Supervisors Finding Power but No Glory on Cityhood Panel

Times Staff Writer

As urbanization overtakes Orange County, the once obscure Local Agency Formation Commission is playing an increasingly vital role in shaping the future character of the region. But to the supervisors who are supposed to serve on its panel, it is an anathema.

State law calls for three supervisors--one of whom is an alternate--to serve on the commission, the arbiter of boundaries for annexations and incorporations of new cities. But when the time came earlier this month for Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Harriett M. Wieder to make the appointments for 1988, there were no volunteers.

Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and Thomas F. Riley, who recently resigned from the panel, said they had served long enough. And Supervisors Gaddi H. Vasquez and Don R. Roth told Wieder the heavy workload was too much--that they would really rather work somewhere else. Wieder made it unanimous by choosing not to serve on the panel herself.

Over their objections, Wieder appointed the two newcomers, Vasquez and Roth. Because of the lack of interest, Wieder decided to leave the alternate's position vacant.

"Being the newest supervisor, I don't have much latitude to control my choices," Vasquez said later. "I know it is going to pose a problem for me."

The issue has become such a problem that the county's Legislative Planning Commission on Friday voted to ask for a new state law that would allow the supervisors to avoid LAFCO altogether by appointing representatives to sit in their place.

Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra) has agreed to introduce the bill, said Dennis Carpenter, the county's lobbyist in Sacramento.

It is, in part, a symptom of Orange County's growth that this little-known commission, which once dealt primarily with the jurisdictions of rural water districts, has become a political hot potato for the supervisors.

Forming a new city is often a divisive process, splitting neighbors in areas like Dana Point and Laguna Niguel, where the boundaries of their future towns are being hotly debated. In Saddleback Valley, where another incorporation is under way, community groups have proposed three different ways to locate the city limits.

As the last of the county's unclaimed turf is divided up, existing cities have also run into conflict in seeking to expand their borders, sometimes in search of lucrative property for their tax bases. Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Irvine, for example, are all interested in absorbing a chunk of the Irvine Coast that is scheduled for massive residential and commercial development by the Irvine Co., said Richard Turner, LAFCO executive director.

The amount of work for a commissioner has grown so significantly in the last year that the group now is considering two meetings a month instead of one.

'Time-Consuming Assignment'

"It is a chore, just because of the time," Vasquez said. "The basic task of representing this large district is very time-consuming."

In addition to their work on the Board of Supervisors, all board members also serve on outside districts and commissions. Roth, for example, has been assigned to the Orange County Transit District and the Orange County Sanitation Districts, in addition to LAFCO.

"I'm concerned about it," he said. "(The commission) appears to be a very time-consuming assignment."

While there could be some political reverberations caused by the controversial nature of the subjects the commission takes up, politicians and political consultants say that is not the primary problem with serving on the commission.

Contribution Law

Stanton, for example, who is considering entering the race to replace Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) in the 40th Congressional District, says the volatility of the Dana Point-Laguna Niguel incorporation played no role in his decision to resign from the commission.

Supervisors say they are more concerned about a state law regulating campaign contributions that says they cannot participate, as members of the commission, in votes affecting contributors who have donated more than $250 to their campaigns in the previous year. The limit does not apply to their votes on the Board of Supervisors.

Most of the supervisors and a variety of political observers have complained about the law, saying that $250 in 1988 is a minor contribution and that it is difficult to keep track of their contributors in relation to their votes. So they run the risk of being embarrassed by unknowingly voting in violation of the law.

Political consultant Harvey Englander said he would advise any of his candidates to avoid the commission.

'No Up Side'

"There is no upside. Why do it?" he said. "Just the fear of unknowingly voting on something (improper). . . . To me, you are really being penalized for serving the public."

Said Wieder: "It puts the elected official in an inequitable and untenable position. It is making people not rise to the responsibilities they have because it is a double-edged sword."

Stanton, who is up for reelection this year, said the state campaign law did not play any role in his decision to resign from the commission. But Vasquez, who was appointed as a supervisor by the governor and is facing his first election this year, said "there is a potential" for his position on the commission to inhibit his fund raising.

Developers, who are among the biggest contributors to supervisorial candidates, also appear frequently before LAFCO. They might not want to disqualify a supervisor from a vote on the commission by donating more than $250 to his campaign.

Vasquez said, however, that since he already has raised $262,000 in campaign contributions and so far faces no serious opposition, he does not think it is going to be a serious factor in his race.

Roth was elected to the Board of Supervisors only last year. But he raised more money for that race than any other candidate for supervisor in Orange County history: $659,418.

Roth said that even if the large number of contributions he has received forced him to frequently abstain on votes before the commission, he did not think it would be a serious problem.

There have been several attempts in the Legislature to change the contribution law or raise the dollar limit. Los Angeles County last year proposed the most recent change, but, like the others, it failed.

Jeanette Turvill, spokeswoman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which investigates alleged violations of the law, said the commission is rewriting its regulations to accommodate some of the concerns of local officials.

Turvill said the commission wants to apply the law only to votes that are obviously beneficial to developers and not to decisions that might affect them indirectly. That should give supervisors more freedom to vote as members of LAFCO. The new regulations are supposed to be adopted late this spring, she said.

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