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Partisanship Claimed as Griset Ouster Nears Vote

Times Staff Writer

A movement to oust Santa Ana Mayor Daniel Griset from Orange County’s two largest transportation agencies has moved into the political arena, and several city council members in the county complained Wednesday that the battle is threatening the traditionally nonpartisan status of local government.

Griset, a Democrat, appeared within just a few votes of losing his seats on the Orange County Transit District and the county’s Transportation Commission to Tustin Councilman Richard Edgar, a Republican, during balloting scheduled for tonight by the Orange County League of Cities. Griset, considered one of the county’s most powerful transportation officials, has held both posts since 1981.

Though the transit posts are nonpartisan positions--as are all local government offices, under state law--a number of city council members said this week that the flood of letters and phone calls directed at them on the issue over the past several weeks has taken on a distinctly partisan tone.

Moreover, at least one state legislator--Republican state Sen. Edward R. Royce of Anaheim--has phoned council members on Edgar’s behalf in what critics said was an improper intrusion of state government into local government affairs.

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Though Republican Party leaders say they have no interest in the post, Griset and a number of city council members throughout the county say it is clear that the party has targeted Griset, one of the county’s most powerful Democrats, for ouster from the transportation posts to prevent him from running for higher office. “Kill the key Democrat seems to be the watchword in this thing,” Griset said.

Now, a number of Republican council members, including Costa Mesa Mayor Norma Hertzog and San Clemente Mayor Robert Limberg, are complaining about the apparent partisanship that has entered the race.

Hertzog circulated a letter to council members throughout the county this week urging them to concentrate on transportation issues in their selection for the posts, though she endorsed neither candidate. “I would hope that we would not be pressured into a decision based on anything other than effective representation on transportation,” she said. “If this effort to interfere with the city selection process is effective this time, we can expect interference on many other issues as well.”

Said Limberg: “It’s gone beyond the realm of selecting just the best person. It is now partisan politics, and most of us are very unhappy with that . . . . People I’m talking to are making it very open. It’s clearly an effort by the Republicans to grind down any non-Republican representation in any of our nonpartisan slots. And it’s really not healthy for the system.”

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Traditional System

Brea Councilwoman Norma Hicks said the increased partisanship threatens local government’s traditional way of doing business, which is based on issues, rather than on political affiliations.

“The one thing we’ve always said is we want home rule. We want to take care of our own business, and we don’t want interference from the federal and state government. Yet we are talking now about an appointment made by our league that has gotten so partisan that we now have legislators calling to apply pressure to local government officials. I think that is completely uncalled for,” she said.

“What have we done to our own county, that we have reached from local government to state government and asked that those pressures be put on?” she said.

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Most of Griset’s opponents, including Edgar, say their campaign has nothing to do with party affiliations. Instead, they are criticizing Griset’s historic support for mass transit, including a proposed light rail system in central Orange County, when they say most council members favor spending more money on road and highway improvements.

High Priority

Griset says he places highest priority on maintenance and improvement of the county’s arterial highway system and new freeway construction--along with commuter lane transit projects on the freeways--before any rail transit system is built.

In a “Report on a Record of Service” distributed to council members during the past few weeks, Griset noted that Orange County’s projected state and federal allocations for transportation have increased 580% since 1984, to $497 million, which he attributed partly to his role in state and federal leadership positions.

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Royce, who has talked to several city council members urging a vote for Edgar, including Fullerton council members Linda LeQuire and Richard Ackerman, said he wants to ensure that the transportation money legislators are working for in Sacramento is spent properly at home.

“I think the issue of what we’re going to do about the transportation needs of Orange County affects all of us in government. And when we’re working major pieces of legislation here in Sacramento to undo some of the major problems caused in Orange County by the (former Gov. Edmund G.) Brown administration . . . I think it’s proper that we have that same commitment on the part of all of us. I think it’s proper that we have some agreement in terms of the direction we’re going to take.”

Royce said Griset’s party affiliation had nothing to do with his support for Edgar.

No Contacts

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Orange County Republican Party Chairman Tom Fuentes said he was not aware of any contacts made by Republican legislators on Edgar’s behalf. “There has been no coordinated or intended effort on the part of the Republican Party in Orange County at all on this matter,” Fuentes added.

Edgar agreed, citing concerns on the part of many council members that Griset has represented the interests of Santa Ana and other highly urbanized cities on the transportation panels at the expense of the rest of the county.

“I believe that I’ll succeed, and my belief is based on the fact the people of Orange County trust me,” he said.

Partisan politics and the controversy over mass transit are only part of the complicated web of issues surrounding the transportation appointment, however. Several council members privately cited sensitive negotiations pending between cities on unrelated issues--such as annexations and road extensions--that could affect tonight’s vote.

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Moreover, several sources said Yorba Linda Councilman Henry Wedaa, who has been a leader in the drive to unseat Griset, is still smarting from a successful move that Griset supported last month to unseat him from his long-held post on the executive committee of the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

The outcome of tonight’s balloting was still uncertain by late Wednesday. The appointment, made by the League of Cities’ city selection committee, a committee composed of mayors from Orange County’s 26 cities, requires votes from at least 14 cities.

Fullerton Councilman Ackerman, one of Edgar’s key supporters, said Wednesday he was counting 15 cities for Edgar and 11 for Griset. Griset, meanwhile, said he had commitments from 11 cities, while Edgar had only 10. Still officially undecided were Newport Beach, Irvine, Placentia, Seal Beach and San Clemente, he said.


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