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O.C. in Near-Civil War Over El Toro Authority : Local government: County finds its power ebbing as established and new cities alike assert their sovereignty.


SANTA ANA — When the Department of Defense made it clear that the many neighbors of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station would get a say in its conversion to civilian use, it set off a scramble for power in Orange County unlike anything seen in decades.

For the past three months, county government and the cities have explored without success dozens of allegiances, alliances, intergovernmental agencies and authorities in search of an acceptable mutual strategy for conversion.

And that failure to find consensus, local leaders say, has spotlighted some new political realities in Orange County, notably county government's greatly diminishing influence as the region's dominant political force, and the gangling emergence of both the new and established cities to fill that vacuum.

The development was never more evident than in the recent words of a man simply known as "the General" and a dean of local Orange County politics.

"I was naive," South County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said recently in a quiet voice, heavy with disappointment. "I thought people were going to buckle up and work together on this thing like we always have in Orange County."

The controversy over who should decide El Toro's future when it closes in 1997 comes as county government continues to see the erosion of its land and constituent bases with recent South County incorporations. At the same time, the conglomeration of new and established cities, searching for some sort of political identity, have begun to assert themselves as never before.

"This really is a fundamental issue about the government of Orange County in the future," said former Irvine Mayor Sally Ann Sheridan. "Who is it going to be governed by? A group of dinosaurs who make $80,000 a year each and do not have a mandate of the people. . .? Or a group of mayors who are putting in 50 to 60 hours a week of their own time into this and do have a constituency?"

Instead of following tradition and falling in line behind county officials, the cities located closest to the base have stunned the Board of Supervisors with their demands for greater authority over planning El Toro's conversion to civilian use.

"They assumed we would (fall in) without asking," Irvine Mayor Michael Ward said, adding that an issue of this magnitude has never before surfaced to test local political leadership. "This is a big deal."

Said another South County city official who declined to be identified: County officials "assumed more authority than they have anymore. There was insensitivity to our coming of age."

Never having faced opposition such as this in their own back yard, supervisors and county administrators have repeatedly stumbled in attempts to forge consensus, prompting widespread questions about their ability to lead.

While Riley has been frantically trying to hold things together, many involved in the negotiations are pointing to the noticeable absence of Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, whose district includes part of the South County area directly affected, and who is the designated vice chairman of the county's proposed El Toro Task Force.

"Gaddi is dying a thousand political deaths over this thing," one high-ranking county official said recently. "He needs the South County cities for his political future."

Vasquez was in Washington last week, attending unrelated political meetings and could not be reached for comment. And South County officials said they haven't heard from him since Aug. 17, when the supervisors broke off negotiations with the cities for the first time.

While both sides appeared to be closer to resuming talks late last week after a lengthy impasse, serious questions about the county's handling of the project continue to linger.

Despite challenges from a distrusting coalition of South County cities, the county claims it has the ultimate authority in future land-use decisions for the 4,700-acre base because all but 300 acres lay in an unincorporated area of the county.

Yet the Defense Department has mandated that the lead planning agency must come up with a consensus plan supported both by the county and the cities located near the base to qualify for needed federal assistance.

The cities' distrust is rooted in a belief among their residents that the county has already decided to convert the base to a commercial airport, a development plan that the South County cities will not support. The county says that no such predetermination has been made.

But attempts to quiet the opposition have failed miserably. Cities have rejected offers by the county to share in revenue from future base development. And little regard has been shown for the county's proposed planning task force, even though it was structured to give the South County cities adjacent to the base a greater voice and more influence than cities farther away.

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