Vote's Outcome Anyone's Guess Up to Very End

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Minutes before county supervisors gathered for a crucial vote on a half-cent sales tax increase that had become the linchpin of Orange County's bankruptcy recovery plan, the county's chief executive saw fragile board support for the measure beginning to crumble.

"It's not looking good," Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy admitted as he made his way into Supervisor Jim Silva's board office for a last-ditch lobbying effort just before the 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Three of the five supervisors--Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, Marian Bergeson and William G. Steiner--had all but signed up for Popejoy's controversial recovery plan. But board newcomer Silva and Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, a close Silva ally, were eyed as wielding the critical swing votes that could sink the politically unpopular measure.

Despite a full-court press by Popejoy and other high-profile county officials, including Sheriff Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, the outcome of the vote was anyone's guess and was headed for a nail-biting finish.

"It was a real cliffhanger. I was on the edge," Steiner said afterward. "I think the pressure was really on Stanton and Silva."

When a long line of citizens finished delivering a litany of political threats and appeals--both for and against the tax--at 1:15 Wednesday morning, Silva and Stanton shocked bleary-eyed onlookers by joining the majority, albeit grudgingly, in support of a June 27 election to let voters decide the tax hike's fate.

On Wednesday, those who went to bed before the early morning vote took place were surprised by the turn of events.

"I don't think anyone knew what was really going to happen. But I don't think anyone expected a unanimous decision," said an aide to one supervisor.

"I did not think at the beginning of the meeting it would pass," Popejoy said afterward. "It was a very pleasant surprise."

The ballot initiative, called Measure R, would raise the county's sales tax from 7.75% to 8.25% for 10 years, if approved by a majority of those voting in the special election.

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Popejoy proposed the sales tax increase--normally a dirty word in fiscally conservative Orange County--as part of an intricate plan to help bail the county out of bankruptcy, which it filed Dec. 6 after risky investments by former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron drained the county's investment pool of $1.7 billion.

The tax would raise $130 million annually and enable the county to borrow roughly $700 million it needs to avoid defaulting on $1 billion in county bonds coming due this summer, and to preserve essential county services and assure payments to the schools and cities with money in the county's ill-fated investment pool.

Both Silva and Stanton admitted that the grueling public comments session, which involved more than 65 speakers, helped solidify their decisions. Stanton also admitted to a last-minute change of heart.

"I came down here to vote no," Stanton said. "But I'm not going to leave my colleagues out to dry."

On Wednesday, county insiders said intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts were also key to paving the way for the affirmative vote.

There was speculation earlier this week that Silva or Stanton would refuse to lend their support, possibly causing others to drop off too. By late Tuesday afternoon, county officials were dejected, clearly expecting the board to reject the sales tax increase.

Rumors were also swirling that Popejoy was threatening to quit if the board did not back the effort. But Popejoy denied it ever came to that.

The pace of lobbying reached a fevered pitch Tuesday: Faxes poured in to supervisors from around the county; the governor's office called Steiner, while Silva held his own telephone consultation with state Treasurer Matt Fong; county staff researched and discounted far-fetched alternatives to the tax, and sought further studies of any options that had a shot; an anti-tax group staged a Tuesday night protest, and the county's top brass made personal pleas for support.

Supervisors bolted into each other's offices unannounced to wrangle among themselves.

"There's tremendous tension up here," Steiner said before the meeting from the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration, where supervisors conduct their business.

Board members were clearly feeling the pressure from anti-taxers and those who see the tax proposal as the only escape from a financial meltdown.

"We're gonna get crucified," Steiner said shortly before the meeting. "It's the ultimate in getting whipsawed."

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Throughout the night, members of the audience tried to handicap the vote with predictions changing almost as frequently as the speakers.

There was an almost audible gulp when Bill Mello, a Huntington Beach resident and a member of an anti-tax group, challenged Silva's integrity as a tax fighter: "Don't take the coward's way out! Don't be a Benedict Arnold!"

"That was a big moment," said one county official, who feared the searing comments might seal the proposal's defeat.

But there was an equally poignant moment when Richard Avard, a Fountain Valley resident and member of a vocal anti-tax group called the Committees of Correspondence, took the podium and challenged the dire diagnoses of the county's financial health.

Vasquez arranged for Avard to step aside and meet privately with the county's high-priced financial consultants. Avard returned to the podium with a dramatically different tone to his voice.

Shaking his head, Avard said he didn't realize things were so bad. Although he did not endorse the tax, he admitted he saw no reasonable options. He urged the board to do more to better explain the complex financial crisis to the public.

It was a subtle but symbolic victory for board members, who smiled warmly and nodded in agreement at Avard's comments. At that point, onlookers said, things began looking up for the initiative's passage.

Capizzi, the county's top prosecutor, agreed that Avard struck a chord both with the board and onlookers, but said he wasn't prepared to consider his appearance a turning point.

"I think the turning point came about 1:30 a.m. or so when they voted," Capizzi said with a chuckle.

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Shortly after the bankruptcy, supervisors vowed they would reject taxes as a way to dig the county out of its financial mess. But on Tuesday, many of the supervisors told the audience they were forced to change their mind after grim economic forecasts provided a "dose of reality," as Bergeson put it.

When it came time to vote, Stanton and Silva bared their souls. Silva said he talked by phone to Fong, a close friend, and even Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) for advice, but still had not made up his mind when he walked into the meeting and settled into his brown leather chair atop the dais.

In the end, a haggard Silva felt he had no choice.

"I do think that the people of Orange County are already taxed enough. But with the financial crisis, I think it is an exception to the rule (against higher taxes)," Silva said.

When his turn came, Stanton lashed out at his critics, saying he was fed up with the constant haranguing. He said he did not support the tax, would not endorse it and had serious questions about whether it was needed or would be passed by the voters.

Stanton said he originally told board colleagues before the meeting that he would reject the initiative. He said he changed his position and voted for it because he wanted to stand by his colleagues, especially Silva, and did not want to appear as if he were doing anything to "shrink from responsibility."

"Well, I can really take an easy go here and posture and suck up and say, 'I'm you're hero, I'm going to vote against it,' " he said. "But I'm not going to leave Jim out to dry, and I guess I'm not leaving you out to dry," Stanton added, turning to his colleagues.

Developer Buck Johns, a board member of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County, said he talked to both Stanton and Silva around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to voice his opposition to the initiative.

"I thought they were going to vote no," he said. "I hung up the telephone and I said to (a fellow company official), 'This thing is going down.' "

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Johns said he was "very disappointed" when he learned of the unanimous decision--but he wasn't the only one who failed to persuade the board to resist the proposal.

But some felt cheated after the board meeting, convinced that Stanton and Silva were putting on a show for the voting public.

Anti-tax activist Carole Walters, a member of the Committees of Correspondence, said she spoke with four of the five supervisors on several occasions in the two weeks since Popejoy unveiled the tax hike proposal.

"I think they were going to vote for it all along," she said. "The one I thought would have backbone is Roger Stanton. I was fooled."

Times staff writer Gebe Martinez and correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this report.

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