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Orange County

Board Chairman Sees Big Changes as O.C. Tightens Belt

January 16, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

The new chairman of the Board of Supervisors predicted sweeping changes in both the top management and the structure of county government as it grapples with what he described as the worst financial situation since the 1994 bankruptcy.

The county is bracing for state cutbacks that could slice as much as 8% of its general-fund operating budget. It is also dealing with a crisis at the Planning and Development Services Department, which has spent its reserves, announced layoffs and is planning to raise fees.

Supervisor Tom Wilson, speaking Wednesday in Laguna Woods in one of several talks leading up to his "State of the County" address this month, noted that several top county managers have taken early retirement. The board has held two closed-door meetings in the last week with County Executive Officer Michael Schumacher over his future with the county.

Some supervisors have complained that they felt blindsided by the problems at the planning department, and several county sources said Schumacher might retire.

"Stay tuned, because the board will be making some critical personnel decisions in the coming weeks," Wilson said. "The fundamental structure of the county continues to be a work in progress."

The county endured rancor in recent years as officials fought over plans to build a commercial airport at the closed El Toro Marine base. Last year, voters replaced the plan with zoning for a park.

Wilson pledged to reunite supervisors polarized by a 3-2 split over El Toro that spilled into nearly every other issue. The division kept Wilson, one of the board's most senior members, from assuming the chairmanship because of his minority status in the El Toro debate.

The fight harmed credibility and working relationships on both sides, he said. "During the height of the El Toro 'war,' the county became synonymous with marginal. It became a fashionable buzzword for mediocrity and bureaucracy."

The most pressing task before the county is state funding. On Wednesday, Wilson asked Schumacher to send a team of local financial experts to Sacramento to participate in talks with the Department of Finance on proposals to change in state funding.

Supervisor Chris Norby, who took office this month, said he's looking forward to working with Wilson on a more collaborative approach to government.

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