Santa Ana Mayor Daniel E. Griset, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Commission and one of the county’s most powerful transportation leaders, has been targeted by a group of councilmen from Orange County cities for ouster from his posts on the county’s two major transportation agencies, The Times has learned.
Griset, a member of both the Transportation Commission and Orange County Transit District boards, is expected to face a strong challenge for both seats next month by city officials disgruntled over his support for a central Orange County rail transit system and an unsuccessful ballot measure last year that would have imposed a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation.
The two seats have also become a behind-the-scenes battleground for Republican Party leaders seeking to prevent Griset, a Democrat, from using the powerful transportation posts as platforms to higher office, according to sources close to the replacement effort.
Griset, 40, is one of only two Orange County officials--along with Supervisor Ralph Clark--who sit on the boards of both of the county’s major transportation planning agencies. He is also one of the most powerful Democrats serving on the county’s nonpartisan governing agencies and is frequently discussed as a possible opponent to Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) or for a slot in the county’s state legislative delegation.
Griset serves as the League of Cities’ representative on both transportation panels, but a number of city officials have expressed increasing dissatisfaction with him in recent months. Primarily, they point to his support for Proposition A, the sales tax increase measure, his longstanding endorsement of rail transit and what they have said has been his push for transportation improvements in the Santa Ana area at the expense of other parts of the county.
“He thinks that Santa Ana is the center of the universe, and we all know that it’s the end of the universe. He doesn’t treat, in our view, all the cities in an evenhanded and fair manner,” said Yorba Linda Councilman Henry Wedaa, who is one of two city councilmen who attempted to unseat Griset last week.
Wedaa said city officials are concerned that Griset “is trying to build a power base, and I suspect he’s doing that so he can run for something else. We certainly don’t need ultra-liberal Democrats like Griset in our Legislature because we have enough of them already, and as far as I’m concerned, anything we can do to stop him, we will.”
Griset said he will be mailing out a “position paper” to city officials later this week making sure they understand his views on transportation, particularly his recent proposal to divert the interest from the county’s mass transit fund to local street and highway projects and his support for freeway-oriented commuter projects before any rail transit system is built.
“I intend to be nominated and get elected next month and to continue my service in the transportation area,” he said Monday. “I’m busy talking with city council members around the county to make sure they understand my efforts over the last four years, and that I’m seeking to continue representing them. Fourteen votes (a majority of Orange County’s 26 cities) is the winning number.”
The replacement attempt first surfaced last week when Wedaa and Huntington Beach City Councilman Don McAllister announced themselves as candidates to replace Griset, whose four-year terms as the League of Cities’ representative on the two transportation agencies are up for renewal.
The league’s city selection committee postponed a vote, however, when it was learned that a state law passed only a few years ago effectively requires Griset’s seat on the OCTC to be filled by someone from the 1st Supervisorial District of central Orange County--rendering both Wedaa and McAllister ineligible.
Initially, there was some talk of asking 1st District Supervisor Roger Stanton, a member of the OCTD board, to switch places with 2nd District Supervisor Harriett Wieder, a member of OCTC, McAllister said. Stanton would then become the 1st District representative on the OCTC, and McAllister would be eligible for election as the 2nd District representative.
Privately, a number of sources said Supervisor Bruce Nestande, a leading Republican Party strategist and opponent of rail transit, attempted to engineer the switch, although all three supervisors denied it.
Both Wieder and Stanton said they refused to cooperate because they did not want to become involved in city politics. “I think it would be absurd for a supervisor to inject himself into an intercity dispute by being used as a pawn, and I just totally rejected that outright,” Stanton explained.
Nestande said he is “too busy to get involved in such things . . . I personally feel that such a switch would make the board look bad.”
Last Thursday, members of the league’s city selection committee voted to postpone a decision on Griset’s post until next month because of the mix-up in defining who was allowed to run. Several city officials said they plan in the interim to find a candidate from the 1st District to challenge Griset. Mentioned so far as possible replacements are Fountain Valley Councilmen Ben Nielsen and George Scott and Tustin Councilman Richard Edgar.
Confident of Support
McAllister said he was confident he had the support of a majority of Orange County cities when he went to last week’s meeting, and he predicted there would be no trouble in transferring that support to another Griset challenger.
“I was one of the few council people who came out very strongly against Proposition A, and he wanted Proposition A very strongly. So there’s a very basic philosophical difference of bigger government and more taxes vs. less government and less taxes. I’m a conservative Republican,” McAllister said.
Privately, a number of sources said Orange County Republican Party Chairman Tom Fuentes and other party leaders were supporting the move to oust Griset because of concerns over his ability to run for higher office.
Fuentes said he was leaving the matter up to the League of Cities to decide. “I don’t think it’s my role to be involved one way or the other with the matter,” he said. But he added: “I would say that any Democrat elected to local office has a potential to be a Democrat candidate in partisan office, and that makes a responsibility for the Republican Party to monitor with keen interest local offices.
‘Other People’s Talk’
“Democrats have not been able to seek partisan office with success in Orange County, so they utilize local nonpartisan offices where they do not have to identify themselves and their liberal leanings to get elected, and then are able to use those local, nonpartisan offices as bases to raise money and to seek higher office.”
Griset said he has already told Dornan he does not plan to challenge him, and discussion of him as a candidate for other offices “is other people’s talk, not mine.”
“The references to party registration are pointless when you consider that we don’t have Republican potholes or Democratic potholes in Orange County,” he added. “This is a nonpartisan position that’s been, during my four years, conducted in strictest nonpartisan terms.”
Griset also rejected other council members’ complaints that he has favored projects for Santa Ana and central Orange County at the expense of the rest of the county.