Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to create a post to oversee El Toro planning, a move that effectively terminates their chief executive officer's contract and might force them to fill two of their most important government jobs at once.
County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier warned supervisors two weeks ago that their intent to separate El Toro planning and place it under their direct control would violate her contract, forcing her to leave the job she's held since 1995.
Supervisors nonetheless unanimously approved the new office Tuesday, with Supervisor Tom Wilson absent. They also selected an interim El Toro manager who sometimes clashed with Mittermeier before he left the county's employ after more than a decade.
The move could be the final breach in an increasingly strained relationship between supervisors and Mittermeier, faulted for what a majority of the five-member board called a secretive and autocratic management style. However, three attempts to fire her in the past two years have failed.
Mittermeier, who has been away from work for three weeks caring for her ailing mother, did not attend Tuesday's meeting and didn't return a call to her home. However, her attorney, Wylie Aitken, said he hoped her employment status will be resolved in the next 30 days.
Unless supervisors change their minds, Aitken said, the board's action to separate El Toro violates Mittermeier's contract--effectively terminating her. That means she is eligible for a $170,000 severance package, he said. She earns $160,000 a year.
"We need to sit down and see where we're at [and] find a mutually satisfactory way to end this relationship," Aitken said.
Several supervisors said Tuesday that they still hope Mittermeier will stay but acknowledged the next step is up to her. They added that the future of El Toro is too important for Mittermeier to handle while juggling other county duties.
"It would really be sad if she left the county," said Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, Mittermeier's most vocal defender who nonetheless voted to give the board direct control over El Toro. "I spoke to her recently and reiterated to her that I do believe we still need her expertise."
Supervisors on Tuesday named former John Wayne Airport director O.B. Schooley to take over El Toro planning duties on an interim basis, effective July 14. The board will conduct a nationwide search for a permanent manager.
Mittermeier critic Supervisor Todd Spitzer said creation of the new office amounts to a fresh start for an impartial evaluation of both an airport at El Toro and an alternative plan that doesn't include an airport.
"We've made more progress with the board working together in the last 30 days than county staff made in the last two years," Spitzer said. "Without Jan's interference, the board has never operated more efficiently or more cohesively."
Schooley's style will be much more open and interactive with board members, Spitzer and others said Tuesday. Whether he'll change the county's single-minded approach toward planning an airport at El Toro is doubtful, however, since voters mandated airport planning in 1994--a vote that hasn't been overturned despite the passage in March of an anti-airport measure.
But county officials said Schooley doesn't have the same rigidity, penchant for secrecy and inflexibility that caused critics to accuse Mittermeier of running a "Kremlin"-style government.
"He's open, forthright and he bends over backward to disclose all of the information," Spitzer said of Schooley. "It's exactly that style of openness [that is] why Jan wanted him to leave the county, and exactly why we want him back."
Airport boosters, meanwhile, called Schooley's appointment and the restructuring of El Toro planning encouraging. Much of El Toro planning has been handled by county staff working at John Wayne Airport.
Selecting Schooley, Mittermeier's one-time assistant at John Wayne, to take over El Toro planning was considered another slap at the CEO. Some believe Schooley was pressured to leave the airport manager's job in 1998 after he clashed with Mittermeier. He also reportedly chafed under a provision in Mittermeier's contract allowing her to return to her old job if she left the CEO's office.
Schooley, head of his own aviation consulting firm, SI Partners in Santa Ana, didn't return calls seeking comment Tuesday. He was finance manager at the airport from 1987 to 1991, when he became assistant airport manager under Mittermeier.
After leaving the county, he worked briefly for P&D Aviation, the county's airport planning consultant for El Toro, before opening his own consulting firm.
Schooley's new title will be interim executive director of the El Toro Local Redevelopment Agency.
His job will last no more than 100 days, though he can apply for the permanent post.
County employees had mixed reactions Tuesday to Schooley's appointment, praising him for working well with others but doubtful that he will have much authority to make significant changes in El Toro planning as long as Mittermeier remains CEO.
Spitzer said Mittermeier already has been punitive toward supervisors in the two weeks since voting to take El Toro from her. He accused her of "taunting" board members in the past two weeks by being absent from weekly briefings and not returning phone calls. However, Coad said Tuesday that she spoke with Mittermeier recently by phone.
Aitken said Mittermeier is caring for her mother but intends to keep doing her job.
"Jan will continue to perform her services for the county," he said. "Obviously, it's going to be day to day. Jan's focus right now is on her mother's health."
Recreation and child-care programs at El Toro get another two months to pursue a long-term operating agreement. B4