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Some Dine Too Well at the Public Trough : Officials Should Trade Filet Mignons for Poor Boys

April 18, 1993

Sometimes it seems as if Orange County public officials at almost every level have gone slap-happy over gifts, freebies and lavish expense accounts.

With the county's hard-won new emphasis on campaign spending limits and its focus on ethical guidelines for public officials and employees, perhaps we are headed for a more enlightened era after enduring too many years of the fallout from a boom-town mentality. But apparently, a new day will not dawn fully before we have at least a few more embarrassing revelations of extravagances on the public's tab.

Last week, the spotlight turned to the muckety-mucks in Orange County transportation circles. Their records showed that last year alone, eight of the highest ranking of them spent more than $18,000 in taxpayer money on staff meetings in restaurants and on entertaining business and government leaders. The news was met quickly with a pledge by Gary L. Hausdorfer, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, to order a review of employee expense policies.

But why does the reform always come after the revelation, not before as a matter of common sense or budgetary review? Not to single out only the transportation people, isn't it possible for public officials to do business in an office without puttin' on the Ritz? How about more of new Supervisor William G. Steiner's brown-bag lunches? Here's a revolutionary idea--sandwich that business meeting in between mealtimes, during normal business hours.

That hasn't been the pattern. In Orange County these past few years, we have had county planning commissioners who conducted land-use planning from the vantage point of developers' golf carts, leaving the rest of us with some of California's worst traffic congestion.

We have had former Supervisor Don R. Roth, now ushered out of office by a plea-bargaining deal with prosecutors who looked into his lavish receipt of gifts. He conducted himself in public office with all the restraint of a guest at a charity event who lingers too long at the hors d'oeuvres table.

And in reality, none of this has been isolated. Orange County's larger political culture has fostered the greasing of the wheel. Anaheim, the city that gave us Roth, for years has had crucial development decisions fueled with generous campaign contributions. It's the way things got done and everybody understood the rules. It was the developers who finally cried foul, having dug so deep that it hurt the bottom line. At last, the city passed a campaign finance reform ordinance early this year.

Nor is the culture of largess and excess limited only to the big fish in the big towns. One enduring lesson of the recent scandal at the Santa Margarita Water District will be that small agencies most people never have heard of just as easily are given over to self-indulgence. Two managers of the district, now suspended pending investigations, enjoyed lavish entertainment from people with business before them and went on to recommend favorably on their contracts. Running through it all is this creed that the public's business is best facilitated with wine, atmosphere, and haute cuisine.

Certainly, officials from the Orange Transportation Authority such as chief financial officer James A. Kenan, who spent $6,074.09 on meals last year, and Transportation Corridor Agencies Executive Director William Woollett, who collected $2,786.40 in meal reimbursements, were conducting business. But in a time of mounting public awareness of ethics in government, and of tighter fiscal constraints, isn't it time somebody pointed these folks in the direction of a good deli?

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