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Oftelie's Growing Power Presents Target for Critics


ORANGE — Transportation chief Stan Oftelie has become Orange County's reluctant rich uncle, the man with the awesome means to bail local government out of bankruptcy.

For months, behind every county financial recovery scheme has stood someone coveting the bank account of the agency Oftelie runs, the Orange County Transportation Authority, swollen with $800 million in cash and hundreds of millions more in sales tax revenue that will flow to OCTA into the next century.

As guardian of such wealth, Oftelie, 47, a disarmingly modest and congenitally deferential man, has been turned into an unwilling power broker in the Byzantine political effort to revive the broke county.

"He's an incredibly powerful person in Orange County," said developer Buck Johns. "His power is inordinate and needs to be looked at."

For a lifelong county resident with a passion for coaching the youth soccer teams of his four sons, that anyone now would see him as "Stan Oftelie, power broker" is bewildering and not just a little ironic.

Friends and critics alike readily acknowledge his administrative skills and adroit handling of complex issues and egos in a county full of both. But the latter accuse Oftelie of trying to boldly expand his transportation empire by seeking to acquire John Wayne Airport and the future rights to develop a new commercial airport at the El Toro Marine base when it is closed.

"I think his critics are personalizing this to Oftelie, but I think Stan is a real shining star, which also causes a lot of jealousy," said Supervisor William G. Steiner, who serves as vice chairman of the OCTA.

Oftelie is a registered Democrat in a world of Republicans, a man who endorsed former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, who handled the funds of scores of investors in the county's portfolio, including OCTA's.

He remained loyal to Citron until disaster struck, circulating a letter just days before the county filed for bankruptcy in December encouraging other investors to "solidly support" the man whose reckless and unchecked financial strategy cost the county $1.7 billion in trading losses.

"Oh, yes, this is the power center of the universe," Oftelie joked, facetiously dismissing detractors who say that the bankruptcy aftermath has left him and his agency with far more influence, by dint of its wealth, than anyone ever intended.

But more than a few observers believe just that.

"Money is power in politics, and power is very enticing and Stan's got a lot of power," said Garden Grove City Councilman Mark Leyes.

Leyes and others view Oftelie as a crafty county insider who deftly exploited the political vacuum created by the bankruptcy, which, to a degree, has limited the authority of the Board of Supervisors.

They say he extracted a larger settlement for investors in Citron's failed pools than the county wanted to make and is holding out for the airport as the price for assisting with the county's bankruptcy debts.

A one-time newspaper reporter, Oftelie has spent the last 20 years in county government--eight years as chief aide to then-Supervisor Ralph B. Clark, and the rest as executive director of the county transportation commission, and then the OCTA after six transportation agencies were consolidated into the mega-agency in 1991.

"Mr. Oftelie has been convincing wherever he's worked at building a bigger empire," said Wayne King, a vocal opponent of spending tax dollars on OCTA's plan to build a light rail system in Orange County. "He's a a smooth guy and when [OCTA directors] ask him a question, he's got a smooth answer. It's not always the answer I want to hear, but he can certainly think on his feet."

It's a handy skill for someone who must please a board composed of four county supervisors, six city council members and one public member chosen by the other directors.

Oftelie's 1,600-person agency, with a $602-million annual budget, operates more than 500 buses and directs the county's master transportation plan to construct and expand freeways, streets and rail service. With its sheer size, and the 20-year, $3.1-billion Measure M sales tax approved by voters in 1990, the OCTA and its chief executive wield a lot of clout.

"My problem is that he and the OCTA board are not accountable to anyone," said Leyes. "The whole transportation authority is horribly unaccountable."

The very reasons OCTA was formed--to help ensure efficient and coordinated transportation for residential and commercial growth in Orange County--prompt the concern now about the role the man and his agency play in the bankruptcy recovery.

The issue that has made both OCTA and Oftelie the targets of tough scrutiny: the agency's overtures to buy John Wayne Airport. "It's the county's prized asset," said Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who is sponsoring a bill to let voters directly elect the OCTA directors to make it more accountable.

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