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 Vasquez.
The appointment to the 3rd District seat ends weeks of speculation over who would replace Vasquez, who stepped down last month after coming under fire for 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 citizen groups that sprang up with vows to reform government after the county lost $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 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 also is expected to tip the balance on the board toward Supervisors Marian Bergeson and William Steiner, both Wilson allies.
All of the supervisors, however, greeted Saltarelli's appointment warmly and suggested that 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. Wilson was widely believed to be setting the stipulation that Saltarelli agree not to run for the office 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 trim county government.
Saltarelli said his first efforts will be to work toward restoring confidence in the county.
"I am as upset about government as everybody else," Saltarelli said. "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."
Saltarelli, who served on the Tustin City Council from 1972 to 1987, also has worked in real estate since 1972 and for half a dozen years as a stockbroker. He has run a part-time consulting business since 1988 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 Wednesday sparked some hard feelings among residents who believe the company holds too much sway in local and state government.
"This is a major mistake by Gov. Wilson," said Patrick Quaney, legal issues coordinator for the 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."
Times political writer Peter Warren contributed to this report.