Consider Again Mission Viejo Co.'s Wee Remembrance

I t's the thought that counts.

For generations, that's what parents have been telling children who have been less than enthusiastic about a gift of a dorky sweater, or socks, or anything else that falls short of their dreams.

And, of course, it is true. Gifts are meant to convey good will. The thought that comes with them is usually pretty good.

Most of us understand this. We smile, we say thank-you, and we think, "How nice." We probably think of the gift-giver as a friend.

So we return our friends' favors. We give back in kind. This is natural, and right. It makes good sense.

I'm laying all this out because, somewhere along the line, there seems to be some confusion--among those who should know these basics better than most.

At this writing, the Orange County district attorney's office is investigating most members of the county Planning Commission for possible conflict-of-interest violations.

Three out of five: In this case, those odds stink. Commission Chairman Stephen A. Nordeck and Commissioners Roger D. Slate and C. Douglas Leavenworth are on the list.

The D.A. is looking into the question of whether these men may have improperly accepted gifts or solicited political contributions from developers on whose projects they vote.

So the planning commissioners, as this lesson shows, wield some pretty big-time clout. They regulate hundreds of development projects that, in the end, affect many lives. They're all political appointees.

But, alas, the commission's kind of work tends to bore. Rarely do outsiders scrutinize what goes on.

There are lots of slide rules and blueprints and jargon. It's a room full of white collars, mostly guys in suits. To someone without a vested interest, it's just about as dry as it comes.

Yet for those who truly appreciate this type of power, all of this is just fine. Who needs glitz? There's no sense in attracting much outside attention if you just want a job to get done.

And developers, especially in Orange County, almost always manage to do that. Nobody can accuse them of being naive.

So, understandably, developers give where it counts. They know that few people ever really look a gift horse in the mouth.

As to the three planning commissioners, their motivations are more of an open guess. That's what the district attorney will eventually decide.

Could they not have known that actions would put their objectivity toward the gift-giver in doubt? Even so, ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.

Commissioner Leavenworth, appointed by Supervisor Don R. Roth, is the latest case in point. The D.A. began investigating his relationship with the Mission Viejo Co. last week.

Commission records show that within a year after accepting gifts from the company worth $365, Leavenworth voted 22 times in 1987 and 1988 on matters affecting the firm. Each time it was to give the Mission Viejo Co. a green light.

The law says that officials may not participate in decisions affecting a company within 12 months after accepting gifts of $250 or more from the same firm.

Leavenworth says he didn't know, but in the meantime he has revised his math. Now he says the gifts he received in 1987 were really worth 34% less than he originally thought, which means that he actually came in $7.50 below the legal cap.

In any case, he adds, the Mission Viejo Co.'s largess could never influence his votes.

"I like playing golf," Leavenworth says. "I appreciate those invitations (from developers). . . . There's no way I'd be able to play at the Mission Viejo Country Club otherwise."

Which, of course, is the whole point. Doug, if you really didn't know this, then it's time you wised up. The Mission Viejo Co., like all who want their influence felt, endeavors to give gifts that matter, perhaps something that you'll remember when it's time to vote.

The D.A.'s investigation of the other two planning commissioners revolves around a similar theme.

Nordeck, appointed by Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, and Slate, named by Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, stand accused of soliciting campaign contributions from at least two South County developers with projects pending before the commission.

Both men deny that they did anything wrong.

In the end, all three commissioners may be cleared of legal misdeeds. Right now, it's too early to tell.

Still, the appearance of wrongdoing is hard to shake--especially when so many people already suspect all sorts of county officials of doing worse.

So remember, guys, it's like your parents said. The gift itself is often irrelevant. It's the thought that counts .

Dianne Klein's column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.

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