ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Riley and Wieder Go With Heads Held High : Supervisors: Retiring members express pride in job, say their only regret is leaving board on low note.


They didn’t want it to end like this.

After 36 years of county service between them, Thomas F. Riley and Harriett M. Wieder were supposed to be lauded for their lengthy list of accomplishments upon their retirement. But instead of a Marine marching band at the pair’s final Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, they were often greeted by catcalls from some angry members of the audience.

And the supervisors’ heartfelt remarks from the dais were upstaged by emotional queries from schoolteachers, county employees and taxpayers about the futures of their families amid the loss of $2.02 billion from a collapsed county investment portfolio.

Riley, the board chairman during the crisis, chose the words of Abraham Lincoln for his final speech.


“No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting,” said Riley, 82, a popular retired Marine brigadier general whose legacy includes a terminal at John Wayne Airport and a wilderness park named after him in his “fabulous 5th District,” a mostly coastal area stretching south from Newport Beach to the county line and inland to Mission Viejo.

Wieder, 74, the only woman supervisor in the 106-year history of the county, called public service “an honorable pursuit and the best opportunity to make a difference.” She has a county park in Huntington Beach and an auditorium in Rossmoor bearing her name.

Despite the past few weeks that have seen county, state and federal investigators poring through county financial documents, Wieder said she is proud of her accomplishments in her 2nd District, which spreads along the county’s north coast and inland to Stanton.

“I feel good,” Wieder said after the meeting. “The only thing that was not pleasant was the environment in which I’m ending my career. It’s tragic that I won’t be around to help.”

Their closing remarks did draw applause at the end of a tumultuous five-hour session that included a parade of speakers to the podium, some of whom lambasted the entire board for the financial crisis that has descended on the county during their watch. Once again there were calls for resignations.

“Why are you still here?” asked Alan Remington of Costa Mesa, who accused the board of betraying the public trust. “You should all resign, without benefits.”


But Riley and Wieder also had their supporters, including Arturo Montez, a Latino activist who said, “We have not agreed on a lot of things, but we have had frank talks--upfront.”

Developer George Argyros singled both of them out for praise.

“Harriett . . . you have served the county a long, long time and have been very constructive,” he said. “Tom, you have been a real stalwart. It’s unfortunate you are leaving under these circumstances.”

Both took office in the 1970s when growth and development were the two issues that would dominate the county’s agendas for two decades. Riley was appointed to the board in 1974 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, a fact he noted in his final remarks.

Reagan had warned public servants to “trust, but verify,” Riley recalled, acknowledging that in light of the financial crisis, he should have questioned more and trusted less.

A Marine officer who once served as chief of staff at Camp Pendleton, Riley stepped into the 5th District seat and oversaw the incorporation of five cities in South County.

Those were heated, contentious times that ultimately led to a failed recall attempt in 1988. But despite it all, Riley was never seriously challenged at the polls. The gray-haired Irishman’s declining health was what led to his stepping down and his own handpicked candidate, former state Sen. Marian Bergeson, will now succeed him.


It was only through the development of South County that the preservation of Laguna Canyon could be won and open space such as the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park could be saved, Riley told his listeners.

“We pulled together to develop strong plans that took development out of pristine open space,” Riley said in his closing remarks. “(The parks) will preserve Orange County’s past for Orange County’s future.”

Some critics, such as Norm Grossman, a Laguna Beach activist and opponent of the county toll roads, will always say that Riley was too friendly to developers and that too much growth was allowed during his tenure.

“I think anyone driving through the South County can see it,” Grossman said. “Growth was allowed to outpace the infrastructure.” But he also quickly added that both Riley and Wieder are “honorable people.”

That was the tone that Bishop Michael P. Driscoll set as he began Tuesday’s meeting with an invocation. He called Riley “a man of principle, a man who loves his God, a man who loves his people.”

Wieder, a former mayor of Huntington Beach who began her political career as an executive assistant to then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, said the economy, the environment and social issues “are the cornerstone of everything I’ve tried to do” during her 16-year tenure.


Her credits include raising public awareness on myriad issues, including health care and gang violence where her inspiration, she said, “came from the commitment of the citizens.”

She has worked steadfastly for cancer victims, for the business community through Partnership 2010 and for women on the Commission on the Status of Women.

“She should be remembered not for what’s going on now, but for all the great things she did, especially for children’s protection and women’s issues,” said Orange County Municipal Court Judge Pamela L. Iles, who was in the audience Tuesday.

Wieder also established the county’s office of protocol 11 years ago that has helped promote Orange County “from being just a whistle stop between Los Angeles and San Diego.”

Wieder, who will be succeeded by Huntington Beach Councilman Jim Silva, said she does not feel responsible for the financial crash because the Board of Supervisors was not kept informed.

“This board was in no position to have changed anything. . . . We didn’t have an opportunity to know anything different,” she said.


And now “all the things are off my wall, I’m moving on,” Wieder said.