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Supervisors Endorse Merger of County Agencies : Legislation: Unification of the transit district and the Transportation Commission is meant to end duplication of effort.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County supervisors Friday endorsed a controversial plan to merge the county’s two major transportation agencies, apparently clearing the way for easy passage of the plan by the state Legislature.

The plan, which has been more than a year in the making, would merge the Orange County Transportation Commission with the Orange County Transit District. The result, backers say, will be a streamlined, accountable transportation agency overseen by a single board and an all-encompassing Orange County Transportation Authority.

Under the current arrangement, the Transportation Commission is primarily a planning body, while the Transit District primarily runs the county’s bus system. Although their functions are related, the two agencies have separate staffs and respond to different boards of directors.

“This will result in enormous efficiencies in terms of staff,” said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, the chief proponent of consolidation on the Board of Supervisors. “We have a need for coordination and planning on transportation. It’s totally inane that we have all this duplication of effort.”

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The supervisors’ vote follows unanimous endorsement of the proposal Thursday night by the Orange County chapter of the California League of Cities. The chapter includes representatives from all 29 cities in the county. With both the cities and the county finally in agreement on an issue that has long divided them, all parties agreed that a bill to merge the two agencies will likely win the backing of the Legislature and the governor.

If approved, the new authority would oversee transportation expenditures in the county that amounted to nearly $300 million last year.

Although the supervisors unanimously approved the proposal Friday, in the past there has been strong resistance from many quarters. The supervisors themselves were once deeply skeptical of the proposal, when it involved a broader merger of city and county government operations under a so-called council of governments. That idea is still under debate, but the transportation issue represented a narrower area of common ground between the county and the cities.

Even the transportation measure has been contentious, however, and state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), the author of the merger bill, conceded that there will be trying times ahead as the two organizations merge into one.

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Some positions at each of the agencies likely will be cut or redefined in order to reduce duplicated efforts, and some officials could lose their jobs, though most of the trimming will probably take place through attrition, Bergeson said.

“Any time you consolidate, there’s always a fear, and this transition may be difficult,” she said. “But we’re after a cost-effective system.”

Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Transportation Commission, called Friday’s action “extraordinary” and warmly praised Stanton for pressing the issue during the past year. Oftelie acknowledged that the merger may be difficult for staff members at the agencies, but he said he supports it nonetheless.

“It may make sense to remove some of these jobs,” he said. “If unifying the transportation agencies results in greater efficiencies and it means that I may lose this job, then I still think we should pursue it.”

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James P. Reichert, executive director of the transit district, was unavailable for comment Friday, but a spokeswoman for the district also praised the Bergeson proposal, calling it an important step toward a unified transportation agency that would draw cities into countywide decision-making on a variety of issues.

Giving more voice to the cities, however, usually comes largely at the county’s expense, and several supervisors expressed reservations about the makeup of the authority even as they approved it.

Under Bergeson’s proposal, a new, 11-member board would replace the two boards that currently oversee the transportation agencies. Six of the new board members would be city council members, and four would be county supervisors. The 11th member would be named from the public at large.

Supervisors Chairman Don R. Roth was one of several supervisors who said he had reservations about creating a board in which cities would be able to outvote the county on transportation matters.

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“I’m very concerned about the makeup,” he said later, “but I voted for it because it’s a giant step in the right direction.”

Hearings will open on the proposal within the next two weeks, Bergeson said Friday, and the new authority could be in place as early as January.


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