With Friends Like Mittermeier

In early 1918, the British War Cabinet considered sacking General Sir Douglas Haig, then commander of all British forces in France. There was only madness in Haig's methods, which slaughtered far more British soldiers than German, and the Cabinet wanted it stopped. Haig, who saw no problem with his conduct of the war, merely wanted the pesky politicians to butt out. The Cabinet never fired Haig, and today his name is synonymous with a strategy that traded 10,000 lives for every hundred yards.

Like Haig, County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier managed last week to retain her post at the top of the county's bureaucracy despite opposition from her elected bosses. The vote of three supervisors to keep her—including an almost incomprehensible vote of support from Fifth District Supervisor Tom Wilson (see R. Scott Moxley's story “The Irvine Co.'s Manchurian Supervisor,” April 14)—means that Mittermeier also keeps authority over the county's proposed El Toro International Airport, where her legacy is a wasteland of paranoid secrecy and inept failure:

•The El Toro program office has consistently refused to release records to the Weekly related to the county's dealings with P N D Associates, the main contractor working on the El Toro Environmental Impact Report. The office alternately stated such records didn't exist or were too numerous to provide.

•When Mission Viejo resident Gail Reavis attended a Nov. 20, 1997, Orange County Business Council presentation that featured Mittermeier, one of the CEO's top lieutenants tossed out the vocal airport opponent. Mittermeier's remarks, later obtained through the California Public Records Act, contained the blatantly false statement that Orange County loses $4.9 billion every year because it lacks proper air-cargo facilities. Mittermeier claimed she got the figure from Chapman University president Jim Doti, a claim Doti denies.

•That same month, Supervisor Wilson asked Mittermeier for her staff's travel records, hoping to learn how the county's airport planners were lobbying in Washington, D.C. Mittermeier flatly denied the request, saying such records were “unnecessary for the formulation of good policy decisions.”

•In 1998, Mittermeier's staff fervently denied they considered removing entirely El Toro's near-useless Runway 7. Draft studies released later showed that was a lie.

•During high-profile June 1999 noise tests, aircraft used special arrival and departure procedures to make them seem quieter. Despite this, and despite Mittermeier's assurances that the tests would reassure county residents, the two days of overflights antagonized those living near El Toro.

•Mittermeier apparently even lied to staunch airport booster Supervisor Chuck Smith—who should have been her greatest friend—about the program's abysmal status. “Things we were told were happening in Washington weren't happening,” Smith told The Orange County Register on April 14.

Mittermeier had a great deal to conceal. Her office slept while attorneys retained by South County cities allied against the airport hijacked the county's effort to obtain state authorization to take over El Toro. Negotiations with the Navy Department for a full Master Lease of the base are already a year behind schedule.

An all-but-humorous aside is the county's Community Services Program, which operates the base's RV park, golf course, snack bar, stables and child-care center. Mittermeier projected the program would produce millions of dollars per year for the county. Instead—one is tempted to say “predictably”—the program has been a small but illustrative disaster, costing the county more than $200,000 annually. Mittermeier's only real response was to fire El Toro real-estate manager Gary Simon, an act that—just as predictably —changed nothing.

These actions illuminate the reasons for broad citizen mistrust of the county's entire handling of the El Toro base reuse. This mistrust led directly to the overwhelming passage last month of Measure F.

With the county in legal limbo over Measure F, Mittermeier shut down the entire El Toro program. That makes her scramble to retain control of the CEO's office a victory with no clear purpose: the county's lobbyists in Washington, D.C., are doing no lobbying. Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tom Wall's traveling airport road show is grounded. The county's El Toro website has been replaced with a sign reading, “This site is currently under construction.” Mittermeier fought for and retained control over . . . nothing.

Elementary management theory demands the firing of someone with this record of failure. Yet Mittermeier remains in power—right where she wants to be. Like old General Haig, she seems content to do her adversaries' work for them. Her friends may come to fear her future “successes.”

5 Replies to “With Friends Like Mittermeier”

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