Not Just a Moron

Silva may be stupid, but his airport flip-flop shows hes smart enough to take orders

Photo by Jack GouldThe Sept. 17 meeting of the Board of Supervisors on the controversial El Toro International Airport should be remembered as the best political circus act since the county lost $1.7 billion seven years ago. Supervisor Chuck Smith started the session by offering Todd Spitzer a piece of candy but later allegedly told his anti-airport nemesis to "fuck off." An often shrill Cynthia Coad—ringleader of this show—voted to block public comments and then, without any sense of irony, proclaimed that board meetings "are all about listening to others." Tom Wilson, who specializes in behind-the-scenes corporate-welfare coups for the Irvine Co., lectured at length on the importance of honest public debate.

While those performances deserved applause, no circus is complete without a clown. Our board has Jim Silva. After watching the Huntington Beach supervisor for seven years, I've concluded that as a teenager, he must have been struck (accidentally?) on the noggin with a baseball bat. He does not speak in public without the crutch of index cards, on which his staff has carefully scripted his remarks; even then, he sometimes rambles incoherently. On the occasions when he has abandoned the cards altogether, Silva has revealed his blunted intellectual powers. For example, during a 1998 meeting, the supervisor baffled his colleagues when he argued, "We have a way right now that we currently don't have."

At the Sept. 17 meeting, a stiff 57-year-old Silva wasn't going to take any chances. His eyes were fixed on note cards held firmly in both hands.

"An airport, uh, will help, uh, maintain . . . [inexplicable pause] maintain Orange County's economic strength," he read as if English were his second language, "as well as [another inexplicable pause] provide outstanding ways for the people of Orange County to [pause, flip to next note card] be able to travel."

You could feel the sense of relief in the room when he finished the sentence. Several people sighed—including Silva, whom The Orange County Register hilariously described as "intelligent" and "quick-witted" in a 1998 profile. Others in the audience laughed, prompting an unnerved Coad to bark, "There will be no more outbursts!"

But the show wasn't over. As all would discover, Silva had one more performance—a sleight-of-hand on behalf of the most politically powerful outfit in Orange County.

It's fair to argue that no supervisor has been more pro-airport than Silva. The former Garden Grove high school teacher has laughed, rolled his eyes and snorted in contempt when local residents have begged board members to consider the harmful impacts (including noise and air pollution and plummeting home values) an airport will have on their neighborhoods. In seven years and hundreds of motions, he has never once voted even to slow the rush to build the unpopular airport.

And so we come to Sept. 17 and the board's vote on a bizarre motion by Wilson: after 10 years and two votes, to put El Toro to a vote of the people. The motion was sure to die in utero.

Or maybe not. Without explanation, Silva suddenly joined the two anti-airport supervisors to go along with Wilson's improbable motion, essentially killing any further discussion of the airport's environmental-impact report (EIR) until after a countywide vote.

A second after Silva cast his bombshell vote, Smith—who had spent much of the meeting happily antagonizing Spitzer—suddenly looked nauseated. Coad snapped, "What?" Obviously off-balance, she threatened to "clear the courtroom" after equally stunned audience observers recovered and began hooting and clapping. Staring at his microphone, a solemn Smith said, "I need a recess because I would like to think about what has just been done."

What had been done was a ruse, but few were paying attention. Immediately after the meeting, leaders of anti-airport groups showered Silva with praise and declared the dawn of a new era in airport politics. Outraged Newport Beach officials calculated ways to bring the supervisor back into their fold. Smith went so far as to speculate ominously to reporters that "someone had gotten to" Silva.

The hand-wringing was unnecessary. The next day, Silva flip-flopped on the flip-flop and said he would rejoin the pro-airport majority in final approval of the airport EIR one month later, at the board's Oct. 16 meeting. In a press statement, he claimed that he had switched back to his original pro-airport position "after discussing this issue with my constituents and community leaders." He wanted the public to believe—as Times Orange County political reporter Jean Pasco dutifully reported on Sept. 19—that his odd vote was merely momentary "confusion."

It's tempting to believe him; Silva is certainly a moron. But that explanation conveniently ignores one other important fact about the supervisor's political life: Silva has always been the puppet of Newport Beach-based real-estate-development interests—the powerful firms that plucked him from obscurity, generously fund his political campaigns and hand him his orders. You will never find a single policy difference between Silva and the Irvine Co.-controlled Orange County Business Council. So what caused Silva to vote abruptly for a delay in building the business council-backed airport?

A better question is: Who benefited by the delay?

An even more pointed question is: Who is powerful enough to get an image-conscious supervisor facing re-election next year to play the fool in public?

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