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California and the West

O.C. Board Seeks to Reclaim Some Power From CEO


SANTA ANA — In a move that could prompt Jan Mittermeier to quit as Orange County's chief executive, the Board of Supervisors made public Wednesday its contract offer to her--one that would reduce her authority and give her a new title.

Supervisor William G. Steiner, designated by the board to negotiate with Mittermeier, said he was making the proposed contract public because the two sides could not come to agreement after a month of talks and because the situation has become "too political."

"I just want to get this out there and let the chips fall where they may," he said.

The proposal would restore some of the board's former power in approving top-level hires, change Mittermeier's title to executive director and increase her salary by $12,000, to $160,000 a year, starting in July.

Mittermeier declined to comment on the offer. The board is expected to vote Tuesday on what could be its final offer to her, regardless of whether she decides by then to agree to the terms.

The 58-year-old executive has battled to protect the powers ceded to her by the board three years ago as the county worked to recover from its 1994 bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Mittermeier has won praise from Wall Street and elsewhere for her help in restructuring the county's debt and streamlining its bureaucracy. Admirers say she was instrumental in bringing the county out of bankruptcy only 18 months after it filed for protection from creditors.

But she has also been accused in the last year of retaining too much power and failing to keep all board members informed of policy decisions. Two supervisors have complained that she did not give them information on controversial county issues, such as the planned El Toro airport.

Some candidates for seats on the board are calling for limits on Mittermeier's authority. The controversy has prompted a surge of passionate letters to local newspapers, mainly from those who worry that she is not accountable to the board for some major decisions in the county.

Steiner, who supports Mittermeier, said he attempted to create a compromise to satisfy some of her critics while still allowing her enough power to do the job effectively.

"This is not a referendum on Jan Mittermeier, nor is it a referendum on the El Toro airport," he said in a letter to his colleagues. "It is an issue of good government based on good business principles that have led us out of an unprecedented financial crisis."

The proposed contract would allow the supervisors to reject a candidate for a top department position with a four-fifths vote. Currently, Mittermeier hires and fires department heads without consulting the board. She has said she would not support a change of duties requiring her to consult with supervisors on hirings.

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