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Warren Dorn, 87; 16-Year County Supervisor

January 11, 2006|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Warren Dorn, who was chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in an era when the members exercised virtually unchallenged control and were known as the "five little kings," died Tuesday. He was 87.

Dorn, who served on the board from 1956 to 1972 and was chairman in 1963 and 1964, died of pneumonia at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. He had lived in nearby Morro Bay since 1976.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who gained Dorn's 5th District seat in 1980, announced Dorn's death at Tuesday's board meeting. He later praised Dorn in a statement as "a dedicated public servant and political giant who was a champion for clean air ... [and] a tireless advocate for families -- working to protect young people from pornography and drug and alcohol abuse."

Dorn is remembered best for his efforts to combat air pollution. Fighting smog, he told The Times in 1972, "is my main concern in public life, being an asthmatic."

He chaired the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District for eight years during his board tenure and helped merge it into what eventually became the multi-county South Coast Air Quality Management District. By the time Dorn left office, he was able to claim credit for more than 160 laws controlling air pollution from stationary sources, giving the county what he called "the most rigid controls in the world."

The supervisor also played a key role in creating the Los Angeles County Music Center, advocating its location atop Bunker Hill and its public-private funding arrangement.

Aghast that other supervisors planned to build a five-story parking garage on the site, Dorn suggested putting the performing arts complex there instead.

"To me, that's where it belonged, like a showplace. You can see it flying in," he told The Times at the 25th anniversary of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the center's largest hall, in 1989. "It's such a wonderful thing, to have this and not a five-story parking garage. Wouldn't that have been awful?"

Dorn was convinced that a public-private funding arrangement was viable, and in the late 1950s he persuaded fellow supervisors to donate the land and fund permanent maintenance of the buildings once they were erected.

For added persuasion, Dorn appointed Walt Disney -- namesake of the newest Music Center building, Walt Disney Concert Hall -- to study and help promote the feasibility of the joint operating plan. Dorothy Chandler, for whom the Pavilion is named, and her Amazing Blue Ribbon 400 raised the private funds.

As for the planned parking structure displaced by the complex, Dorn helped get that built under the mall separating the Hall of Administration and County Courthouse.

During his long tenure on the board, he played a key role in developing airports, the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, the Sports Arena in Exposition Park and Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar.

Dorn, the son of a forest ranger, had a longtime interest in providing recreation facilities. It was the conservative Republican Dorn whom then-Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, a Democrat, called on for help when the Board of Supervisors rejected his massive State Water Project.

Dorn won board approval of Brown's project -- by persuading the governor to incorporate recreational facilities in the project that would move water south from the Feather River.

In 1986, Brown spoke at the dedication of the Warren M. Dorn Recreation Complex at Castaic Lake. The county board named the facility for the former supervisor, Antonovich said at the time, because of his "contributions to the development of recreation areas along the Feather River Project."

Dorn won his first supervisor's race in 1956, less than a year after having been elected mayor of Pasadena. His 16-year tenure on the board was during the time -- before the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 -- when the board largely controlled county spending and the property tax increases required to fund it.

The board made major decisions affecting the county's 7 million residents but was rarely troubled by an apathetic citizenry that found little in the way of a public forum at the Hall of Administration. Once elected, an incumbent supervisor could rarely be ousted -- prompting the comparison to each district as a monarchy.

Dorn, whose Pasadena-based district fretted over air pollution trapped by the San Gabriel Mountains, pledged to "move vigorously to place smog eradication on a crash program basis."

Ironically, it was that issue that blew Dorn off the Los Angeles County political stage in 1972, when he lost his reelection bid to former television news anchorman Baxter Ward. A frequent gadfly, Ward denounced the board as a "club" and accused Dorn of failing to prod the Air Pollution Control District into setting stricter standards to reduce emissions.

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