Filling a key leadership post as Orange County tries to climb out of bankruptcy, Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday named real estate broker and former Tustin Councilman Don Saltarelli to succeed departed County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez.
The appointment to the 3rd District seat ends weeks of speculation over who the governor would choose to replace Vasquez, who stepped down last month after enduring months of criticism for his handling of the financial debacle that engulfed the county.
Saltarelli, who owns Century 21 Saltarelli Realty in Tustin, has promised to serve as a caretaker and not seek election to the seat next year.
The appointment drew plaudits from developers and some business executives, but Saltarelli got harsh reviews from citizens groups that sprang up with vows to reform government after the county lost nearly $1.7 billion on risky investments last year and declared bankruptcy.
Wilson suggested that the appointment of Saltarelli, 54, would give the county a new leader with a long track record in both government and private business who could hit the turf running to help the bankruptcy recovery effort.
"Mr. Saltarelli is a disciplined, independent thinker who has demonstrated careful, prudent leadership in the public policy arena," Wilson said. "His extensive financial background will assist the board and the community as they embark on the road to recovery."
The appointment is also expected to tip the balance on the board toward Supervisors Marian Bergeson and William G. Steiner, both Wilson allies.
All of the supervisors, however, greeted Saltarelli's appointment warmly and suggested he will prove a crucial ally in the battle back from insolvency. "He is an extremely intelligent person, very fair, and he never makes a decision without the facts," Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton said.
A former Marine Corps officer, Saltarelli will serve out the final 15 months of Vasquez's term with the understanding that he will not then run as an incumbent for a full, four-year term. Wilson was widely believed to be setting that stipulation to avoid angering conservatives such as Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), who has announced his candidacy for the 3rd District seat but was unable to win the governor's backing for the appointment.
"To be honest with you, I am doing this against the advice of all my friends," Saltarelli said. "I guess I have a warped sense of public duty. . . . Orange County has been in a lot of trouble here and if I can help I want to."
Aside from the bankruptcy, Saltarelli and the rest of the board face a host of difficult decisions, among them whether to build a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and how best to reduce the size of county government.
Saltarelli said his first efforts will be to work toward restoring confidence in the county. He then wants to work toward a more entrepreneurial and improved government.
"I am as upset about government as everybody else," Saltarelli said. "We need changes. . . . We need a more confident feeling on the part of the people. That will lead to more economic activity, help property values and help people at large."
He also hopes to help thaw the county's frosty relationship with local cities and work to reverse Orange County's status as a donor of more tax dollars to the state than it gets back in services.
Saltarelli, who served 15 years on the Tustin council from 1972 to 1987, has worked in real estate since 1972 and for half a dozen years as a stockbroker. He also has run a part-time consulting business since 1988-89 and is now a resident of Orange.
In recent years, he has worked on land-use permit issues in Tustin for the Irvine Co., the development giant headed by Wilson benefactor and Newport Beach billionaire Donald Bren. Saltarelli's stint as a consultant for the firm has been no secret, and on Wednesday sparked some hard feelings among residents who believe the Irvine Co. holds too much sway in local and state government.
"This is a major mistake by Gov. Wilson," said Patrick Quaney, local issues coordinator of the Orange County chapter of United We Stand America. "This is an Irvine Co.-initiated appointment, in my opinion. It is an attempt to maintain the status quo."
Carole Walters, a member of the grass-roots, anti-tax group Committees of Correspondence, was also disappointed. "I was hoping that he would pick somebody that the people wanted," Walters said. "I think his pick was for political reasons. I think he did it for the Irvine Co. He didn't make a pick that was best for the people."
Others suggested that any boost Saltarelli got from the Irvine Co. shouldn't overshadow his attributes.
"I think having a relationship with the Irvine Co. certainly doesn't hurt," said Doy Henley, president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential Republican organization whose members are generally wealthy political contributors. "But I think he will serve all of the people. He'll do a good job."
Irvine Co. officials and a spokesman for the governor downplayed any role the company might have had. Larry Thomas, an Irvine Co. spokesman, said the governor's staff asked the firm for a reaction on half a dozen different finalists.
"We told them that all of the ones with whom we were familiar would have been sound appointments," Thomas said. "We didn't advocate a single candidate nor did we oppose any potential candidate."
"A number of political and business leaders in the community were consulted," added Paul Kranhold, Wilson's spokesman. "Mr. Saltarelli wasn't the choice of any one organization. He was the governor's choice because Pete Wilson felt he was best prepared for the tough job that lies ahead."
Capitol insiders had expected the final selection to lie between Saltarelli and Frank Greinke, a 63-year-old oil industry executive who had served a term on the Tustin council and whose candidacy was being pushed by members of the Lincoln Club.
Although the governor thought highly of Greinke, who in recent years has championed an effort to establish modern gas stations in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, he eventually decided to pick Saltarelli because of his more extensive government background, insiders said.
Wayne D. Wedin, chairman of the Orange County Business Council, called Saltarelli "an experienced public policy person" whose selection should strengthen the board. Saltarelli's background in government and business assist him as the county acts to privatize, downsize, sell assets and restructure, he said. "There's a whole new attitude," Wedin said. "I'm optimistic that a guy with strength is coming to the board."
Wedin said the Business Council, which helped formulate the county's bankruptcy recovery plan, was consulted by the governor on the appointment but did not endorse any particular candidate.
As a caretaker, Saltarelli will have a greater ability to get things accomplished without worrying about the political ramifications of his decisions, Wedin said.
"He doesn't have to worry about people loving him when he's done with the job," he said. "He's has a unique opportunity to move the county in the direction it needs to be moving, and that's restructuring."
Not all agreed. Eileen Padberg, an Orange County political consultant, said Saltarelli's influence will be diminished by his status as a lame duck.
"The position will be very wishy-washy. No power. No authority because he won't be there that long. . . . Who cares if he runs for office? Let the voters make the decision after they see the guy in action."
Padberg also said she felt the finalists for the post were weak. Among those on the governor's final list, in addition to Saltarelli, were county GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, South Orange County Chamber President John Ben, attorney Lisa Hughes, Lake Forest Planning Commissioner Joe Hernandez and Bruce Whitaker, spokesman for the Committees of Correspondence.
"It was horribly disappointing," Padberg said, noting that all of the candidates were staunch conservatives. "Gov. Wilson continues to throw bones to the right wing hoping they will follow him, and all they do is [dump] on him."
The selection was welcomed by all the county supervisors.
Steiner said Saltarelli "brings a good balance to the board with his business background, combined with his experience as a former elected official in Tustin. . . . He was my choice from Day 1."
Stanton said he was "very delighted" about the governor's appointment and rejected the notion that there was a philosophical division among his colleagues.
"I don't see the split on the board that other people see," said Stanton. "I don't think it's fair to generalize that there is a moderate-conservative split on the board."
Stanton added that he does not know how Saltarelli will vote on any of the key issues facing the county. "It would be unfair to characterize [him] right out of the chute as having a set of opinions regarding any issues," Stanton said. "He is going to look at each issue as it comes along."
Supervisor Jim Silva agreed, noting that Saltarelli had voted against the half-cent sales tax increase on the June ballot that had been backed by Steiner and Bergeson. "That shows that he knows there are other ways to get out of the bankruptcy other than the liberal tax-and-spend policies."
Times political writer Peter Warren contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Going, Going . . .
A majority of the supervisors in office at the time of Orange County's bankruptcy are no longer there. A fourth has announced that he won't seek reelection, and a fifth faces a fledgling recall.
OUT OF OFFICE
Thomas F. Riley
Appointed to office Sept. 4, 1974, by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Served 20 years on board before retiring Dec. 31. Board chairman at time of bankruptcy.
Harriett M. Wieder
Elected to board in runoff in November, 1978. Joined board Jan. 1, 1979. Retired Dec. 31 after 16 years. On board at time of bankruptcy.
Gaddi H. Vasquez
Appointed March, 1987, by then-Gov. George Deukmejian. Resigned Sept. 27 while being targeted for recall.
Roger R. Stanton
Defeated incumbent Philip Anthony in January, 1981. Announced last month that he will retire and not seek reelection when term expires Dec. 31, 1996.
William G. Steiner
Appointed March 3, 1993, by Gov. Pete Wilson. Reelected June, 1994. Recently became target of recall movement. Term expires Dec. 31, 1998.
Formerly state senator, joined board Jan. 1, 1995, after county declared bankruptcy.
Elected November, 1994, after runoff. Joined board Jan. 1, 1995, after county declared bankruptcy.
Source: Times reports