Taking on the biggest challenge of his political life, former Tustin mayor and real estate broker Don Saltarelli was sworn in Monday as Orange County's newest supervisor, vowing to reform government and helping to lead the county out of bankruptcy within a year.
But in a speech shortly after taking the oath of office, Saltarelli downplayed the bankruptcy crisis and said he believes one of the biggest obstacles facing the county is a "negative attitude" casting a chill on the local economy and the housing market.
"Remember what I say to you now," Saltarelli told nearly 200 people who attended his swearing-in ceremony. "There is nothing at all wrong with this county but the negative attitude that persists everywhere about our future and our problems. We have nothing to fear but the self-fulfilling prophecy of negative thought."
"What we need to do is go to work tomorrow with a fresh and positive outlook and soon we will have things working better," he later said.
Some at the ceremony privately derided that as a simplistic view.
"So we should just put on a happy face and everything will be fine?" remarked one county official who declined to be identified but added that Saltarelli still seems to be moving in the right direction.
Saltarelli told the crowd he has an agenda: Consolidate county government; place public employees' benefits and salaries in line with those in the private sector; lower bankruptcy attorney and consultant fees, and help the county recoup more of the tax money it ships to Sacramento.
Many of those ideas have been touted before, but have never been successfully implemented.
Appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, Saltarelli will serve out the 15 months remaining in the term vacated by Gaddi H. Vasquez, who recently left office after weathering months of criticism over the bankruptcy. Vasquez was on hand for Monday's ceremony to wish his successor well.
While it remains to be seen how much the former Marine Corps captain and Vietnam War veteran can accomplish in such a short time, he said he will not just be keeping a seat warm.
"I intend to be an instrument of change," Saltarelli said.
Many Orange County residents are indeed clamoring for change, but some activists wonder whether Saltarelli can deliver. His appointment angered some who believe he is too closely aligned with the Irvine Co., the development giant that has hired Saltarelli in the past to work on land-use permit issues.
In the wake of such concerns, Saltarelli repeatedly portrayed himself as an honest politician.
"I think for myself," he said. "I cannot be intimidated."
In his speech, Saltarelli praised Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren and business leaders who have created financial empires in Orange County. Those innovators help "grow the economy" and create jobs for residents, said Saltarelli, who added that government can assist by not interfering.
Saltarelli walks into the midst of the worst U.S. municipal bankruptcy, which occurred after the county lost nearly $1.7 billion in a risky investment strategy. A recovery plan aims to pay back creditors and have the county out of bankruptcy by mid-1996.
"This is indeed a highlight" after months of bankruptcy-related misery, said Roger R. Stanton, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
The brief ceremony was marked by Saltarelli's self-deprecating humor.
"Well, I like to think Gov. Pete Wilson chose me because I personify all those qualities one should have to be a good politician: Young. Tall. Handsome. Thin. Athletic. And of course, very photogenic," said Saltarelli, 54, who is short, rotund and sometimes mistaken as the grandfather of his two youngest children.
Striking a more serious tone, Saltarelli spoke about being raised a poor, Catholic, Italian immigrant and noted his parents' efforts to encourage education and a strong work ethic.
His speech managed to touch on Walt Disney, Roy Rogers and former President Franklin Pierce.
In the end, Saltarelli asked for the public's help:
"We've all heard the saying 'If it ain't broke don't fix it.'
"In the real world today, if it ain't broke we must break it and build it again and make it newer and make it better and when we think it's working real well we need to break it again and do it even better the next time," he said.
"The people of Orange County must give us the chance to do it."