After weeks of speculation that Orange County supervisors were about to fire their top executive, board members voted 3 to 2 Tuesday to retain County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier, a reversal of fortune attributed in part to last-minute appeals by the powerful Irvine Co.
The vote keeps intact the delicate system of checks-and-balances of power put in place in the wake of the county's 1994 fiscal collapse, a disaster that some attributed to supervisors having too much control, and not enough independent oversight. The board's vote reaffirmed the current structure giving Mittermeier greater say over county operations, even hirings and firings, which was a key factor in the county's ability to regain its pre-bankruptcy reputation, supporters say.
Irvine Co. Executive Vice Presi
dent Gary Hunt confirmed that he spoke with board members Monday and voiced support for keeping in place a strong county executive officer, a post that he and other business leaders had asked supervisors to create after the bankruptcy. Hunt, who said he never discussed whether Mittermeier should be fired, said he was acting on behalf of Orange County's business community.
"The structure was and is worthy of retention, not necessarily addressing the person that's there doing [the job]," Hunt said. He said he spoke with Supervisor Cynthia Coad at a prearranged lunch Monday, and responded to calls from Supervisors Tom Wilson and Todd Spitzer.
The vote came as a surprise to most county observers--even to Mittermeier, who had cleaned out her desk and didn't attend the board meeting. Displeasure over the scope of her authority and management style peaked last week, after at least two years of constant criticism from board members.
In her only comment, Mittermeier said the board vote reminded her of a story she once heard about a besieged basketball coach who ended up in the hospital suffering from stress.
"While he was recuperating, the coach received a letter from the general manager saying, 'On a vote of three to two, we wish you a speedy recovery,' " Mittermeier said in a prepared statement. She added that she was looking forward to getting back to work: "I appreciate the opportunity to continue to address the many issues and challenges facing this county."
Mittermeier earns $160,000 a year and has one year left on her contract. If fired, she would have received a severance package worth $170,000, officials said.
In the end, it was Mittermeier's track record that swayed the board majority, Wilson said. Her overall handling of the county and her demonstrated leadership abilities have played a major role in the county's success, he said.
"The county's stability is important," Wilson said. "We need to demonstrate that the leadership is in place and Mittermeier, though she's had her shortcomings, has been key to that."
The board has held two other closed-door sessions about her future in the past two years, but Tuesday marked the first time an actual vote on firing her was taken.
Heading into Tuesday's meeting, it did not look good for Mittermeier. All indications pointed to a board prepared to fire her, down to the agenda item to hire an interim CEO and launch a nationwide search for a replacement.
During the supervisors' closed-door discussion that preceded the vote, board members discussed recent decisions that Mittermeier has made that frustrated some board members. But the majority decided those actions were outweighed by her handling of the bankruptcy and the renewed confidence Wall Street has in the county's finances and management restructuring since the 1994 bankruptcy.
In an unlikely alliance, board Chairman Charles V. Smith and Spitzer--often on opposite sides of board decisions--this time agreed in voting to fire Mittermeier. They were outvoted by Supervisor Jim Silva, Coad and Wilson.
To some, the vote was as much about planning a proposed El Toro airport as it was about Mittermeier's fate.
As part of their closed-door deliberations, supervisors mulled the structure of the El Toro planning process. They considered seizing oversight of the controversial project from Mittermeier. Ultimately, they rejected that idea.
Firing Mittermeier would make her "a scapegoat" for Measure F, the anti-airport initiative that was overwhelming approved by Orange County voters, said Wilson, who is part of the board minority that opposes an El Toro airport.
He said he saw her prospective departure as a veiled attempt to resurrect a failing airport planning team by hiring a new manager.
"Firing Jan Mittermeier would have only paved the way for the board majority to create a new El Toro process that would be worse for South County," he said. "In fact, provisions in her current contract prohibit the county from establishing an alternate authority for airport planning."