Cheers, Jeers for Jail Panel Choice : Task force: Named to the county commission on solving the overcrowding problem, attorney Wylie Aitken vows to remain neutral on jail site issue.
Attorney Wylie A. Aitken has represented the family of a girl mauled by a mountain lion, the college student who was blinded during a routine operation, and the families of Marines killed in helicopter crashes.
A former president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and a prominent civil attorney, Aitken has won record settlements and even set legal precedent by arguing fervently for one side or the other.
But in his new role as the public member of a reactivated commission that voted last week to put a half-cent sales tax measure on the May 14 ballot, Aitken insists that he will remain neutral on the divisive issue of where to build a new county jail.
Some of his neighbors in Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda who oppose building a new correctional facility in nearby Gypsum Canyon are not convinced of Aitken’s position. They say his ties to Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, a strong proponent of the Gypsum site who is also on the commission, indicate on which side of the fence Aiken will land.
“Just because his mailing address is Anaheim Hills doesn’t mean he represents the area,” said Rick Violett, a Yorba Linda resident and longtime Gypsum Canyon jail opponent. “To me, Wylie Aitken has been very much involved in county government and county politics, and to me he is not a representative of the people, but a representative of the system.”
“This whole commission thing was done awfully quickly,” said Pat Pepper, an Anaheim Hills resident and another ardent opponent of a Gypsum Canyon jail. “I don’t think adequate time was given to what it was and who would be on it. . . . It is a little bit weighted on the pro-Gypsum side.”
Aitken was chosen by the other four members of the commission--including Stanton and Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who chairs the body--as the “at-large” member. He was picked from a pool of citizens who applied for the post.
The group, formally called the Orange County Regional Justice Facilities Commission, was established to find a solution to the county’s decade of indecision on how to reduce jail overcrowding.
The other two commissioners are La Palma Mayor Keith Nelson and Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, who were elected by all 29 mayors in the county.
Aitken, however, said his interest in the commission comes solely out of a desire to serve his community and not because he has an agenda on Gypsum Canyon.
“I’ve never been involved with the Gypsum Canyon dispute, pro or con,” Aitken said last week. “It’s an issue I have never frankly really studied.”
But it is true that Stanton and Aitken have worked together on many projects. When Stanton made his first run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, Aitken served as his campaign finance chairman. In 1988, Stanton backed Aitken for a seat on the Orange County Transportation Commission, but he lost out to Dana W. Reed, who is now running for state Senate.
Aitken, along with Stanton, also was part of the organized opposition to Measure A, the referendum last June that would have placed all future jails in the city of Santa Ana. The measure was placed on the ballot by homeowners from Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills who oppose putting a county jail in Gypsum Canyon, but it was soundly defeated by voters.
Nevertheless, both men dismiss accusations that the deck is stacked in favor of the Gypsum Canyon jail site because of their connections to each other.
“As Wylie explained to me, he is open on the issue,” Stanton said. “He is neither proposing nor advocating any site. It’s an inaccurate premise to say that he is on the commission because I asked him to serve on it.”
Aitken, however, concedes that he learned of the opening on the commission from Stanton.
“Roger gave me a call and said there’s this opening on this commission and would I be interested,” Aitken said. “Roger said . . . you’re an Anaheim resident and you have an open mind on all these issues, and you have a background in law.”
Both, however, are quick to point out that it will not be the job of the commission to pick a site. By law, the commission must adopt a master plan of how it will spend the tax revenue it collects, and what projects it will fund, be it more courts, or juvenile facilities, for example.
“I hope this does not become a referendum on Gypsum Canyon,” Aitken said. “It’s an issue of whether Orange County will take the opportunity to change things on (its) own by taxing ourselves.”
A natty dresser, Aitken has a pleasant and open manner, qualities honed through years of being in court, where communication skills can mean the difference between winning and losing.
“In a long trial, I try to make things interesting for the jury. I make fun of myself,” he said. “The law can be too stuffy, too rigid. We can get to the truth, but we don’t have to make everyone around us so uncomfortable.”
A man of medium build, with salt-and-pepper hair, he works out of an elegant penthouse office that overlooks the Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza, including the courthouses where he is a frequent player.
“I have no political ambition. I have no hidden agenda. I don’t see this as a steppingstone,” he said. “I guess I really got involved because one night I was sitting here in this very office looking out the window and appreciating all the good things that happened to me in my life, and I thought I ought to be doing more.”
Aitken has made his reputation in trial law, often by taking on personal injury and bad faith cases against insurance companies, manufacturers or other institutions. In 1987, he was listed in “The Best Lawyers in America,” a book in which lawyers listed attorneys whom they would recommend to close relatives or friends.
“He is always mentioned when people are naming the top plaintiff lawyers in the county,” said Andrew J. Guilford, president of the Orange County Bar Assn. “He’s an outstanding trial lawyer.”
When a jury in Superior Court recently awarded $5 million in one of Aitken’s cases, the legal community took notice, Guilford said. A 30-year-old Fountain Valley man was left blind and partly disabled after complications during what was to have been a minor surgery on his ankle at a Huntington Beach hospital, and the family successfully sued for malpractice.
Because trial lawyers often work on a contingency basis, Guilford said they tend to be “risk takers,” a quality he also attributes to Aitken.
Attorney Vernon W. Hunt Jr., who was Aitken’s first employer, said he enjoyed verbally sparring with Aitken over political and social topics when the two began working together in 1965.
“I’m a former officer of the Lincoln Club and I’m a committed Protestant, a Christian and a Republican,” he said. “Wylie is a Catholic and a Democrat. We had some really interesting talks. We’ve learned from each other.”
That a member of the Lincoln Club, Orange County’s prestigious Republican Party support group, can get along with someone who in 1985 led a move to support embattled California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird speaks to Aitken’s ability to reach consensus, Hunt said.
“He is a very, very conscientious man, and he’s very concerned and interested in his community,” he said. “He’s real tops in integrity.”
Even Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter, one of the most vocal opponents to building a jail at Gypsum Canyon, had little criticism of Aitken’s selection to the commission, in spite of the attorney’s ties to Stanton.
“I’ve known Wylie probably 25 years,” he said. “Knowing Wylie, he’ll be completely unbiased and fair. He’s an excellent lawyer. I have no compunction against him. I think he’ll do an excellent job.”
But Hunter, who has vowed to campaign against the sales tax, said he was counting on Aitken to distinguish between the issue of the ballot measure and building a jail at Gypsum Canyon. He also said he expects Aitken to lead the commission in exploring alternatives to incarceration that could mean a new jail will not be needed.
Indeed, Aitken has been active in a statewide group that explored the causes of court congestion.
A graduate of Santa Ana College and Marquette University Law School, Aitken was born in Detroit and raised in Wichita, Kan., and became the first college graduate in his family. He came to Southern California in 1955 and has been married to his wife, Bette, for 28 years. They have three children.
Aitken said he wants to contribute “thoughts, ideas and concepts” to the commission.
“Other people are going to have to fight out where that jail will go,” he said. “That’s just beyond by interest or my ability or my responsibility.”
But the issue of getting the ballot measure passed is his job, Aiken said. “Everybody agrees, including all five supervisors, that we need the funds to build a jail.”