Deeper Than the Bottom Line : Business must step forward for Orange County in its time of crisis


As Orange County digs out of its financial crisis, it could benefit from the expertise of the area’s corporate leadership. Giving that help ought to become a priority, even if it means that companies, despite having to deal with their own leaner environment nowadays, loan some executives or put their full weight behind a task force of businesses beginning to address the crisis.

The Orange County Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Industrial League of Orange County say they hope to enlist senior executives from leading businesses to meet with county officials and to send a delegation to lobby in New York and Washington on the county’s behalf. Considering that the decisions and fortunes of the county government affect everyone, that’s a good idea. However, to date there has been less than enthusiastic response from most of the heavy hitters. Their posture largely seems to be that they are concerned but they lack the time or they believe the county can ride it out alone or they are unwilling even to comment.

Todd Nicholson, president of the Industrial League of Orange County, says he thinks the help, eventually, will come--but others aren’t so sure. It’s true that a few business leaders have stepped in, such as the developer of South Coast Plaza, Henry Segerstrom, who interceded with the Bank of America. In addition, a number of business people have had private, informal talks with county officials, and some accountants and bankers have offered their services free.


Still, several weeks into the crisis, business leaders have yet to meet as a formal group with government officials and the task force is still struggling to enlist the help of important executives.

Lessons from afar are instructive in regard to the need for a unified and high-level response. Felix G. Rohatyn, the architect of New York City’s recovery from its fiscal disaster in the mid-1970s, observes that getting top business executives to play a role in that crisis was crucial to such things as the allocation of services and spreading the pain of cutbacks. Roger W. Johnson, administrator of the federal General Services Administration and former chairman and chief executive of the Irvine-based Western Digital Corp., says top business leadership has a responsibility to be involved.

Many of the challenges facing the county, such as what to do with El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, point to the common stakes of business and government. Even if Orange County businesses are in the forefront of the global economy, they--and everyone else--will suffer if local government is run ineptly. They need to encourage and assist government to be farsighted. Rohatyn, Johnson and others striking a similar chord are right: Business people have to get more involved in the Orange County recovery.