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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

A Cost-Effective Deal for Lobbyist

July 19, 1998

It's not just private companies that hire lobbyists to sway legislators in Sacramento and Washington. Other governments sign them up as well, believing that government can be so complex it's hard to figure out whose hand is on the levers of power.

This month officials of Orange County's toll roads authority, the Transportation Corridor Agencies, decided to give their longtime Washington lobbyist, James McConnell, a one-year, $300,000 contract, rather than the originally proposed three-year contract for $800,000.

The single year is a good idea. Periodic reviews are important to make sure that agencies are getting what they pay for.

That's not a knock on McConnell, who has been a lobbyist for the toll roads for a decade and for Orange County and the Orange County Transportation Authority for nearly 20 years. A former congressional staffer and a lawyer, McConnell knows his way around Washington and has brought in funding for important county projects over the years.

One of his main jobs has been keeping tabs on the Santa Ana River flood control project. Orange County's representatives in Congress also have monitored the project to one degree or another, but county government has felt it needs McConnell and his staff as well.

McConnell has done a good job in working with the congressional delegation to secure federal commitments of more than $1 billion for the flood control project. He's also successfully scouted for available funds for transportation projects, including the Santa Ana Freeway widening.

The transportation authority pays McConnell $123,000 a year and the county adds another $232,000. That's in addition to the Transportation Corridor Agencies' just-approved $300,000. It's a lot of money, and such sums deserve scrutiny to be sure they're being used effectively.

Still, Orange County competes with other counties in California and across the country for federal funds. Los Angeles County just hired a Washington lobbying firm for around $400,000 per year. If members of Congress can't help Orange County get its fair share of funding, a Washington representative can be worthwhile. But the lobbyist has to prove periodically that he really is cost effective.

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