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Orange County

Ballot Measure Means More to Politicos Than to Public

Government: Nine in 10 residents know nothing of the March election that may alter the way county supervisors are replaced. Republicans and Democrats sure know.

November 25, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voters in March will be asked to approve a government charter for Orange County with the sole purpose of filling vacancies on the Board of Supervisors by special election rather than appointment by the governor.

But residents, so far at least, have been slow to focus on the issue.

More than nine in 10 residents responding to a recent poll by Cal State Fullerton were unaware they would be voting on a county charter in March. When told about it by pollsters, eight in 10 were inclined to support it, based on the ability to elect supervisorial replacements, according to the survey.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who proposed the measure this year, purposely drafted the charter so that the only thing it would change is the way supervisors are chosen.

Spitzer's agenda was clear: He wants to be elected as the county's next Republican Assembly member next year. If successful, he would leave two years shy of his four-year county term. Under state law, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, would appoint his replacement.

The charter measure was embraced by the county Republican Party, whose leaders asked Spitzer to reconsider his Assembly bid if Davis were to choose his successor. Orange County hasn't had a Democratic supervisor in 15 years.

Spitzer said the issue goes beyond partisanship. Local voters should choose those who represent them, he said, not a governor more familiar with Sacramento than Santa Ana.

"A charter means local control," he said. "That's democracy at work."

Orange County is now California's largest "general law" county, meaning it takes its basic laws from existing state legislation and codes. By establishing a charter, the county gains more flexibility in deciding how government is run, such as filling supervisor vacancies and deciding how many supervisors the county should have.

Democratic Party officials said they'll argue that creating a charter is an unnecessary layer of government for one politician's ambition. Once established, the charter could be amended any time if enough voter signatures were collected to place something on the ballot.

The Los Angeles County charter, for example, took on thousands of amendments and was the size of a phone book before it was overhauled by voters two years ago.

The potential is always present for "mischief" by charter reformers to change government, said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Business Council, which sponsored the Cal State Fullerton poll. A charter also gives the Board of Supervisors the ability--on a majority vote--to ask voters for "all sort of inartful things," he said.

"So far, the issue hasn't even made a small dent in the public's consciousness," he said.

The possibility of "bizarre initiatives or other oddities" showing up on a ballot is no reason to deny voters a direct say over their government, Spitzer said.

"All politics, at the end of the day, has a potential for significant mischief," he said. "I trust that the citizens of Orange County can see through the mischief-making."

This is not the first time voters have been faced with the question of how to fill supervisorial vacancies. In an editorial from the California Weekly published in 1909 and discovered by Oftelie, critics suggested that holding local elections to fill vacancies would relieve the governor of "a nasty little job."

"The governor knows nothing about the village issues involved and almost always turns the selection over to the county committee of his party, which proceeds to do petty politics with it," the newspaper said.

Supervisor Chuck Smith was the lone board member who voted against placing Spitzer's measure on the ballot, saying it was too narrowly focused. Smith tried to add a provision that would have allowed the board to approve all future matters by majority vote, instead of major decisions needing approval by four of the five supervisors.

Smith's proposal was seen by some as a move to neutralize the board's two supervisors--Spitzer and Tom Wilson--who oppose the county's plans for an El Toro airport. Decisions such as hiring outside attorneys to handle lawsuits and approving leases require a four-fifths vote.

The other fear of airport foes is that Davis would appoint a Spitzer successor who favors a new airport.

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