Photo by Jack GouldShock waves rippled through Orange County government circles on April Fool's Day after The Orange County Register disclosed that controversial county CEO Jan Mittermeier had secretly interviewed for a top management job at Los Angeles International Airport. Playing catch-up the following day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mittermeier was "angry" that the public had learned of her plans and would withdraw her application to become deputy director of LAX.
In keeping with her pattern, the CEO —whose ball-crushing style would evince admiration among Stalin's enthusiasts—appeared relatively contrite, trying to downplay the news as insignificant. She pathetically told the Times, "All I was doing was talking to them."
But the CEO is never just talking. Mittermeier's knack for spin is fast becoming legendary—with an eerily Orwellian twist. In 1997, she tried to cover up a massive scandal in the county's housing department, first lying directly to a rightly inquisitive Supervisor Todd Spitzer and then encouraging then-Sheriff Brad Gates to blast Spitzer as a troublemaker. A year later, Mittermeier told Supervisor Tom Wilson, another of her publicly elected bosses, that she was only being an efficient public servant by denying him access to key county records. Last year, she fired John Sibley as head of the county's largest department, didn't bother to inform the supervisors for more than two months, and then arrogantly refused explanation for the move. At one point, she threatened to quit if the board did not grant her unprecedented authority to make unilateral government decisions that could only be overturned by a four-fifths board majority.
But Mittermeier's legacy has been steeped in more than mere personality clashes and petty interoffice politics. It's also been about skewed public priorities, greed and elitism. During her five-year, iron-fisted reign, the CEO has managed to increase her own pay to about $15,000 per month, including absurdly lucrative benefits. Meanwhile, progress under Mittermeier has meant axing vital medical support for poverty-stricken local citizens and whacking critical environmental programs while routinely giving Disneyland millions of taxpayer dollars for "promotional activities" and increasingly subsidizing private housing and commercial projects favored by well-connected Newport Beach-based developers. But perhaps most telling about the Mittermeier era is that last year, she ranked government-building maintenance more important than the county's commitment to health care.
Throughout the ugliness, the CEO has enjoyed bizarre, unswerving admiration in unlikely corners. You might expect praise from real-estate developers and other businesses that feed off the county budget, but why would the liberal good-government League of Woman Voters back Mittermeier? Jean Askham, a leader of the group's local branch, likes to ignore the CEO's tainted record to routinely toss her accolades. She has called criticism of Mittermeier "outrageous" and "beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior."
But the most sickening support comes from the Times—in theory the county's liberal-to-moderate daily rag. For years, the paper's Orange County editorial-page director, Stephen Burgard, and local columnist Jerry Hicks have shamelessly touted Mittermeier as the county's savior. It was Hicks who chastised Spitzer for questioning Mittermeier's 1998 manipulation of government-contracting rules for favored consultants. Hicks—a sycophant always ready to cover for pernicious establishment players—called the supervisor a "loose cannon" and sniffed, "Good manners are not always [Spitzer's] strong suit."
While Hicks ponders manners over million-dollar-plus ethical lapses, Burgard preposterously maintains that it was too much elected-official supervision of county bureaucrats that prompted the county's embarrassing $1.6 billion bankruptcy in December 1994. To remedy that supposed problem, Burgard has habitually and vocally backed Mittermeier's power grab, even going so far as to publicly demand that supervisors allow her to run the government with almost no daily oversight.
In an Oct. 6, 1998, editorial that oddly mirrored a line put out by Mittermeier's trusty PR team, Burgard opined that, as the editorial's headline makes clear, "A Strong Executive Is Essential." He went on to write that "having a strong, professional CEO allows the opportunity for someone to rise above parochial interests . . . and take the broad view on how the county should operate day to day." On July 4, 1999, Burgard weighed in again, demanding that supervisors "live within the structure" of Mittermeier's heavy-handed regime.
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Following the sweeping victory of Measure F, the anti-El Toro International Airport initiative, Burgard's perspective changed considerably. A backer of the proposed airport, the Timeseditor blamed the election outcome on "ill-prepared" county officials. And whom did the paper scapegoat? Certainly not Mittermeier, who they now claim was appropriately sitting in her CEO office waiting to be "signaled" by the very people from whom she swiped power: the supervisors. This from a paper (specifically the bumbling Hicks) that until recently wanted the public to know that Mittermeier is "still in charge."
"The buck stops with [the supervisors]," wrote Burgard on April 2. In the next sentence, Mittermeier—the government bureaucrat directly responsible for planning the airport for the past 1,825 days—was reduced to an unnamed innocent "underling" undeserving of blame.
For a man who has helped skew public perception to Mittermeier's personal advantage, Burgard closed his editorial with an ironic admonition. He wrote, "Democracy can't work in anybody's favor if it isn't based on forthright public conversation."
If only Burgard and his buddy Hicks shared Mittermeier's occasional candor. In a moment she must surely regret, the CEO told reporters when she entered office in 1995 that "a lot of people think we're bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking bureaucrats, feeding at the public trough."