NEWS ANALYSIS : Pay Raise Is a No-Win Issue for Supervisors


When Orange County supervisors set out to determine their new salaries this year, they basically had two choices.

They could have accepted a modest hike and been ready to defend that decision when confronted with the predictable opposition. Or they could have scored political points by refusing to take any extra money at a time when the county was wrestling with a tight budget and government layoffs.

Last week, to the amazement of county political observers, the supervisors managed to do both. On Tuesday, they voted to give themselves a raise and on Thursday, after they'd gotten an earful from their constituents, they announced that they were turning around and giving it back.

"In the rescinding of it, I think they'll get worse press than if they had just left it alone," said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant. "I don't think they've helped themselves. . . . They've taken the worst option that they could have."

The supervisors, at least the two who led the effort to return the raises, wholeheartedly disagreed.

"Is there a downside to this? Absolutely not," said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. "I'd much rather be known as an open-minded person who is willing to change his mind than as someone who digs his feet in the mud and won't budge."

But other observers warn that by first accepting and then moving to give back the controversial $3,282 pay raise, the supervisors may have opened themselves to the charge that they were weak under pressure without ever erasing the feeling that they were greedy to vote for the increase in the first place. That can be a poisonous combination for an elected official, especially one with ambitions for reelection or higher office.

And those are exactly the hopes harbored by the two leading advocates of rolling back the pay raise. Stanton and Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez are the only members of the board who must face reelection this year, and they're the two who are most widely talked about as congressional candidates, either this year or in the near future.

When it came time to suggest that the board give back the raises, it was Vasquez and Stanton who showed up to host the press conference. They announced that Supervisor Don R. Roth was also on board, but Roth did not appear with them, and he limited his later comments to a simple confirmation that he would back their proposal.

That the two members who faced the most immediate political challenges should lead the charge was a fact not lost on many who followed the issue.

"It's pure politics," said Tom Steele, Fountain Valley coordinator for the Taxpayers' Action Network, the group that organized a pay-raise protest during last week's board meeting. "I don't like it."

While stressing that he spoke only for himself and not the network, Steele added that the supervisors' reversal hasn't been enough to make a supporter out of him.

"They've already offended us. They've already offended me. They haven't really redressed that wound," he said. "It's like you caught your wife lying to you. Every time she says something now, you're going to run it through a filter and ask yourself if she's telling the truth."

To be sure, the supervisors were bound to leave some observers dissatisfied no matter what they did. And many of the 30 or so demonstrators who appeared at the board meeting to vent their indignation made it clear that they had little love for the five supervisors.

But while there may not have been anything that the board could have done to make supporters out of some of those demonstrators, what surprised many observers was how Stanton and Vasquez managed to offend even some of their colleagues.

The two supervisors moved quickly on Thursday to renounce the pay hikes. So quickly, in fact, that Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who was out of town, did not learn about it until later. And Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who was here, said after hearing about the press conference that he still had not met face-to-face with either of the two.

Wieder's reaction to the move was terse. Through her staff, she issued a two-sentence press release noting the importance of being responsive to her constituents and pledging to back her colleagues' desire to reverse field.

Riley's comments were more expansive--and more pointed. He not-so-subtly criticized his colleagues for rushing their change of heart into print and accused them of doing it to score political points.

"If the reason they made this decision was just because they were being responsive, that's one thing," Riley said. "But if somebody made it for other reasons, then I have problems with that. And I feel strongly that that's what's going on here."

Both Stanton and Vasquez expressed concern that Riley was angered by the process, but Vasquez said he had understood that Riley and Stanton had already talked about it before the proposal was unveiled late Thursday. And Stanton said he was surprised by the reaction because he had told Riley of the plan over the phone.

Stanton also added, however, that his first responsibility was not to Riley: "Each supervisor answers first to his own constituency and not to the other supervisors," he said.

Come Tuesday, the supervisors will make their answers official, casting their third vote in three weeks on the pay hike. Assuming they vote it down, they'll stay with their $82,054 annual salaries, right where they were when the process started.

So what will they have to show for their efforts?

* Some voters may see their switch as evidence that they listen to their constituents. Vasquez said the calls to his office Friday were complimentary, a switch from the days earlier in the week, when he and the other board members came under heavy fire.

* Some constituents will applaud their austerity and congratulate them for setting an example, albeit a somewhat halting one.

"It's a start," said Ray Harbour, spokesman for the Taxpayers' Action Network. "That's something."

* Potential Stanton and Vasquez opponents may lose a volatile campaign issue. The board meeting Tuesday was less than one hour old when one possible Stanton foe had already threatened to make an issue out of the salary hike.

But those pluses will almost certainly be weighed against some serious negatives, observers said.

"I think, yes, they've hurt themselves," said Dana Reed, a Costa Mesa lawyer who has run for office and who manages political campaigns. "I don't think people are going to remember this particular issue when they go to the polls in June, but it just adds to the overall belief out in the electorate that these officials are inept."

And yet, even amid much marveling last week at the way in which the supervisors fumbled their way through the proposed pay hike, there were voices raised in sympathy. In fact, virtually everyone interviewed for this article agreed that pay raise proposals are almost impossible for any elected official to field cleanly.

Whether it's in Congress or Sacramento or the local city council, salary hikes by public officials draw fire, and there's not much that any official can do to prevent that, observers agreed.

"It's never an easy thing to do," said Irv Pickler, a nine-year veteran of the Anaheim City Council. "The supervisors work hard, they put in a full day, and they earn what they make, but that doesn't make it easy to justify a pay increase."

And while those increases are difficult to answer for even in the best of times, Pickler added, these are not the best of times. The county government just closed a $67.7-million budget shortfall by eliminating 260 positions; those resulted in fewer than 20 actual layoffs, but many services, some of them quite popular, had to be trimmed or eliminated.

The economy, here and across the country, remains sluggish, and many county analysts predict that next year's budget will be even worse.

"There's a time and a place for everything," Pickler said. "This just wasn't the time and the place for this."

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