On the eve of their appearance this morning before the Governor's Base-Closure Task Force, city and county officials said they were close to agreement on a compromise proposal for a governing body that will oversee conversion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
The compromise plan, which officials stressed was still being worked out, would place final authority over the base's redevelopment in the hands of an executive committee made up of representatives from the Board of Supervisors, South County cities and several other communities.
Such a power-sharing arrangement would mark a departure from the county's long-held position that it alone should make the final determination about El Toro's future.
Representatives from South County cities said the newfound cooperation between the cities and the county should be evident at today's task force hearing.
"Just the atmosphere and the body language will show an incredibly different tenor," said Laguna Niguel Councilman Mark Goodman, who has been involved in the discussions. The gubernatorial task force's members "will get the message that Orange County is coming together," he said.
County Supervisor William G. Steiner said: "I think there is a sense of compromise in the air. I think there is a desire to present a united front and not look foolish."
If city and county representatives do unveil a new compromise plan, it would still have to be approved by the city councils of the participating cities and the Board of Supervisors.
County government and the leadership in several Orange County cities have been bickering for months over who should oversee the crafting of a plan for conversion to civilian use of the 4,700-acre Marine Corps base, which is scheduled to close in four to six years.
Some South County cities have voiced bitter opposition to converting El Toro into a commercial airport, which they fear would generate noise, traffic and pollution that would erode their quality of life. But several North County cities support the airport idea, saying it would be a boost to the local economy.
Both sides have proposed various decision-making bodies in which cities would share power with the county in planning El Toro's future. But until now, the county has refused to give the cities a share in the final decision, which it says naturally belongs to county government as the sole land-use authority. All but 300 acres of the base lies within an unincorporated area of the county.
The Department of Defense, which controls the site, has warned that it wants a single decision-making body identified before it will provide government funding for base redevelopment planning.
Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Gaddi H. Vasquez, who represent South County, have taken the lead in trying to find a compromise that would be acceptable to the cities and the Board of Supervisors.
Several representatives of South County cities involved in the discussions said the current proposal being considered was drafted by Vasquez in the last two weeks. That proposal, while still being debated, has met with general agreement from the cities' representatives, they said.
"This is the first time that someone from the county has agreed to share power," said a South County city representative involved in the discussions.
Some said they expected Vasquez to make an announcement today about the possible compromise.
Vasquez, however, would only confirm Wednesday that "we're close" to an agreement on shared land use. He declined further comment, promising he would have more to say today.
Kenneth Bruner, a Riley aide, said that negotiations are proceeding well and that a compromise might be near.
While details of the compromise were still being hammered out, several officials said the most recent proposal gives the county, Irvine and Lake Forest weighted votes on an executive committee that would make final decisions on the base's redevelopment. Sources also said the South County cities of Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo--as well as Newport Beach, Tustin and Anaheim--would be represented.
Steiner said he was prepared to support the shared decision-making agreement as long as two conditions are met: that Anaheim has a seat on the executive committee and that the city of Orange has a role in the process but not necessarily a vote on the executive committee.
"If anyone expects me to (agree) to a reuse plan that gives away some county authority on decision-making, I need (those) two assurances," Steiner said. "I want to be part of the solution."
Pro-airport forces reacted with caution to the news of a possible compromise, repeating their desire for central and north county cities to have a role in the process.
"I am very concerned with any process that systematically excludes large segments of the county," said Mark Leyes, a Garden Grove councilman who favors conversion of El Toro into a airport. "El Toro is dead center in the county. The closing has an impact of the entire county."
Leyes expressed support for a new Anaheim plan being circulated earlier this week that would place reuse decision-making power in the hands of an 11-member board composed of the five supervisors, a representative from Irvine, and five representatives from cities in each of the supervisorial districts.
"The important thing here is an assertion by the North County that this is important to us in rebuilding the county economy," Leyes said. "We have a stake in that and want to be involved."
Times correspondent Willson Cummer and staff writer Mark Landsbaum contributed to this report.