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Once a Savior, CEO Became an Interloper

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ultimately, Bill Popejoy decided the Hall of Administration was no place for a businessman.

When he arrived as Orange County’s first-ever chief executive officer, the banking tycoon often tripped by referring to his “board of directors” and “company cars.” During a hard-fought campaign to boost the sales tax by a half-cent, Popejoy insisted he was just proffering a business solution. Throughout his 152 days in office, Popejoy said he dreaded most the weekly board meetings, in which members of the public vent their anger ad nauseum.

Finally, when the supervisors tried to take back the unprecedented power they had given him and citizen-activists made him a scapegoat for the county’s problems, the politics Popejoy hated simply got to be too much.

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“It’s become a political free-for-all,” said Paul S. Nussbaum, the banker who served as Popejoy’s top adviser through June and still remains a close confidante. “That is just not an environment where someone who is serious and wants to accomplish something on its merits, as opposed to politics, can effectively operate.

“I don’t think the board fully realized to what extent they were ceding power to a CEO,” Nussbaum added. “Their concept of a CEO and Bill’s private-sector concept of a CEO . . . they interpreted it differently.”

Dennis Carpenter, Orange County’s lobbyist in Sacramento, said that while Popejoy charmed legislators during his frequent trips to the Capitol, he clearly did not like the government game.

“It’s pretty obviously he never read Machiavelli,” Carpenter said. “The political process is a lot different than the business world. They just don’t make quick decisions up here. . . . He was too damn nice for this business. Too polite.”

Some people involved in the bankruptcy recovery effort also said that the voters’ rejection of the tax hike made it impossible for Popejoy to make headway on the county’s financial troubles before his scheduled departure in November.

“The real answer is, we’re in it for the long haul now. It’s not something that fits within” Popejoy’s time frame, one top official confided. “We went for the home run and missed, so now it’s a bunch of singles. There’s no quick answers. He was here for six months, nine months, max, and it clearly isn’t going to be over in November.”

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Popejoy, a millionaire who declined to accept a salary, first mentioned the possibility he might quit before the expiration of his contract months ago, at a meeting of the conservative Lincoln Club, according to people who attended. County GOP Chairman Tom Fuentes said Popejoy told those at the meeting that if Measure R, the sales-tax hike, didn’t pass June 27, “I’m out of here on the 28th.”

Later, Popejoy denied making that threat, but by the time the election rolled around, he seemed ready to leave his third-floor office, which he had hardly personalized save for three family photographs on a stack of empty shelves.

“It is more satisfying, at times, to be involved in a chase than to get to the finish line,” Popejoy said on Election Day. “If people are saying not only we don’t like your plan, but we don’t like you, then I don’t have any reluctance to step aside.”

On Wednesday, however, Popejoy and a dozen of the people closest to him insisted that Measure R’s defeat did not trigger his departure. Rather, it was increasing tension between the CEO and the supervisors, and the board’s insistence two weeks ago on redefining the role they had tapped him for Feb. 10.

“There is no CEO job,” Popejoy said Wednesday. “This isn’t the job I hired on to do.”

On the day after the election, Supervisor Jim Silva called an emergency board meeting to consider firing Popejoy or, at least, changing his title. That evening, Popejoy, his wife of more than three decades, Nancy, and Nussbaum spent an hour at the couple’s Newport Beach home discussing whether he should step down.

“Bill doesn’t need this aggravation,” Nancy Popejoy said Wednesday. “He went into it with a good heart, and thought that he could really help, but it’s just impossible to work in that environment.

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“It’s just too bad the supervisors are more interested in saving their political skin than in getting the problem solved,” she said. “They want somebody to come up with a plan and then if it doesn’t work, they want someone to blame instead of taking the blame themselves.”

But after a two-hour closed session June 29, the board decided neither to oust Popejoy nor demote him, instead issuing a statement reasserting their own power and ordering the CEO to talk more to them and less to the press. Popejoy told his closest associates that supervisors had not given him the excuse he needed to call it quits, but that if “the rhetoric turned into reality,” he would move on.

A week later, Popejoy was more sure. With his 9-year-old grandson Nicholas in tow, he lunched Friday at the Santa Ana Country Club with three of the men he had brought in to help the county: Nussbaum, Thomas P. Kemp and Merrill Butler. He told them it was just a matter of time.

“They had him in the cross hairs. The Committees of Correspondence were criticizing him on the one hand, and then the supervisors he was serving were basically not recognizing what he had done,” Kemp said Wednesday from Washington, where he is attending brother Jack Kemp’s birthday gala.

“When you’re getting it from both ends, you sort of wonder where you’re support base is. That’s when it converged and he said, ‘I’m out of here.’ ”

Popejoy had tired of stroking egos on the fifth floor, where the supervisors sit, and of navigating the crowded web of turf occupied by those in power throughout the county.

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“You simply have to have your eye on the target and push relentlessly forward. That’s how businesses exist in tough times. In the process of doing so, you’re going to step on some toes,” Butler said. “If the people who are supposed to stand aside want to continue to get in the way, you either have to stop and entertain them or coddle them, or you step on their toes and keep on going.”

During a trip to Sacramento on Tuesday, Popejoy told Gov. Pete Wilson of his intention to resign, but he still hadn’t set a date.

Then Wednesday, Popejoy woke to find his confidential memoranda to the supervisors had once again been leaked to the press. Even more upsetting, he had been characterized by others as lobbying for new taxes, though he said he was just trying to show board members an array of options.

Finally sure, Popejoy told top staffers one by one Wednesday that he would resign that afternoon, and called about a dozen lawmakers in Sacramento to inform them.

“You should remember that he was volunteering his time,” pointed out one top county official, on the condition he not be named. “When someone is volunteering their time, they shouldn’t have to be in an unpleasant environment.

“He just wasn’t happy.”

Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Matt Lait and Peter M. Warren contributed to this report.

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