If He Only Had a Brain
On Oct. 6, the Orange County Board of Supervisors faced a critical question: How much power should be surrendered to Jan Mittermeier, the non-elected county CEO? Mittermeier-whose chief benefactors are real-estate developers and government contractors-had threatened to quit her $650-per-day bureaucratic post if the supervisors refused to further insulate her from public accountability. Because those same real-estate developers and government contractors also control a majority of the Board of Supervisors, it was a foregone conclusion that the autocratic Mittermeier would get her way. On that day, however, an overflow hearing-room crowd quietly awaited enlightened discussion among the county's top local politicians.
"I think if we just stay firm, we'd probably never get from Point A to Point B," said board chairman Jim Silva, who regularly states the obvious as if it were deep philosophical thought. "If there is a straw vote taken, we can take that."
From the outset of the hearing, Silva was in trouble. He appeared oblivious to a detailed, ongoing 30-minute discussion among his colleagues. "After we do all of, uh, the comments and straw votes on the nine individual items [of Mittermeier's proposed deal], we will take a vote on the entire contract," said Silva, slowly reading from note cards prepared by his staff.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer interrupted politely. "Mr. Chairman," he said, "you have a pending vote on the floor."
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"Yeah," said board clerk Darlene Bloom. "We do have a motion and a second on the floor, sir."
A dumbfounded Silva-who had happily noted several times during the hearing that he is chairman-turned to Supervisor Bill Steiner, but he said nothing. The silence ended mercifully when Steiner withdrew his motion. The chairman was finally on the same page as everyone else. Or so it seemed. Later, Silva, who had previously advocated changing Mittermeier's title to "executive director," appeared lost again: "I'd like to see, uh, uh, the title, uh, uh, uh, of-let's see; what was it?-uh . . ."
"Executive director?" said Spitzer.
"Uh . . . executive director," Silva said before resuming his unintelligible remarks. "We have a way right now that we don't currently have."
The board eventually voted 3-2 (Supervisors Tom Wilson and Spitzer against) to cave in to a perk-loaded contract that gives Mittermeier unprecedented compensation and control over county government. She also gets to keep her CEO title-although "chief executive officer" became "county executive officer." Worse, it now officially takes four (not just a simple majority) of the five elected supervisors to overrule Mittermeier's decisions in such matters as hiring and firing key county bureaucrats. "Okay," said an excited Silva, who-despite years of talk about holding bureaucrats accountable-flip-flopped positions at the last second to cast the deciding vote for the CEO. "With that, we have finished [agenda] item 102, and I believe the next item will be uh, uh . . ."
"103?" the clerk said.
"Item 103," said Silva.
Four years ago, a prominent local political expert swiped a line from Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins to describe Silva: "shit for brains." Whether you accept that view, rest assured that the 54-year-old former real-estate salesman and high school civics teacher comprehends the next item on his personal agenda: keeping his $93,000-per-year job as Orange County's 2nd District supervisor. On Nov. 3, voters in such cities as Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos will decide between-to be generous-the "charisma-challenged" Silva and fellow Republican Dave Sullivan, an articulate, even personable Huntington Beach councilman and retired orthodontist.
The onetime sleepy race has grown so bitter and it carries so many ramifications that it has replaced the Loretta Sanchez-Bob Dornan congressional matchup as the most watched local election of 1998. The reason? The county's controversial plans to build an international cargo and passenger airport beside dozens of residential communities in South County. Silva adamantly supports the proposed airport; Sullivan-who is garnering hero status in places like Irvine, Laguna Beach, Lake Forest, Dana Point and Coto de Caza-opposes it. Whoever wins will have the power to single-handedly decide the airport's fate (and thus how tens of billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent) because the other four supervisors will remain split on the issue next year.
But the airport hoopla has also helped bury Sullivan's best line of attack against Silva: character. People may not mind whether Silva is a moron (after all, he could be a benign moron), but they probably care whether he is honest.
The controversy over Mittermeier's contract illuminated three key facets of Silva's character: that he doesn't mind reneging on his positions; that he is a shill for the county's developers, who quietly lobbied him to give the CEO everything she wanted; and that he has no qualm covering up his flip-flops and misdeeds by lying. Such behavior incensed the reform-minded Spitzer, whose 1997 arrival at the county Hall of Administration was as welcome as a can of Raid at a roach convention. "It is unbelievable that Jim Silva tells the public he is going to do one thing-then he breaks his word to the voters," said Spitzer. "It goes to his integrity and honesty." Spitzer endorsed Sullivan last week. Silva responded in typical fashion, inadvertently proving that in his view, county government should be secretive. Spitzer, he said, is a "hyperambitious leak machine."
Silva's blatant aversion to the truth is revealed in every area of debate, including the airport. For example, he has made much of the fact that Sullivan has raised more than $300,000. It frustrates Silva that most of Sullivan's money has come not from inside the 2nd District but from South County residents who aren't fond of the idea of jumbo jets taking off over their homes 24 hours a day. Silva, however, is vulnerable to the same charge-not that he'd admit it.
On Oct. 8, Silva appeared (alone-he refuses to debate) on OCN's Prime Story with host Brooke Robbins. The supervisor immediately slammed Sullivan for accepting contributions from sources outside the 2nd District. "He found he could take, uh, uh, uh, a bribe or whatever you want to call it" by having "fund-raisers every night in South County-and all he talks about at those fund-raisers is the airport," he said.
"But at the same time he's getting a lot of South County money," Robbins said, "you're also getting a lot of Newport Beach [which is also outside the district] money."
"Actually, I think if you look at my campaign reports," said a smiling Silva, "you didn't see any Newport Beach money in there."
Robbins followed up: "There's reportedly $126,000 that's from outside your district. I would assume most of that came from Newport Beach."
Silva stared at Robbins. Color appeared in his face. "Uh," he finally muttered. "The $126,000 is [from] all over the county. It is not from Newport Beach."
One of the more striking aspects of covering Orange County politics is not that our elected officials lie, but that they feel so comfortable doing it so often on easily verifiable issues. And on television.
We drove to the registrar of voters' office in Santa Ana, where official campaign-disclosure reports are filed and kept for public inspection. In the days before Silva appeared on OCN, his campaign reports show he took at least the following contributions (we won't use the term "bribes") from Newport Beach real-estate developers, corporate lobbyists and pro-airport activists: $2,000, $1,750, $1,000, $250, $1,250, $1,500, $1,000, $250, $250, $1,000, $250, $250, $100, $1,100, $250, $250, $500, $1,000, $250, $500, $750, $250, $1,000, $450, $250, $100, $250, $100, $1,499, $300, $1,750, $500, $1,000, $100, $250, $1,000, $250, $1,750, $1,000, $1,250, $1,500, $1,500, $500, $100, $1,000, $300, $100, $250, $1,000, $1,750, $150, $250, $1,000, $250, $628 and $1,250. Without breaking a sweat, we found an additional 266 Newport Beach contributions totaling just under $100,000. The reports also revealed that 85 percent of Silva's contributions originated from sources outside the 2nd District.
Silva did not return telephone calls for comment.
Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the emptiness of Silva's carefully crafted reputation as a conservative "tax fighter" than the contributions he receives. Rather than the hard-working middle-class 2nd District he claims to represent, Silva's true "constituents" are developers, attorneys and firms that contract with the county. They're the attorneys and law firms the county put on retainer. They're the public-relations firms the county hires for spin campaigns. They're the companies and firms that reap the benefits of county privatization. They're the geology and construction firms that build county facilities. And they're the developers and landowners who live in Newport Beach's bay-side mansions-men like George Argyros and Donald Koll. They need county permits to cover what open space remains with high-density homes and gated communities. If Silva really wanted to be honest, he'd recuse himself from every board meeting. It's a colossal conflict of interest.
Firms contributing to Silva's campaign committee appear throughout the Board of Supervisors meetings' minutes: Brian A. Stirratt & Associates (BAS); Coleman/Caskey Construction; LSA & Associates; Parking Concepts; Deloitte & Touche; GeoSyntec; Laer Pearce; Simons Li; Gatzke, Dillon & Ballance. The big developers-Irvine Co., Mission Viejo Co., William Lyon Homes, Taylor Woodrow and Shea Homes-appear under "Planning."
Their checks roll in individually and through massive campaign events, such as the big Dec. 16, 1997, blowout organized by the El Toro International Airport pope himself, Argyros. That event netted Silva tens of thousands of dollars in $250-per-head ticket sales alone. On Sept. 22, Argyros threw another fund-raiser for Silva, this time at his Arnel Development offices next door to South Coast Plaza. Once again, the minimum donation was $250.
Other firms and developers followed Argyros' lead. The engineering firm Coleman/Caskey has given Silva $1,500 since he started running for county office in 1993; since June 1997, the county has given the firm more than $2 million in contracts. BAS, a civil-engineering firm, has given Silva $2,150; on Aug. 19, 1997, the board gave BAS a contract worth $2.6 million. The various William Lyon development companies have given Silva $3,250 since 1993; since June 1997, the board has approved 10 new tracts for Lyon.
Sometimes, firms give a little and get a lot. Shea Homes has given Silva almost nothing, yet it had 49 tracts approved in the past year and a half. The reverse works as well: Hunsaker & Associates, a consulting firm representing scores of developers, has given Silva $1,500 to date but only received county work as an alternate contractor this year.
You could describe the relationship between the board and the contractors as synergistic. What's certain is that such synergy theatens residents' ability to influence county policy. And there's no better example of that than Koll Co. and its efforts to develop the Bolsa Chica wetlands. In his Oct. 8 campaign appearance on OCN, Silva preposterously posed as an environmentalist who had done his darndest to block Koll Co. Silva may have confused his record with Sullivan's. It was no accident that Sullivan began his campaign at the Bolsa Chica wetlands. In 1992, Sullivan got himself elected to the Huntington Beach City Council on a slow-growth platform centered on halting, stopping, ending, finishing, demolishing and/or obliterating Koll Co.'s plans to cover the Bolsa Chica mesa with thousands of tract homes. But there wasn't a lot he could do; Bolsa Chica is a county-not a city-matter.
Silva's actions when he was on the Huntington Beach City Council from 1988 to 1994 were a large part of why Sullivan and his three allies on the council had so little to work with. Silva supported the Koll Co. constantly, even when a majority of the council-and the city-thought the development ludicrous and destructive.
*In April 1993, Silva voted against the city asking the Board of Supervisors to yield Bolsa Chica jurisdiction to the City Council. The measure passed 4-2.
*In August 1993, Silva voted against applying for a grant to buy land near the wetlands in an effort to keep the land away from Koll. The measure passed 5-2.
*In February 1994, Silva voted against sending detailed criticisms of the Bolsa Chica development to the Board of Supervisors. The measure passed 4-2.
In May 1994, the Los Angeles Times reported that Koll Co. split $40,000 between Silva and Haydee Tillotson, his opponent for the 2nd District seat. When Silva won, Koll continued its generous support. Over the course of Silva's tenure on the board, Koll-its directors, employees, affiliates, attorneys, geologists, engineers, surveyors and consultants-contributed well more than $30,000 to Silva. In the past five months alone, Koll Co. executives contributed more than $10,000. To this day, despite staggering opposition from environmental groups and Huntington Beach residents, Koll remains committed to more than 1,000 homes on the Bolsa Chica bluffs. Koll's investment in Silva has paid off in spades.
In February 1995, Governor Pete Wilson appointed Silva to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The board oversees state air-pollution controls and monitors pollution-abatement programs. If you're the Koll Co. or the Irvine Co., it's the perfect spot for a man with Silva's lack of qualifications and intelligence. He hasn't attended one-quarter of CARB's 43 meetings. At many meetings, Silva says nothing more than "Here" during roll call. On the few occasions when he has spoken, it's vintage Silva. During a March 1997 meeting, he felt compelled to offer the following cliché-loaded insights:
I know that we have final deadlines followed by a final deadline. Jim, you wanted to make a point?
And I'm sure that we've all been at meetings where they say, "Well, we'll have a deadline," but if we don't meet that, then we'll create another one, which I think is really confusing the market, in this case, the manufacturers as well as the consumers. I don't want to poison the well, but I also realize that we have a target that we're shooting at. And I think if we're sending out mixed messages, we're going to be creating more problems on down the line. I will be supporting this, but I do have some reservations.
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