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Ex-Tustin Official to Join O.C. Board : Government: Wilson appoints realtor Don Saltarelli, who pledges to finish Vasquez's term, not seek reelection.


SACRAMENTO — Filling a key leadership post as Orange County tries to climb out of bankruptcy, Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday named real estate broker and former Tustin Councilman Don Saltarelli to succeed departed County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez.

The appointment to the 3rd District seat ends weeks of speculation over who the governor would choose to replace Vasquez, who stepped down last month after enduring months of criticism for his handling of the financial debacle that engulfed the county.

Saltarelli, who owns Century 21 Saltarelli Realty in Tustin, has promised to serve as a caretaker and not seek election to the seat next year.

The appointment drew plaudits from developers and some business executives, but Saltarelli got harsh reviews from citizens groups that sprang up with vows to reform government after the county lost nearly $1.7 billion on risky investments last year and declared bankruptcy.

Wilson suggested that the appointment of Saltarelli, 54, would give the county a new leader with a long track record in both government and private business who could hit the turf running to help the bankruptcy recovery effort.

"Mr. Saltarelli is a disciplined, independent thinker who has demonstrated careful, prudent leadership in the public policy arena," Wilson said. "His extensive financial background will assist the board and the community as they embark on the road to recovery."

The appointment is also expected to tip the balance on the board toward Supervisors Marian Bergeson and William G. Steiner, both Wilson allies.

All of the supervisors, however, greeted Saltarelli's appointment warmly and suggested he will prove a crucial ally in the battle back from insolvency. "He is an extremely intelligent person, very fair, and he never makes a decision without the facts," Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton said.

A former Marine Corps officer, Saltarelli will serve out the final 15 months of Vasquez's term with the understanding that he will not then run as an incumbent for a full, four-year term. Wilson was widely believed to be setting that stipulation to avoid angering conservatives such as Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), who has announced his candidacy for the 3rd District seat but was unable to win the governor's backing for the appointment.

"To be honest with you, I am doing this against the advice of all my friends," Saltarelli said. "I guess I have a warped sense of public duty. . . . Orange County has been in a lot of trouble here and if I can help I want to."

Aside from the bankruptcy, Saltarelli and the rest of the board face a host of difficult decisions, among them whether to build a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and how best to reduce the size of county government.

Saltarelli said his first efforts will be to work toward restoring confidence in the county. He then wants to work toward a more entrepreneurial and improved government.

"I am as upset about government as everybody else," Saltarelli said. "We need changes. . . . We need a more confident feeling on the part of the people. That will lead to more economic activity, help property values and help people at large."

He also hopes to help thaw the county's frosty relationship with local cities and work to reverse Orange County's status as a donor of more tax dollars to the state than it gets back in services.

Saltarelli, who served 15 years on the Tustin council from 1972 to 1987, has worked in real estate since 1972 and for half a dozen years as a stockbroker. He also has run a part-time consulting business since 1988-89 and is now a resident of Orange.

In recent years, he has worked on land-use permit issues in Tustin for the Irvine Co., the development giant headed by Wilson benefactor and Newport Beach billionaire Donald Bren. Saltarelli's stint as a consultant for the firm has been no secret, and on Wednesday sparked some hard feelings among residents who believe the Irvine Co. holds too much sway in local and state government.

"This is a major mistake by Gov. Wilson," said Patrick Quaney, local issues coordinator of the Orange County chapter of United We Stand America. "This is an Irvine Co.-initiated appointment, in my opinion. It is an attempt to maintain the status quo."

Carole Walters, a member of the grass-roots, anti-tax group Committees of Correspondence, was also disappointed. "I was hoping that he would pick somebody that the people wanted," Walters said. "I think his pick was for political reasons. I think he did it for the Irvine Co. He didn't make a pick that was best for the people."

Others suggested that any boost Saltarelli got from the Irvine Co. shouldn't overshadow his attributes.

"I think having a relationship with the Irvine Co. certainly doesn't hurt," said Doy Henley, president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential Republican organization whose members are generally wealthy political contributors. "But I think he will serve all of the people. He'll do a good job."

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