Don Saltarelli, appointed Wednesday by Gov. Pete Wilson to the Board of Supervisors, came to Orange County from Pennsylvania in the 1960s, a young officer based at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
What he saw, he liked.
Discharged a captain in 1967, he settled in Tustin, then a sleepy city of orange groves and about 20,000 people. Today the community has grown to more than 62,000, and where the citrus blossomed there are major retail, industrial and commercial developments, a massive auto mall, recreation centers, a golf course and several master-planned communities.
Saltarelli became a stockbroker when he left the military but later switched to real estate. He served on the Tustin City Council from 1972 until 1987 and was a key player in the city's transformation. Today he owns one of the oldest real estate companies in the city, Century 21 Saltarelli Realty, and an escrow company, EBR Escrow.
Widely respected for his intelligence, business savvy and charm, Saltarelli, 54, will draw on all of those when he begins his tenure on the board later this week.
"To be honest with you, I am doing this against the advice of all my friends," he said in the interview from his home in Orange. Then, noting that taking the position would cost "my privacy and 15 months of my life," Saltarelli described the county as being "in a lot of trouble" and said he is taking the job "out of a warped sense of public duty."
In assessing his selection Wednesday, those who know the 54-year-old former Tustin mayor pointed not only to his talents but to his experience in local government and service on countywide agencies as keys to Wilson's choice.
Saltarelli said he will relinquish the board post at the end of the 15-month interim appointment. "I have no political ambitions and am not going to run for this office or for any other," he said.
Former Supervisor Bruce Nestande said Saltarelli combines many attributes that will serve him well. Describing Tustin as a city with many constituencies, Nestande said Saltarelli's political acumen and his business experience in a diverse city will be needed as a supervisor.
"He is a hard worker and smart," said Nestande, who once held the seat that Saltarelli will fill. "He has enough government experience so he can walk into that office and be part of the decision-making process in a knowledgeable manner."
In addition to his stint on the Tustin council, Saltarelli served on the Orange County Sanitation Districts board as both member and chairman. He was also a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission for 13 years and was one of those considered in 1987 when Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Gaddi H. Vasquez to represent District 3 on the Board of Supervisors.
Such service will give him an insight into "how the county and regional agencies have to work together," said Tustin City Manager William A. Huston.
Until this week, Saltarelli's key achievement as a public official was his role in the development of Tustin.
Huston said Saltarelli had the vision to "recognize that this community was going to change and that it was situated in a very good location with assets," including 2,000 acres of vacant land that would become the massive Tustin Ranch project now being developed by the Irvine Co.
Frank Greinke, who served on the council with Saltarelli in the '80s and who was also a candidate for Wednesday's supervisorial appointment, said that Saltarelli went ahead in the face of controversy surrounding the development of Tustin Ranch, and that those decisions are generally approved of today.
Despite Tustin's explosive growth, Greinke said, "We maintained our hometown image and brought in a good tax base to support the programs we need" for the city's residents without flooding neighborhoods with traffic.
In describing his tenure on the council, Saltarelli said that the "thing I wanted to do was secure Tustin's financial future. A defining thing was to annex all the county islands . . . our borders looked like Swiss cheese."
The largest of those islands was the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, which is under closure order from the federal government. Huston described the decision by the council in the late 1970s to annex it as "a stroke of genius, because I don't think anyone anticipated that [the base] would close down."
Today, the property represents 16,000 acres of prime land that will bring thousands of jobs to the city along with a hotel, housing, a golf course, recreation and a couple of million feet of high-tech development, Huston said.
Saltarelli, a sometime contributor to Republican politics and frequently to Gov. Wilson, is not regarded as a major player in the county GOP. He voted against Measure R but did not take a public position against it.
"I think the voters took a principled stand against it," he said. "It didn't make a lot of sense to vote against it, but people were willing to see property values go down in order to send a very clear message that we must heed: Whatever it takes to resolve this, it must be done without a tax increase."
Saltarelli left the Tustin council in 1987 to concentrate on his real estate business, which today has some 30 agents. In 1988-89 he began working as a consultant on land-use matters. He represented the Irvine Co. beginning in about 1990 on a number of issues concerning the Tustin Ranch project, an Irvine Co. spokesman said.
While on the council, Huston said, Saltarelli always scrupulously avoided conflicts of interest. In his consulting work, Saltarelli "always struck a balance between what are the needs of the land owner and what are the needs of the community," he said. "It illustrates his experience at finding some middle ground, being a consensus builder."
Saltarelli, who graduated from Penn State, is married to Cecilia Saltarelli, and they have two children, Emily, 3, and Max, 5. He has three adult children from a previous marriage. Both of his parents live in Tustin, having moved here from Pennsylvania after his father closed the beauty salon the couple operated there.
Saltarelli's brother Thomas R., a lawyer, is the current mayor of Tustin.
For the county and the cities, "the bankruptcy has been a very adversarial process," he said. "What is needed very much is a Board of Supervisors that will come together with the cities and special districts, so they can move forward with a spirit of cooperation."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Profile: Donald J. Saltarelli
Personal: Married three times, five children
Political affiliation: Republican
Education: Bachelor of science in education from Penn State University in 1963
Employment: Real estate broker, owner of Century 21 Saltarelli Realty in Tustin
Career highlights: Served on Tustin City Council from 1972 to 1987 and served as mayor for four terms.
Quote: "To be honest with you, I am doing this against the advice of all my friends. I guess I have a warped sense of public duty."
Source: State of California governor's office, Times reports