Photo by Jack GouldDuring his almost five years in office, Orange County Supervisor Jim Silva has presented himself as the taxpayers' ferocious fiscal watchdog, the lone politician eager to challenge wasteful bureaucrats and their idiotic ideas. The truth is, however, that Silva's carefully manufactured reputation is as substantive as the elementary sentences he sluggishly reads from staff-prepared note cards at every board meeting. He probably thinks it goes unnoticed when he rants against even minuscule county donations to youth programs but routinely champions multimillion-dollar sprees for his wealthy real-estate-developer pals.
At the Board of Supervisors' June 8 meeting, the former high school economics teacher was true to form. Silva was the only member disturbed by two proposed community grants totaling a measly $3,500 for county youth programs. Perhaps unable to grasp the irony, minutes later he voted to spend $683,165 on two buses for the Sheriff's Department.
To be fair, Silva did have other worries that day: how best to get revenge against fellow Republican Supervisor Todd Spitzer. Spitzer's striking looks, tireless charm and ability to speak simple sentences without cheat sheets have been irritants to the drab Silva, whose routinely incoherent remarks are peppered liberally with "duhs" and "uhs."
But the rift goes deeper than petty jealousy. The two men have traded shots over the Silva-backed concept of an international passenger and cargo airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. In October 1998, Spitzer recoiled contemptuously in public session after Silva inexplicably abandoned his long-standing opposition to the increasing authority of Jan Mittermeier, the county's despotic CEO. The flip-flop so unsettled Spitzer that he refused to endorse Silva in the 1998 election. Silva didn't appreciate Spitzer's independence and, in a series of media interviews, came just short of declaring all-out war against his colleague.
In May, Silva—whose biggest campaign support comes from Newport Beach-based developers—took the offensive. Without specifically naming Spitzer, he claimed a member of the board had given a local reporter secret information about how the county is diverting millions of dollars from John Wayne Airport to the campaign for an airport at El Toro. Silva introduced an ordinance that would jail for six months any Orange County supervisor who leaked theoretically confidential county-government information to the public. In classic Silva-speak, the ordinance would guarantee "positive governance" and improve, of all things, "communication." In reality, the proposal was a thinly veiled slap at Spitzer, whom Silva accuses of sharing too much with reporters and constituents. Numerous constitutional experts said the measure was unconstitutional on its face.
At the conclusion of the June 8 meeting, Silva twitched uncomfortably in his leather-cushioned chair and stole several nervous glances at a nonchalant Spitzer before launching into a speech about the controversial secrecy ordinance.
"The military, they refer to a sneaky-type person as a 'sniper'; the police refer to him as a 'snitch,' and in politics, they call them 'headline seekers.' But I think 'weasel' is a term that everybody understands," a scripted Silva slowly read without inflection. He has called Spitzer a "headline seeker" in the past.
"In Orange County, we do have a problem. . . . We have to put a stop to this behavior . . . this criminal act . . . this sneaky type of person," continued Silva. He did not bother to cite a single example of a criminal act involving leaked information or its dire ramifications. Before it was all over, the supervisor had worked himself into his usual Vietnam-era right-wing spiel, complete with stunning non sequiturs. "Karl Marx, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden all yelled, 'Free speech,'" Silva said. "Yet they were trying to use their free speech to take away our speech."
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As bewildered audience members watched and his fellow supes stared at the papers in front of them, Silva shocked everyone by withdrawing his measure from consideration. A smiling Spitzer turned to an aide, shook his head and rolled his eyes. As if it hadn't been he who proposed it in the first place, Silva said he concluded that the ordinance wasn't any good because supervisors might go to jail.
"[Board Chairman Chuck Smith] doesn't want to see anyone on the board go to jail," Silva told a reporter after the meeting. "I have to agree with him. I don't either."
If Silva's proposed ordinance was nothing more than a publicity stunt, Patricia Harrigan of the Orange County League of Women Voters was not impressed. She said the incident "could only heighten the suspicion of an already cynical public."
What's to be cynical about? While Silva's trusty staff prepares their boss's upcoming sentences, the supervisor can go back to doing what he does best: expose the evils of spending county money on health care or needy children.