Who Will Lead the County Out of El Toro Wilderness?

“This is one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced in Orange County for a very long time.” --Supervisor Thomas F. Riley on Aug. 4, of the El Toro Marine Base conversion.


A challenge, it would seem so far, of biblical proportions, in that Orange County leaders have spent much of the last 40 days wandering in the wilderness.

Now the board knows how the Israelis and the Palestinians have felt. Everywhere it looks, it sees an enemy. Or is it a friend? Last week’s ally becomes next week’s friend. Coalitions are becoming more indigenous to El Toro conversion than the Mideast peace process. It’s now possible to imagine an international peacekeeping force being maintained at El Toro well into the 21st Century.


Where’s that Norwegian guy when we need him?

Failing that, the question lingers: Is there a giant among us? Is there someone in the public or private sector who can get the principals to sit down at the table? Is there someone who can look past narrow constituencies and come up with a plan that does the most good for the most people?

And, most importantly, is there anyone with the personal clout to get something done?

If there’s a contender among public officials, he or she is keeping his or her identity a well-guarded secret.

On another issue in another day, I might have tossed the name of Congressman Christopher Cox into the ring. By dint of his credibility for serious thinking and a personal temperament that doesn’t automatically antagonize political opponents, he would have been a logical choice to step into the leadership breach. But Cox is planning to run for the Senate and isn’t about to rankle half of Orange County, all of which he would need for any statewide race.

As for the Board of Supervisors, there’s . . . oh, forget it.

I still remember how the board tried to marshal the forces to build a new county jail and got something like 20% of the public to support it.

No, the coast is clear for someone to step forward. It’s a chance to make a career, or possibly break one, but tryouts are open.


The only traits required are those that define political leadership. That is, there’s an issue on the table with tremendously high stakes, in this case a combination of economic and social opportunities. We’re not talking about a desolate Gaza Strip; we’re talking fertile patch of ground.

But because the stakes are high, all the players are in up to their necks and have made no secret of what their positions are. South County cities don’t want another airport; most North County cities do. The supervisors, through point man Ernie Schneider, have said they’re willing to consider all possibilities but that, when all is said and done, they will make the final decision on the future of El Toro. Municipal governments don’t like the sound of that.

So, for one reason or another, the competing sides appear intractable.

That is precisely the time when real leaders are supposed to surface.


The federal government has made it clear from Day 1 that it wants to see a single plan. One military official at the August meeting spoke of “a leadership commitment, because tough decisions have to be made.”

At the moment, we’re about as far along as the Paris Peace Talks of some 20 years ago, when the Americans and North Vietnamese couldn’t decide on what shape the negotiating table should be.

North County and South County, about as shaky an alliance as there could be, have been talking about getting together, with North County leaders saying they’re willing (heh-heh) to keep an open mind about the need for a new airport. The motivation for this coalition seems to be little more than making sure the Board of Supervisors doesn’t dictate the settlement terms.

The board envisions a scenario in which it convenes its own designated advisory council, receives the council’s recommendations and then makes a decision. The board’s scenario, however, has left both North and South County constituents feeling like so many disenfranchised Palestinians.


Which brings us back around to the leadership vacuum.

The time is ripe for some creative thinking, for some arm-twisting and for some cajoling. Some statesmanship, if you will. Some leadership.

The field is wide open, folks.