In the middle of February, William J. Popejoy was the new man at the county Hall of Administration. Then as now, the former business executive was working for free, tapped by the Board of Supervisors as the county's chief executive officer. The post he occupies was redesigned to give the occupant more authority to help Orange County battle back from the bankruptcy it declared Dec. 6.
It has now come to light that soon after Popejoy began the job, the Wall Street firm J. P. Morgan Securities made an intriguing offer of a $2-billion bailout package to help the county on the road back to solvency. Popejoy turned it down. Morgan offered the plan again this month and Popejoy rejected it again, likening it to chasing a rainbow.
He might have been right, but it would have been good policy and good politics to tell the Board of Supervisors about Morgan's proposal. The supervisors said after the bankruptcy that they wanted a strong executive running the county--in contrast with the earlier, weaker post of chief administrative officer--but they did not say they wanted to abdicate responsibility.
They had drawn criticism for not overseeing the former county treasurer, Robert L. Citron, more carefully before his risky investments wound up losing $1.69 billion and plunging the county into bankruptcy. The supervisors need to know about major developments like Morgan's offer.
Popejoy has done a yeoman's job since taking office. He has helped engineer the county's plan for recovery, with its asset sales, privatization and the half-cent sales tax increase on the June 27 ballot. He has worked hard to sell the entire program in Orange County and Sacramento and to the county's creditors. His leadership in promoting and explaining a plan that spreads the pain of recovery has exceeded that of most of the supervisors.
Morgan's proposal to issue a letter of credit in exchange for motor vehicle license fees and sales taxes for the next 32 years well may have been too costly to the county. The county's bankruptcy lawyer said it made no sense and would have left the county "flat on its back and out of money." However, the campaign for the sales tax is taking place in a highly political atmosphere, where opponents are quick to seize any straw that can be construed as suggesting that not all options have been explored. Proposals should stand or fall on the merits, and the supervisors should be briefed up front.