The Six-Figure Club

There's only one thing in county government that changes more than its plans for the proposed El Toro International Airport: the El Toro planning office itself. Employing the Nelson Communications Group to spin the airport didn't work-people still didn't buy the bullshit-so the county hired a full-time spokesperson. County officials raved about hiring former American and AirCal exec Bruce Wetsel to be the aviation team manager, but they said nothing when he bailed suddenly late last year. Wetsel's job remains unfilled.

Now county officials have a new consultant: deputy program manager Michael L. Lapin, the attorney hired by the Board of Supervisors on May 11, will make $170,000 per year-$60,000 per year more than his boss, Courtney Wiercioch. That salary makes Lapin the third member of the county El Toro Airport office's elite Six-Figure Club, which already includes real-estate manager Gary Simon and special counsel Mark Mispagel. Hired for just six months-with a potential six-month extension-county planner originally wanted Lapin to work for 14 months, making his final compensation $198,333.

Lapin fits the county-consultant profile exactly: he has been a California attorney since 1970 and a retail- and commercial-property owner, and he is the current chairman of the Orange County Public Financing Advisory Committee.

But his rsum includes an additional talent that county officials didn't mention at the board meeting, a talent uniquely relevant to the current political climate surrounding El Toro: "During the pendancy of the [Orange County] bankruptcy, Mr. Lapin served on a special task force, studying airport revenues in relation to the county general fund."

Now that's interesting. Ostensibly brought in to help transfer the base from the Navy Department to the county, Lapin's work will require him to "manage overall budget preparation" for the El Toro Airport planning office. His experience and job description suggest the county wants Lapin to do for El Toro what Oliver North did for Ronald Reagan's Nicaraguan contras: manage an off-the-books budget scheme that keeps the El Toro Airport planning juggernaut rolling.

Here's how that project works. John Wayne Airport generates huge revenues, revenues intended to maintain John Wayne Airport. The county has begun diverting those funds to its El Toro Airport planning office. Funding planning that way-as opposed to funding it through the general fund-helps county officials maintain the fiction that El Toro planning doesn't cost anybody anything. But hoovering cash out of the John Wayne Airport bank account undermines the self-sufficiency of John Wayne Airport and turns it into a cash cow.

There are many critics of the county's funding, including a former federal Department of Transportation inspector general and a former Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator. They say the strategy is illegal. Naturally, county officials disagree: in fact, Lapin's compensation comes straight from John Wayne Airport revenues. Clearly, despite the controversy and questions surrounding the use of John Wayne Airport monies for El Toro Airport planning, county officials intend to grab from the airport stash for a long time.


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