Exit Strategy

Photo by Jack GouldIn a county government in which bizarre is often the norm, the ongoing crisis over county executive officer Jan Mittermeier may be the most peculiar and instructive. For three months, Mittermeier—the county's iron-fisted top bureaucrat—has been at the center of an intense, if entertaining, power struggle with the Board of Supervisors.

Not that they've noticed at The Orange County Register or the Orange County bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Despite publishing a barrage of horse-race stories pitting Mittermeier against her supervisorial opponents, neither paper has bothered to answer the obvious pivotal question of the Mittermeier Affair: Why would a board majority vote to keep Mittermeier in April and then, with premeditation and foresight—and all sorts of very public discussion—vote in June to violate the CEO's contract, a move she had repeatedly promised would prompt her departure and a lawsuit?

Or, in more common parlance: Why would a boss purposely breach a contract with a bitter employee who has already threatened to sue?

A plausible answer is not forthcoming from the board. Lately, only Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Chuck Smith have been consistent on Mittermeier: they want her gone, regardless of the price. But Supervisors Tom Wilson, Cynthia Coad and, unsurprisingly, Jim Silva seemingly can't make up their minds. Silva and Coad, who share Mittermeier's ardent stance on building an international commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, have routinely praised the CEO with the sort of vigor usually reserved for Oklahoma religious revivals. But then these ardent supporters turned around on June 13 and voted to breach an unequivocal contract clause that calls on Mittermeier to control all county departments and operations—itself an unprecedented provision they handed the CEO in October 1998. Furthermore, Coad and Mittermeier have been confidants; confidants normally don't breach contracts with each other and remain confidants.

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Go figure.

But the most disturbing moves have been Wilson's. He's a supervisor who had carefully manufactured an anti-Mittermeier reputation during his four years in office. The 5th District supervisor—who ostensibly represents South County but seems to represent just the part that holds the Irvine Co.'s office at Newport Center Drive—understands math. Badmouthing Mittermeier earns solid re-election votes in communities to whom the CEO represents all that is wrong about plans to cram an unwanted international airport into the heart of residential Orange County. Time and again, Wilson has unloaded on Mittermeier, going so far as to suggest (correctly) that she had "contaminated" local government with her penchant for absurd secrecy and dictatorial management.

But the rhetoric of Orange County politicians like Wilson rarely has any correlation to real-world, behind-the-scenes machinations. April 11 was the first time that Wilson could have backed his colorful anti-Mittermeier words with decisive action that would have formed a new majority (with Spitzer and Smith) to fire the out-of-control CEO. But Wilson flip-flopped after a last-second meeting with Mittermeier benefactor and Irvine Co. vice president Gary Hunt. In a stunning 3-2 vote, the CEO kept her job. To calm outraged constituents, Wilson weakly explained that he wanted to keep Mittermeier in office precisely because she is inept when it comes to airport planning. On June 13, flip-flopping on the flip-flop and giving the lie to his earlier rationale, Wilson—who was first appointed to office in 1996 by then-Governor Pete Wilson on advice from the pro-airport Irvine Co.—voted to take airport planning away from Mittermeier.

Double go figure.

"It's all very strange," one ranking Hall of Administration employee told the Weekly. "There are things that are going on down here that nobody has a good explanation for. . . . Who knows what motivations have been driving some of the supervisors?"

In the absence of any certain knowledge, consider this possibility: Mittermeier desperately wants out of her $85-per-hour perk-loaded job on her own terms. She's going to get them—her terms—because Jan Mittermeier is not to be pissed off.

Critics have noted her ultrasecretive practices, but they've mistaken its origins and intentions. It's not a psychological quirk or a neurotic manifestation; it's a tool designed to protect the people who put her into the CEO's job—they would be the county's powerful, wealthy and, it goes without saying, politically connected developers. "Mittermeier is running the county with an iron fist for the developers. It's just pitiful," former Republican Party head Tom Rogers once told me. Rogers noted that Mittermeier came into office in the fall of 1995 buoyed by a call for serious, post-bankruptcy reform. But it never happened because Mittermeier's real job wasn't reform; it was protecting the government contractors' gravy train that makes frequent stops at the county Hall of Administration. "They certainly talked a lot about serious reform, but it was really never more than a clever smokescreen," Rogers said.

To give you but one example, when Wilson requested El Toro Airport planning documents in 1997, Mittermeier wrote him back that his "involvement is unnecessary for the formulation of good policy decisions." She would not, she told Wilson—her boss, mind you—comply with his request.

This is not a bureaucrat you scorn. Cross her, and you risk a scenario in which Mittermeier takes the stand at her breach-of-contract trial and in pretrial depositions spills legumes, lets commerce-type felines out of various government bags, unburies long-buried real-estate development corpses—generally, makes life miserable for the developers in a way that might have them wishing once again for the less hectic, more manageable days of the bankruptcy.

Mittermeier is now looking forward to her next big, six-figure job. She cannot afford to leave this one with a wingtip up her behind. The supes—and the developers they represent—cannot afford to have her feeling vexed. They need a face-saving, controversy-avoiding exit strategy. The plan—sources at the Hall of Administration say it was developed by Mittermeier and her allies in the 10 weeks since she narrowly escaped being fired—has been to create a scenario in which the CEO could ostensibly leave of her own volition, pick up a very generous $170,000 severance package, and have a decent shot at winning additional public monies from a quiet settlement.

Of course, few if any major government decisions—even key personnel decisions—are made without (to use a generous term) "input" from the Irvine Co., the outfit that wields influence over the offices and budgets of practically every city and county government in the region. That Silva, Coad and Wilson voted to breach Mittermeier's contract also means that the Irvine Co. okayed the move in advance.

The businessmen and their lobbyists must be simultaneously saddened and anxious about Mittermeier's pending departure. Her willingness to manipulate the county's $3.8 billion annual operation for their private whims and cravings has been no secret. Who else could have looked on so coldly as thousands of local children live in abject poverty and then, in just one disgraceful example, send more than $3 million in public funds to the marketing department at Disneyland?

But those special interests can relax. One outcome is certain: the woman who knows about the backroom deals that evaporated a sizable chunk of the $15 billion in county spending since 1995 will surely walk away financially satisfied and closed-lipped. The exit strategy guarantees it.

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