County To Voters: "Thanks for Sharing"

Like the announcement of a Soviet economic plan, Orange County's debate last month over its five-year plan was a non-debate. At a special March 5 meeting, the Board of Supervisors was supposed to listen to citizens, ask questions, and debate openly how to spend $158 million "projected available general-purpose revenues" over the next decade. Most of the county's $3.8 billion annual budget is tied up in a web of federal and state mandates; of the little that remains--the $158 million--the supervisors had little to say publicly. Mission Viejo resident Gail Reavis asked the board to reconsider giving millions in taxpayer dollars to a wealthy, politically-motivated business group. She was greeted with raised eyebrows and silence. Another speaker was treated more warmly. "I am sure you will be under pressure to wait and deliberate things, [but don't bother]," said , president of the developer-backed, tax-friendly Orange County Taxpayers Association.

It's no wonder. During his presentation, Royalty made a point to acknowledge his three recent (and private) meetings with supervisors and county CEO Jan Mittermeier. Before the supes voted or even publicly addressed spending plans at the hearing, Royalty apparently knew the outcome and was delighted.

"Congratulations, and keep up the good work," he told the board. "You really seem to be on the right track."

Royalty's untimely indiscretion forced South County Supervisor Tom Wilson to hem and haw for a moment as if he were struggling over which of six spending scenarios he supported. When Wilson acknowledged his choice (the one Royalty had already applauded), the other four supervisors quickly backed him without a moment of serious debate. The scene was painfully reminiscent of the board's grossly negligent behavior leading up to the 1994 county bankruptcy loss of $1.7 billion.

Board chairman Jim Silva--who portrays himself as the nitpicking watchdog over county spending--could not think of one probing question. He seemed, in fact, adolescently happy just to be holding the gavel. At one point during the hearing, Silva interrupted a brief dialogue between supervisors Todd Spitzer and Wilson on bankruptcy-debt retirement to say: "Okay, you know, I would like to make one comment. When you are at the board meeting, and you see all the, uh, the ocean of people out there, the sea of people, and, and they are all looking at you, and you make a comment to your colleagues, and, and they look at you like you just, uh, got off a spaceship--you start to second-guess yourself a little bit."

It may have been for Silva's benefit that Mittermeier and her staff (with, no doubt, the aide of ubiquitous corporate lobbyists) designed a kindergarten-style analogy for deciding the county's future spending priorities. Major government programs are called "big rocks." Smaller programs are "pebbles." Silva and the other supervisors were told to mentally picture the "big rocks," the "pebbles" and, representing fiscal constraints, a small drinking glass. The objective, according to Mittermeier, was to figure out the best way to cram the most "big rocks" and "pebbles" into the glass without breaking it. In case the assignment was too complicated, Mittermeier handed supervisors a computer-generated picture of rocks and a glass.

Since her developer-approved appointment as CEO in 1995, Mittermeier has repeatedly proven her forte is placating entrenched special-interest groups such as the Orange County Business Council and keeping citizens in the dark about county operations. Citizens ask tough questions and demand truthful answers.

Mittermeier--a notorious control freak--recoils at the thought of anyone (even supes) looking over her shoulder; last year, she adamantly refused to show one of her elected bosses a public record. Her stubborn secretiveness--which has reached near legendary status concerning plans to build an international airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station--is also readily apparent in her simplistic "big rocks" strategy. Consider this: the official "big rocks" file that Mittermeier's office makes available for public inspection contains a 1-inch-thick stack of meaningless bureaucratic memos but not a single key document detailing the government's proposed spending. Citizens who review the file aren't told that the key documents are missing. I had to insist repeatedly that the file was not complete before a clerk finally went to a back room and retrieved a stack of critical records, which dwarfed the censored public file in size. Good citizenship isn't cheap, either: the public must pay more than $40 for a copy of Mittermeier's plans. Oddly, the county's official tape recording of the "big rocks" March 5 meeting (publicly available for $44) is inaudible during most of the first hour--precisely the period during which Mittermeier and her staff discuss juicy spending details. Mittermeier and her crew have reason to hide records of their corporate-welfare programs, formally styled "economic development," "corporate retention" and "tourism." Although county officials can't find another dollar for battered women's shelters, abused children, homelessness or critical medical care for the needy, the Business Council--a lobbying group composed of Orange County's wealthiest corporations--will get an additional $3 million in tax money over the next three years. The supervisors give the Business Council other public funds, but bureaucrats claimed to be unaware of the cost or details of those gifts. In return, the group supports the supervisors' campaign bids and pet projects.

Not everybody is so quick to play dumb. "You have to question whether it is appropriate for county tax dollars to be funding a business group with major political agendas," said Reavis, who last year was rudely tossed out of a hotel conference room by Business Council members who did not want her to hear Mittermeier's presentation to their organization. In a Feb. 23 financial-planning memo, Mittermeier revealed her view on who government should benefit. Of 32 "big rocks"--including jails, courts, welfare, health care and debt retirement--she highlighted the importance of only one program: $3 million in additional corporate welfare to the Business Council. This spending, she wrote, could be accomplished "without impact to other major strategic priorities." She was so determined to throw taxpayer dollars to the Business Council that she cleverly included that funding in five of the six funding scenarios. Ironically, at a March 3 board meeting, Mittermeier admitted--albeit in gobbledygook fashion--that she has no clue exactly how the Business Council will spend the gift. "I think if the board chooses to move in that direction, we would propose a strategy plan be developed toward the most appropriate use of those funds," she said.

At the hearing, Felix Schwartz, executive director of the Orange County Health Care Council, pleaded with the supervisors not to turn their backs on citizens who don't have lobbyists. Orange County spending on health care is the lowest amount per capita of any urban county in California, he said. Since 1994, Schwartz added, supervisors have chopped the county's contribution to the social-services budget by $13.5 million.

"There are thousands of people who work but barely make enough money for food, housing and shelter. Any time there is an illness in that person's family, the apple cart is upset. If we are going to remain a humane, civilized society, there has to be a safety net in this county for those people," said Schwartz.Only Steiner appeared troubled. To no avail, he mentioned "soul searching" to his colleagues. They only wanted to talk about building more jails, a much-needed new South County Courthouse, debt retirement and handing the Business Council money. No one questioned Mittermeier's plan to spend $3.3 million on "employee relations" during the next 10 years--including $165,000 for consultants, $80,000 per year for "certificiates of appreciation," more than $300,000 per year on "New World of Work" videos and training, $5,000 for club memberships, and $39,000 per year for a monthly employees newsletter.

In January, Spitzer secured valuable conservative political points for vociferously demanding draconian welfare restrictions on the county's working poor. Three months later, he had nothing bad to say about handing rich white men $3 million. Temporarily setting aside his role as Mittermeier's chief nemesis, Spitzer played bubbly. "Madam CEO," he said, "you should be very proud of the hard work of your staff."


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