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Vote's Outcome Anyone's Guess Up to Very End

March 30, 1995|RENE LYNCH and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Minutes before county supervisors gathered for a crucial vote on a half-cent sales tax increase that had become the linchpin of Orange County's bankruptcy recovery plan, the county's chief executive saw fragile board support for the measure beginning to crumble.

"It's not looking good," Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy admitted as he made his way into Supervisor Jim Silva's board office for a last-ditch lobbying effort just before the 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Three of the five supervisors--Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, Marian Bergeson and William G. Steiner--had all but signed up for Popejoy's controversial recovery plan. But board newcomer Silva and Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, a close Silva ally, were eyed as wielding the critical swing votes that could sink the politically unpopular measure.

Despite a full-court press by Popejoy and other high-profile county officials, including Sheriff Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, the outcome of the vote was anyone's guess and was headed for a nail-biting finish.

"It was a real cliffhanger. I was on the edge," Steiner said afterward. "I think the pressure was really on Stanton and Silva."

When a long line of citizens finished delivering a litany of political threats and appeals--both for and against the tax--at 1:15 Wednesday morning, Silva and Stanton shocked bleary-eyed onlookers by joining the majority, albeit grudgingly, in support of a June 27 election to let voters decide the tax hike's fate.

On Wednesday, those who went to bed before the early morning vote took place were surprised by the turn of events.

"I don't think anyone knew what was really going to happen. But I don't think anyone expected a unanimous decision," said an aide to one supervisor.

"I did not think at the beginning of the meeting it would pass," Popejoy said afterward. "It was a very pleasant surprise."

The ballot initiative, called Measure R, would raise the county's sales tax from 7.75% to 8.25% for 10 years, if approved by a majority of those voting in the special election.

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Popejoy proposed the sales tax increase--normally a dirty word in fiscally conservative Orange County--as part of an intricate plan to help bail the county out of bankruptcy, which it filed Dec. 6 after risky investments by former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron drained the county's investment pool of $1.7 billion.

The tax would raise $130 million annually and enable the county to borrow roughly $700 million it needs to avoid defaulting on $1 billion in county bonds coming due this summer, and to preserve essential county services and assure payments to the schools and cities with money in the county's ill-fated investment pool.

Both Silva and Stanton admitted that the grueling public comments session, which involved more than 65 speakers, helped solidify their decisions. Stanton also admitted to a last-minute change of heart.

"I came down here to vote no," Stanton said. "But I'm not going to leave my colleagues out to dry."

On Wednesday, county insiders said intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts were also key to paving the way for the affirmative vote.

There was speculation earlier this week that Silva or Stanton would refuse to lend their support, possibly causing others to drop off too. By late Tuesday afternoon, county officials were dejected, clearly expecting the board to reject the sales tax increase.

Rumors were also swirling that Popejoy was threatening to quit if the board did not back the effort. But Popejoy denied it ever came to that.

The pace of lobbying reached a fevered pitch Tuesday: Faxes poured in to supervisors from around the county; the governor's office called Steiner, while Silva held his own telephone consultation with state Treasurer Matt Fong; county staff researched and discounted far-fetched alternatives to the tax, and sought further studies of any options that had a shot; an anti-tax group staged a Tuesday night protest, and the county's top brass made personal pleas for support.

Supervisors bolted into each other's offices unannounced to wrangle among themselves.

"There's tremendous tension up here," Steiner said before the meeting from the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration, where supervisors conduct their business.

Board members were clearly feeling the pressure from anti-taxers and those who see the tax proposal as the only escape from a financial meltdown.

"We're gonna get crucified," Steiner said shortly before the meeting. "It's the ultimate in getting whipsawed."

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Throughout the night, members of the audience tried to handicap the vote with predictions changing almost as frequently as the speakers.

There was an almost audible gulp when Bill Mello, a Huntington Beach resident and a member of an anti-tax group, challenged Silva's integrity as a tax fighter: "Don't take the coward's way out! Don't be a Benedict Arnold!"

"That was a big moment," said one county official, who feared the searing comments might seal the proposal's defeat.

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