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?

The answer to all three questions: the Irvine Co.

Silva's surprise vote and subsequent turnaround—on a suspicious motion by the Irvine Co.'s other shill, Wilson (see "The Irvine Co.'s Manchurian Supervisor," April 14, 2000)—has only one significant impact: because of Wilson's scheduling conflict, the EIRwon't come up for a board vote until mid-October. That pushes back the first phase of airport construction until after the summer of 2002.

Such a delay is a huge assist to the Irvine Co., which hopes to build and sell by next summer 2,500 homes in an area off the 405 freeway and Laguna Canyon Road. That development, tentatively called Planning Area 17, is about two miles from El Toro's east-west runways and a mere one mile from the north-south runways. Talk about being in the crosshairs.

Nothing would frighten off potential homebuyers like nearby international airport construction. And so you might think the Irvine Co. would enter this fight with its lawyers blazing, its planners planning, its enigmatic chairman Donald Bren giving voice to the folly of El Toro International. Instead, in at least three letters to county officials, the company seems to approve of El Toro International—so long as the airport isn't built faster than the company can build and unload homes in Planning Area 17.

The two most recent letters arrived at the county Hall of Administration on Sept. 10 and 14. They are remarkable documents, revealing that the company is comfortable with El Toro with some caveats designed to protect its interests—a "cargo road" on the north end, for example, that might prove useful to the company's projects there and an alteration in flight paths that would circumvent Planning Area 17.

But the letters are more remarkable for what they don't say: they never, ever mention Planning Area 17. There's theatrical "concern" for existing homeowners and a church quite close to 17—but nothing about 17 itself. It's as if the company's biggest current development in Irvine is of no financial consequence whatever. The silence is deafening.

In addition to the letters, of course, there was the political theater. At one point during the El Toro meeting, Spitzer asked, "Has the county addressed the concerns of the Irvine Co.?"

Outside county counsel Michael Gatzke unequivocally replied yes—and in one of those rare candid moments in Orange County politics, added, "In my experience with the Irvine Co., if they have a problem with a specific proposal, they are more than capable of and willing to express themselves."

In this case, the company expressed itself best through the medium of theater. Like any great performance art, this piece required the active enrollment of unwitting participants. Smith, Coad and Spitzer were clearly and honestly stunned. Better yet, the daily press followed predictably in ascribing Silva's strange votes to his stupidity. The Register's Gordon Dillow suggested Silva was too "addle-headed" to understand the ramifications of his vote. The Times' Dana Parsons said Silva deserved "his dunce cap." But Silva's Sept. 18 flip-flop-flip showed the man is at least smart enough to follow orders.

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