessmen. The names of the businessmen have emerged: Gary Hunt, the Irvine Co.'s then chief lobbyist; Tom Sutton, chairman of Pacific Life Insurance Co.; George Argyros, the real-estate developer keen on the county building an airport at El Toro; and William Popejoy, a former executive of a disgraced 1980s Irvine savings and loan.

For months, the cabal ran the county's $4 billion operation from behind the closed doors of Hunt's swank Fashion Island offices. They didn't bother to seek public input or to keep records of their debates or actions. That is, of course, undemocratic but understandable. After all, each of the men's businesses had a huge financial stake in the outcome of local government decisions. Profits at Hunt's Irvine Co., for example, rely on tens of millions of dollars in annual county taxpayer subsidies. The bankruptcy specifically jeopardized the infusion of public cash into the development of the Irvine Co.'s crown jewel: Newport Coast.

Other elements of the businessmen's agenda are also known: they demanded a massive local sales-tax increase (voters crushed that unpopular move); they placed valuable public property on the auction block (surely by coincidence, the properties mirrored what the business elite had been eyeing for years); they axed county medical services for the poor while permitting the sheriff to go on a shopping spree for new and unnecessary but fun high-tech toys (the Sheriff's Department routinely gives the businessmen official badges and concealed-weapons permits.)

Significantly, the group also devised a new form of government for the county. Under this system, one person, a CEO, would operate the government with an iron fist and would have more power in some cases than three-fifths of the elected board of supervisors. The CEO would, of course, be appointed by the cabal.

The CEO position would make it easier for the businessmen to control government and its funds; instead of five egotistical politicians, the business community could own outright just one unelected bureaucrat.

The first CEO came from the cabal itself: Popejoy, who made no pretense of answering to the elected representatives. (He also refused to fill out mandatory disclosure forms detailing his personal financial interests in the government decisions he was making.) Popejoy didn't last long and was followed by the second cabal selection: Jan Mittermeier, whose dictatorial reign ended last year when she walked away with a generous taxpayer-funded severance package. (Mittermeier's ugly history was covered extensively in the Weekly's "Silent Coup," Dec. 19, 1997.)

That the grand jury whitewashed this history is hardly surprising. The Orange County grand jury has always been a rubber stamp for the local establishment. Its members—almost always white, elderly and conservative—are hand-picked by white, elderly conservative judges, whose careers and campaigns are underwritten by members of the cabal and their associates.

The criteria jurors used to measure the success of government after bankruptcy recovery was—there's no polite way to put this—stupid: Does the county continue "to operate"? And does it provide essential services to citizens? Does the "preparation and submitting" of a business plan help bureaucrats "plan your program and activities for the coming year"?

Such frivolous questions were the product of a highly flammable mix of ignorance and optimism—and led to the report's preposterous conclusion: "The success of the CEO by William Popejoy, Jan Mitter.meier and now Michael Schumacher is a testament to the merit of the office."

Here's a different conclusion: The $25 per day county residents pay each juror is far too generous.

 
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