Nearly a year after bankruptcy, Orange County is in the throes of a dramatic soul-searching about how to govern itself. So far, county voters appear ready to get rid of an elected treasurer, privatize nearly the entire government and, in a reversal of 80 years of Progressive-era politics, create a powerful, centralized county executive.
Beneath the surface of these proposals, however, lies the biggest potential change of all: breaking up the political power of the land-development cartel that controls the county's growth. Both Supervisor Marian Bergeson and the county's cities propose to downsize county government and turn its development powers over to cities.
The issue will likely move center stage next year, especially if a county reorganization proposal goes on the ballot. The cities may not succeed in grabbing county power; developers are fighting hard to keep land-use authority in county government. But the battle is sure to expose the back-room power relationships that have shaped the county's growth.
In less than a half century, Orange County has been transformed from a sparsely populated, bean-growing area into the fifth-largest county in the nation--an economic powerhouse that can stand on its own against almost any other metropolis in the country. This remarkable growth has been engineered by cozy friendships among the county's powerful real-estate development companies--including the Irvine, Mission Viejo and Santa Margarita--and the five politicians making up the Board of Supervisors.
The developers have bankrolled supervisors' campaigns, awarded them small indulgences while in office (mini-scandals involving supervisors and developers have been common), and frequently given them jobs out of office. In return, the supervisors have facilitated the construction of Orange County's huge "master-planned communities" and built up a businesslike planning department that prides itself on getting things done. The result has been a growth industry that has successfully moved from building bedrooms to erecting skyscrapers.
But as the county has become more crowded and diverse, voters have become increasingly critical of this arrangement. In neighborhood after neighborhood created by big land developers, unhappy residents have formed new cities in hopes of keeping the county out. (Under state law, cities control land use inside their boundaries; this usually means that large, undeveloped ranches--the raw material of new neighborhoods--fall under county control.)
Established cities dislike the way developers sometimes use the county to get their way when they run into trouble--as Koll Corp. did when Huntington Beach refused to approve the controversial Bolsa Chica project. Also, mature cities in northern Orange County believe county government ignores them while lavishing time and attention on new development projects in the south.
These complaints, festering for years just below the surface, are now out in the open, thanks to the bankruptcy and the election of Bergeson, who came to the Board of Supervisors after a long career in Sacramento. Shortly after taking her seat, Bergeson parted company with her brethren and called for radical change. Declaring that "the supervisors' days as land barons and full-time governors of the unincorporated area are long gone," she put forth a proposal that calls, essentially, for the abolition of conventional county government. In its place, county services would be provided by a large and powerful "Orange Regional Services Organization." Remaining county territory would either be incorporated or annexed to existing cities.
The Orange County League of Cities has offered their own restructuring plan. Under the cities' plan, regional services, such as transportation planning and landfills, would be run by a "council of governments" controlled by the cities. As with Bergeson's plan, the cities would take over most land-use planning.
Developers are running for cover. Politically, city governments are more responsive to parochial concerns, and thus harder to control through campaign contributions because they rely more on precinct-walking and less on media campaigns. Even in Orange County, cities will be much more likely to say "no" to the developers.
The developers' position is not without merit. With some justification, they contend that Orange County's 31 small cities are technically unprepared to process enormous development projects. They also correctly point out that cities sometimes ignore regional goals and concerns. But the bottom line is, the builders distrust Orange County cities and don't want to be beholden to them.
So the builders, among others, are backing the idea that altering the county's land-use planning system is not essential to restoring financial or political credibility. Rather, they say voters should first deal with reorganizing the Board of Supervisors, creating a strong county executive and converting to a county charter to facilitate privatization.
This strategy may well head off Bergeson's and the cities' more radical proposals. But the land-use genie is out of the bottle. In the long run, fundamental change in how the local "growth machine" functions in Orange County is inevitable.
Orange County's restructuring proposals are not occurring in a vacuum. The state's Constitution Revision Commission is also proposing wholesale changes for local government--including the creation of a "community charter" option that would give local officials the option to mix and match local responsibilities and revenue streams to suit local priorities.
It's almost certain, moreover, that the Orange County restructuring will result in a larger Board of Supervisors, with seven, nine or perhaps more members. The new supervisors will probably come from the ranks of city councils, thereby ensuring a city perspective on the board, at least for a while.
Perhaps most important, Bergeson is right when she says that the age of county supervisors as land barons is nearing an end. Increasingly, the role of county supervisors is to juggle budget resources to maintain social services. This is especially true in mature urban counties, where population growth is leveling off and land development, as an economic force, is winding down. Mixing a county's social-service tasks with the job of approving real-estate projects proposed by campaign-donating developers distorts local politics.
No matter how the Orange County government is reinvented, the task of urban development may still lie with the county. Municipalities will probably have more leverage--a logical change, but one that will require cities to be more farsighted and less parochial.
Once all this occurs, perhaps Orange County can begin to govern itself as a mature metropolis rather than a Wild West boom town.*