It's No Civic Bed of Roses for Orange County Mayors : Life at the Top: Bad Pay, Bad Food and Bad Hours

Times Staff Writer

They labor in obscurity for measly wages, wading through mounds of paper work on subjects ranging from sewer rate hikes to general plan amendments.

They listen as angry constituents spew verbal venom. They endure countless rubber chicken dinners, ribbon cuttings, chamber of commerce mixers, pancake breakfasts and award banquets.

Their work can be interesting and controversial, but most of the time, it's downright boring.

They are the mayors of Orange County's 26 cities.

A few are often in the public eye, but most are low-profile politicians. And despite the negative aspects of mayoralty, most say they love standing atop the civic ladder of success.

"That's all part of the job," said Cypress Mayor John Kanel. "I enjoy going out to all the organized events, whether it be throwing out the first ball at Little League or the opening of a new business. . . ."

Brea Mayor Clarice Blamer said she doesn't mind enduring a rubber chicken dinner or two for the city. "You know, it doesn't really matter what the food's like. The important thing is that you're giving your city some visibility," she said.

For Norma Herzog, Costa Mesa's mayor, "there's a sense of personal accomplishment. I like to be able to solve problems, and there are a lot to be solved at this level. Also, it's opened up some wonderful doors that I never could have passed through in private life."

But not every mayor loves it.

Irvine's David Sills says that he'll put down his gavel forever after this term and that he already has cut down on public appearances. Sills says he wants to put civic issues behind him as he competes on the senior track circuit and trains for a future Boston Marathon.

"I'm not particularly concerned or interested in municipal budgets, streets, sewer systems and the police force," said Sills, who made an unsuccessful bid for the state Assembly in 1982. "I'm interested in statewide and national issues, especially the defense budget. Appropriations for buying cop cars is a little different scale of things than appropriations for buying airplanes and tanks."

Challenge Grew With City

Still, he said, serving on the Irvine City Council was a bigger challenge than most because of the major planning required for a city that grew from about 16,000 people before he was elected in 1976 to about 80,000 today.

"I'm not sure I'd be interested in being on a city council in a lot of places," he said. "In some cities, they have nothing more to do than vote on the annual budget and decide what color to paint the council chamber. Those are not my interests."

One might think mayors would be well known within their cities. In Orange County, with a few exceptions, they're not.

The apathy is reflected in election turnouts, which average 20%. For example, elections in April, 1984, drew a high of 28% in Los Alamitos and only 13.8% in La Habra.

Those numbers jumped last November, but only because city council elections were placed on the same ballot with the presidential election.

Most people don't know or simply can't recall their mayors' names, judging from an informal poll of Orange County residents. Nor do they care to find out.

Few Know the Mayor

"I'm not into politics," said Stacey Clark of Irvine.

"I've heard his name quite a bit recently but I can't think of it right now," said Theresa Whitney of Garden Grove.

Of 30 county residents surveyed, only two, Norma Porphir of Santa Ana and Raymond Colter of Costa Mesa, correctly identified their mayor.

Former Placentia Mayor Richard Buck, who was replaced in the annual council reorganization April 15 by George Ziegler, said he prefers to remain anonymous. "I'm never recognized, and it doesn't bother me one bit," he said.

Part of the reason for their anonymity is that they are mayors simply by virtue of a rotation or selection system among council members.

And while mayors in larger cities, especially on the East Coast, usually are full-timers who possess power independent of city councils, in Orange County they invariably have other careers and must compromise in working with their peers.

Other Jobs

Sills is an attorney. Roth is a Realtor. Blamer is a retired math and biology teacher. Kanel is a professional sports consultant whose current project is a semi-pro basketball league for players shorter than 6 feet, 2 inches.

The top full-timer at city hall is the city manager. He is the real boss, said Buck.

"I think the mayor is responsible for good parliamentary procedure in council meetings; for running a good meeting without a lot of distractions. The council wields the power for passing ordinances and we are the ones who hire the city manager and he reports to us," said Buck. "But he runs the city and day-to-day business is conducted by him."

Buck said the worst part of the job is the abuse hurled by those on the losing end of council decisions. His solution was to eliminate public comment time at council meetings. Instead, only those who mailed a letter to the city by the preceding Friday could address the council (the old policy has since been reinstated).

"There were a great number of people coming to the podium with nothing positive to say, giving the council members a very hard time over issues that had nothing to do with the business at hand," Buck said. "They were being completely unruly. It was very intimidating and you can't perform as a council member when you're being intimidated."

Kanel said he used to worry a lot shortly after his election in 1963, when Cypress was still largely farms and chicken ranches. "At the beginning, I had a lot of anxiety that my position or vote on something could have a severe financial impact on someone. I lost a lot of sleep," he said. "But then I realized that's always going to happen, no matter who's in office."

'Must Be Flexible'

Like Buck, Kanel said he deplores the occasional fire-breather at council meetings, but stressed that anyone running for local office had better be ready to take some flak. "You have to have a very tough skin. People who are bull-headed and set in their ways really shouldn't be in it in the first place. You've got to roll with the punches," he said.

Despite the occasional angry constituent, Kanel said polls have shown that people have more respect for local politicians than they do for those at the state and national level. "For one thing, we have a lot more contact than they do. Your congressman usually only shows up around election time," he said. "And there's more fun made of them by your Johnny Carsons, so naturally there's more disrespect."

Kanel said he thinks everyone who runs for city council is motivated by a desire to make political decisions. It's certainly not for the pay ($377.14 per month in Cypress). "You end up making about 15 cents an hour," he said.

Takes a Lot of Time

"It's an extremely time-consuming position, and I certainly can't do it on a part-time basis," said Sills, noting that he puts in at least 40 hours a week. "You talk to any mayor and I think they'll tell you it's become a full-time job. Every evening is three to five hours of work and there's the volume of phone calls during the day and the number of meetings to attend."

The mayors agreed that they would like to see more people at the sparsely attended meetings, but they also said that most of what goes on is pretty dull.

"I would much prefer to see a city that takes more interest in their city government. It would be nice to see more of the silent majority at the meetings," said Buck. "But most people will say, 'Why should I come down there? That's why I elected you.' "

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