Santa Ana Mayor Daniel Griset was ousted Thursday from the county's two largest transportation agencies in one of the most divisive political controversies ever weathered by the Orange County League of Cities.
A committee of the county's 26 mayors voted 14 to 12 to unseat Griset, a leading proponent of mass transit, from the Orange County Transit District and the county Transportation Commission, which he has headed since July, 1984. Elected to replace him was Tustin Councilman Richard Edgar, an advocate of road and freeway improvements as an alternative to transit development.
Edgar's victory against one of the county's most prominent transportation officials represented in many ways an indictment of the concept of light-rail transit in Orange County, some observers said. Griset's opponents often cited his support last year of an unsuccessful proposal for a sales tax increase that would have helped fund the project.
The election pitted council members from some of central Orange County's more urbanized cities--some of Griset's staunchest backers--against cities opposed to the high density development brought on by new freeways and rail transit systems.
Several council members have also complained that the controversy brought party politics into local government issues that have traditionally been nonpartisan. They charged that Griset, one of the county's most powerful Democrats, was a target for Republican leaders who feared he would use the transportation posts as steppingstones to higher office.
"The issues played no part in this selection. It just shows that elephants are bigger than donkeys in Orange County politics," said Griset, who complained that the selection process was a political one.
"I think it has set a very unfortunate precedent and I think the effects of this will be felt for a long time," Griset said.
Edgar said the appointment will mean a more direct voice for cities in Orange County's transportation decision-making process.
"The people know me, they trust me personally, they know I will be close to them . . . and I have no aspirations for any other office," said Edgar, a Republican.
Edgar, 63, a member of the Tustin City Council for the past 10 years, is currently chairman of the joint board of the Orange County Sanitation Districts. He is scheduled to assume the transportation seats at the beginning of next month.
"This is the first time since the 1970s that we've had this much excitement about an election," said Costa Mesa Mayor Norma Hertzog, in nominating Griset.
"No matter which one is elected, we're going to all get behind him and work with him because the issue is transportation."
Yet after the meeting, several council members could still be heard arguing down the hall and into the elevator.
The controversy for weeks has pitted council members against each other, spawning a flood of letters and phone calls in an attempt to lobby for votes and raising partisan issues that some league members said threatened the ability of Orange County's 26 cities to work together as a unit.
"I just want to say it has gone too far, and I have a deep concern as to how it's going to jeopardize the ability of our elected officials to work together in our league," said Brea City Councilwoman Norma Hicks. "For outsiders to try to pit one council member against another council member is wrong." Brea supported Griset in Thursday night's balloting.
Other Factors at Work
Huntington Beach Councilwoman Ruth Finley, president of the Orange County League of Cities, said she has a "deep concern" about partisanship intruding into local government, but she said there were many other factors at work in the move to unseat Griset. "It's an issue that involves political, parochial and personal interests, perceptions of the (transportation) commission, perceptions of the way appointments are made.
"Any issue like this is a complexity of ambitions and of legitimate concerns," Finley said.
Though state Sen. Ed Royce (R-Anaheim), who has been viewed as a potential political target for Griset, contacted several council members during the past few weeks on Edgar's behalf, Orange County Republican Party Chairman Tom Fuentes has denied any party involvement in the transportation appointments.
But Democratic Party Chairman Bruce Sumner said Thursday, "I think it very definitely and obviously is a partisan question . . . . What they're trying to do is to have it both ways. They're not quite saying that the offices should have a party designation, but they clearly want what they bring in terms of endorsements and fund-raising ability."
Other city officials have viewed the controversy as a difference in transportation-funding priorities among Orange County cities.
Needs of Santa Ana
Many of those supporting Edgar claim that Griset has focused on the transportation needs of Santa Ana, a still-rapidly-growing urban center, at the expense of outlying cities striving to preserve a low-density life style.
"Our feeling is that 11 of 26 cities have been pretty much committed to urban development, i.e., higher density, high-rise development, and the remaining 15 cities are more rural in character and are more concerned with transporting heavy traffic volumes around their rural areas, rather than through them," said Wayne Sitzel, mayor of Villa Park, a tiny city adjacent to Orange composed mainly of high-priced, estate-style homes.
Among the cities that voted for Griset were Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Buena Park and Garden Grove, while Tustin, Orange, Yorba Linda and Westminster sided with Edgar. The Anaheim City Council voted 3 to 2 earlier this week for Edgar, after Councilman Llewellyn Overholt Jr., considered the swing vote, decided to support Edgar.