When the Department of Defense made it clear that the many neighbors of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station would get a say in its conversion to civilian use, it set off a scramble for power in Orange County unlike anything seen in decades.
For the past three months, county government and the cities have explored without success dozens of allegiances, alliances, intergovernmental agencies and authorities in search of an acceptable mutual strategy for conversion.
And that failure to find consensus, local leaders say, has spotlighted some new political realities in Orange County, notably county government's greatly diminishing influence as the region's dominant political force, and the gangling emergence of both the new and established cities to fill that vacuum.
The development was never more evident than in the recent words of a man simply known as "the General" and a dean of local Orange County politics.
"I was naive," South County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said recently in a quiet voice, heavy with disappointment. "I thought people were going to buckle up and work together on this thing like we always have in Orange County."
The controversy over who should decide El Toro's future when it closes in 1997 comes as county government continues to see the erosion of its land and constituent bases with recent South County incorporations. At the same time, the conglomeration of new and established cities, searching for some sort of political identity, have begun to assert themselves as never before.
"This really is a fundamental issue about the government of Orange County in the future," said former Irvine Mayor Sally Ann Sheridan. "Who is it going to be governed by? A group of dinosaurs who make $80,000 a year each and do not have a mandate of the people. . .? Or a group of mayors who are putting in 50 to 60 hours a week of their own time into this and do have a constituency?"
Instead of following tradition and falling in line behind county officials, the cities located closest to the base have stunned the Board of Supervisors with their demands for greater authority over planning El Toro's conversion to civilian use.
"They assumed we would (fall in) without asking," Irvine Mayor Michael Ward said, adding that an issue of this magnitude has never before surfaced to test local political leadership. "This is a big deal."
Said another South County city official who declined to be identified: County officials "assumed more authority than they have anymore. There was insensitivity to our coming of age."
Never having faced opposition such as this in their own back yard, supervisors and county administrators have repeatedly stumbled in attempts to forge consensus, prompting widespread questions about their ability to lead.
While Riley has been frantically trying to hold things together, many involved in the negotiations are pointing to the noticeable absence of Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, whose district includes part of the South County area directly affected, and who is the designated vice chairman of the county's proposed El Toro Task Force.
"Gaddi is dying a thousand political deaths over this thing," one high-ranking county official said recently. "He needs the South County cities for his political future."
Vasquez was in Washington last week, attending unrelated political meetings and could not be reached for comment. And South County officials said they haven't heard from him since Aug. 17, when the supervisors broke off negotiations with the cities for the first time.
While both sides appeared to be closer to resuming talks late last week after a lengthy impasse, serious questions about the county's handling of the project continue to linger.
Despite challenges from a distrusting coalition of South County cities, the county claims it has the ultimate authority in future land-use decisions for the 4,700-acre base because all but 300 acres lay in an unincorporated area of the county.
Yet the Defense Department has mandated that the lead planning agency must come up with a consensus plan supported both by the county and the cities located near the base to qualify for needed federal assistance.
The cities' distrust is rooted in a belief among their residents that the county has already decided to convert the base to a commercial airport, a development plan that the South County cities will not support. The county says that no such predetermination has been made.
But attempts to quiet the opposition have failed miserably. Cities have rejected offers by the county to share in revenue from future base development. And little regard has been shown for the county's proposed planning task force, even though it was structured to give the South County cities adjacent to the base a greater voice and more influence than cities farther away.
After absorbing almost daily admonishments from the Defense Department to forge a consensus or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal planning aid, county leaders admitted late last week that they may have to compromise on an issue they once vowed never to surrender: shared authority for shaping the entire development project.
"If they are surprised up there (at the Board of Supervisors) that the sleeping giant is awake, I'm sorry," said Lake Forest Councilwoman Marcia Rudolph, whose city is part of the coalition. "I think they underestimated the overriding concern that this issue has taken here.
"We wanted them to take the lead," the councilwoman said of the county. "They took the lead and tried to stuff it down our throats. When we were going to gag on it, they said, 'Too bad, we're going to stuff it down your throat. . . . ' "
Sheridan, the former Irvine mayor, said the El Toro issue points to an emerging weakness of the county bureaucracy and its style of governing as it attempts to protect its land and constituency bases.
Although the supervisors are also elected by constituents that live within cities, "the county supervisors only (directly) govern about 150,000 people between all five of them" in the unincorporated areas of the county, she said. "The Board of Supervisors wants to flex their muscles, and they want to be in control over the destiny of the base."
A preview of the county's leadership style and how it would relate to El Toro occurred during Sheridan's term as mayor, when Irvine wanted to annex the Marine station at El Toro.
"Supervisor Riley was furious," Sheridan recalled. "He said, 'How can you do this to me?' He was treating us like we were some sort of errant children and we had stayed out after curfew."
The current controversy, Sheridan said, is a "last-ditch effort" by the county to block further erosion of the land area under their sole control and, with it, critical property tax dollars that would flow from future development.
"It turns out that they don't control much land-use designation anymore," she said. "This is an effort to keep their cash flow going at the county level. . . . The issue now is who will control the base. That's much more important than what it will become. It's a classic struggle about who will decide things for the county."
In some private conversations at the County Hall of Administration, the El Toro issue has been described as "a blood bath," with county officials continually frustrated by the gulf of unresolved differences.
Supervisor William G. Steiner acknowledged that there has been a perception, albeit false, that the county has been arrogant in its dealings with the cities over El Toro.
"I think the county has made one accommodation after another to try to bring people together," Steiner said. "Is that being arrogant? I don't think so."
Other county officials, who declined to be identified, said the cities have also invested a good portion of ego in their efforts to out-duel the county on El Toro, and may be overwhelmed with the task of leadership and funding a planning agency if they are successful.
Still, there are nagging questions about the county's style of leadership, with many criticisms coming from county officials themselves.
Aside from their votes in favor of a county-sponsored El Toro Task Force, Supervisors Steiner, Roger R. Stanton and Harriett M. Wieder have had little role in shaping base conversion policy. All initial planning has been left to Riley, Vasquez and the county administrative staff.
Since that Aug. 17 vote, one supervisor said, there has been precious little information shared from the offices of Riley or Vasquez about the project.
The process follows a decades-old protocol common in "ward politics," in which the supervisors, on projects that fall within the political boundaries of only one or two supervisors, defer to those supervisors on virtually all decisions. Although designated as the county task force's vice chairman, Vasquez has deferred repeatedly to Riley's leadership.
In the case of El Toro, a massive project with implications far beyond South County's borders, the old school of politics has not proved adequate, city leaders and one supervisor have said.
"Our feeling is that it's been the General and Gaddi crafting this thing behind the scenes," the supervisor said. "Riley, because of the nature of his character, is trying to push this through. . . . The whole process has become so Machiavellian.
"There is a reluctance to look at issues on a broad regional approach on the 5th floor" of the Hall of Administration, the supervisor said. The process "has reflected a more narrow than regional approach. There has been that climate of reluctance to address the issue on those terms up here."
In some corners, a county official said, there has also been a reluctance to face up to growing suspicion among South County residents about the county's plans.
"There has been an element of distrust of the county's motives in which (people believe) decisions are made at the expense of the cities," the official said.
Nevertheless, Riley, while describing the controversy as possibly the lowest point in his 19-year county career, has vowed to push on.
Riley's most recent decision to call for reopening of discussions with the cities was seen as a positive step among his colleagues.
"I think Tom's trying to undo some (things) that should not have been done before," Supervisor Wieder said.
Said Riley: "This is the first time in my career that my integrity has been questioned. We have to keep going. The more I hear about how much time it takes to clean up areas contaminated by toxic waste, the more I feel like we need to move."
Toxic waste contamination at El Toro is but one of the problems that county government and the cities will be looking to solve with the considerable assistance of the federal government. The cost to clean up El Toro has been estimated at $325 million.
But federal officials have repeatedly warned the county and cities they must come together on a planning strategy, or run the risk of losing federal assistance and having Pentagon officials dictate terms of the redevelopment plan.
Already, the Defense Department has placed a hold on the county's application for a grant to fund planning for base conversion, and federal officials have told the South County cities that their application could face the same fate unless they stop feuding over control of the base.
"I would encourage you to be positive about this," said Capt. Dave Larson of DOD's Office of Economic Adjustment in a meeting last week with a coalition of three North County cities also vying for a say in base conversion.
"You have a powerful community with a lot of assets here," Larson said. "It could be a model case where economic development and job generation take off at the speed of light. That would be the Orange County that I know about."
Times staff writer Len Hall contributed to this story.