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Turmoil at Top Still Racks O.C. a Year Later : Bankruptcy: Three supervisors vow to focus on recovery despite legal charges against colleagues. But some question their ability to do so.

December 17, 1995|MATT LAIT and SHELBY GRAD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — One is an appointed lame duck who says joining the Board of Supervisors was the worst decision of his life. Another is a newcomer still learning his way through the county bureaucracy. A third is in the autumn of her political career.

And the last two county supervisors are consumed with defending themselves against charges of misconduct for their role in the worst municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

So who is leading Orange County? It is a question many close to county government are asking.

"How long can the county continue to flounder before some elected officials step up to the plate?" asked Harvey Englander, a prominent political consultant. "There is really not much leadership there now. I don't think any of the five has stepped forward."

A year after bankruptcy was declared, county government remains in turmoil. Last week's civil accusations by the grand jury against board Chairman Roger R. Stanton, Supervisor William G. Steiner and Auditor-Controller Steven E. Lewis, and the criminal indictment against former budget Director Ronald S. Rubino have only added to confusion at the top of county government.

Although the county is making strides in its bankruptcy recovery, the political atmosphere at the Hall of Administration continues to be frantic.

As Steiner and Stanton mount a defense against the misconduct charges, pressure for them to resign grows. Meanwhile, they hurl insults at the district attorney who is prosecuting them. At the same time, the three other board members debate whether to pay the legal bills of their embattled colleagues.

"It's a big mess," admitted one county official.

All the while, the county's financial advisors are trying to assure nervous Wall Street investors and angry state legislators that Orange County is rebounding from its unprecedented loss of $1.64 billion, which forced it into insolvency Dec. 6, 1994.

This is not the first time supervisors have been the subject of legal scrutiny. In the 1970s and early 1980s, four supervisors were involved in a series of political corruption probes.

Former Supervisor Don R. Roth resigned from office in February 1993 and later pleaded guilty to charges that he received thousands of dollars in gifts from people doing business with the county.

But none of those legal battles occurred at a time of prolonged crisis like the one the county is now is experiencing.

According to last week's grand jury accusations against Steiner and Stanton, the two supervisors "willfully failed" to oversee the actions of former Treasurer Robert. L Citron, who has pleaded guilty to six felonies stemming from his financial misdeeds that led to the bankruptcy.

The two supervisors have vowed to fight the charges--which could force their removal from offices if upheld--in court. But both have announced they won't seek reelection. Stanton's term expires in December 1996, and Steiner's ends two years later.

Steiner concedes that the accusations against him and his colleague will distract them from their leadership roles.

"Face it, I'm going to be consumed by this, and Roger is too," Steiner said. "There is going to be greater pressure on the other three supervisors to run the county."

Stanton did not return calls to his office late last week. But his attorney, Wylie A. Aitken, said his client is more focused now on county business than he was before the charges were filed.

"Before, he was waiting for the shoe to drop," Aitken said. "Now he can get back to business."

Supervisor Donald J. Saltarelli, who was recently appointed to the board to complete the term of former Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who resigned in September, said the county's bankruptcy recovery will move forward despite the grand jury's actions.

"This is not going to be a major problem in terms of operating the county and continuing to move aggressively toward solving our problems," said Saltarelli, who acknowledges hating his new job and says he will not consider running for reelection.

"This might be a distraction," he added, "but the board is going to more forward."

Supervisor James Silva, a former city councilman who joined the board in January, also said he won't be distracted from his job. "I'm not going to be concentrating on the district attorney or the two supervisors," he said. "My focus is finding the solutions to the bankruptcy recovery."

Supervisor Marian Bergeson agreed.

"It should make no difference," said Bergeson, the former state senator who wanted to finish her political career serving the public closer to home. "The board does have to regain the confidence of the county residents and let them know that this board is in control."

But some outside the Board of Supervisors were more skeptical of the supervisors' ability to cut through the cloud of suspicion that has been hovering over them since the charges against Steiner and Stanton were announced.

Shirley Grindle, a longtime political reform activist, said Steinerand Stanton should step down from office for the good of the county.

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