When Gary Hausdorfer was elected to the San Juan Capistrano City Council more than a decade ago, it seemed that the vast rolling hills, pristine beaches and parochial city politics of South Orange County would last forever.
But sprawling development and traffic congestion ended that bucolic dream years ago.
So Hausdorfer, who is now mayor of the 28-year-old beach city, created the South Orange County Leadership Conference, a loose-knit group of elected and administrative officials who began meeting in January.
The informal group, made up of 21 public agencies south of the convergence of the the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways, will soon have a charter and bylaws and will be electing a board of directors, he said.
"We need a unified voice on some of the most important issues affecting South Orange County," Hausdorfer said Monday.
With a sixth city now being considered in the area and local population growth expected to double by 2010, city officials can no longer limit their dealings with each other to chamber of commerce mixers and occasional luncheons, said Hausdorfer, the organization's chairman.
The creation of the potentially influential body is another indication that officials in the fastest-growing area in the county are flexing their political muscles.
The organization is already poised to oppose a proposed airport, offshore drilling and a jail in South County, Hausdorfer said. The group recently sponsored a round-table discussion on immigration and undocumented workers. The discussion included officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Orange County Sheriff's Department and other county agencies.
Dana Point Councilman Mike Eggers said, that as a result of that discussion, his city passed an ordinance prohibiting job solicitation on the streets. The City Council also approved opening a telephone hot line to match workers with employers.
"This is a very unusual political entity," Hausdorfer said. "There doesn't seem to be anything like it."
Capistrano Unified School District Supt. Jerome Thornsley said the school district has often found it frustrating to meet separately with councils of the four cities in the district and develop meaningful policy.
"The potential for effective communication between agencies is very great and very much needed," Thornsley said. "This (organization) seems to do it."
Dana Point's Eggers agreed: "While we may not ever reach a unified consensus on a subject, we can at least benefit from the sessions."
During the organization's first meeting on Jan. 27 topics thrown out for discussion included child care, the environment, traffic congestion and air and water quality.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Hausdorfer said. "It is good government when there is interaction."
For years, Hausdorfer said, "there was limited contact at best" among members of the only three city councils then in existence in South Orange County, Hausdorfer said, and almost no contact with local school board members.
"We either kept in contact (about local issues) as an 'inform-as-needed-to-be-informed basis,' or not at all," he said.
But it increasingly seemed odd that there was no way for local officials to exchange ideas on a regular basis, especially when the area began to grow and add more political bodies.
In the last two years, Mission Viejo and Dana Point have joined San Clemente, Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano as cities. Laguna Niguel residents will vote on cityhood in November. And pro-cityhood residents in Laguna Hills and El Toro are considering another campaign next year.
"It just started to dawn on me," Hausdorfer said this week, "that there was no forum for us to just get together and talk about issues that affect us all in South Orange County."
The organization should complete the charter process when it meets in September, Hausdorfer said. At that time, he said, members would elect a board of directors.
He said that initially he did not want to formally establish the organization. "We have enough government. We really don't need any more."
Fee Dictated Change
But after asking members to pay a $500 annual fee, he learned that a charter was a necessity.
Attorneys for the Capistrano Unified School District expressed concern about handing public funds to a private organization that lacked legal status, Hausdorfer said.
"We just wanted to be careful," Thornsley said. So he wrote Hausdorfer and suggested that the legal documentation be drawn up.
Saddleback Community College District Chancellor Richard Sneed said growth in the area has made such a forum necessary.
"I didn't know what some of the cities were doing," Sneed said. "We all really and truly owe a debt to Mr. Hausdorfer for calling us all together."
POWER SHIFT--Major changes in the Orange County power structure are expected. Page 1.