FOCUS: Orange County Focus is dedicated on Monday to analysis of community news, a look at what’s ahead and the voices of local people. : PERSPECTIVE : Bankruptcy Reaction Reappraised as Recall Drives Fail
If the experts and opinion polls are right, Orange County’s bankruptcy stirred such unparalleled public fury that elected officials should be pondering futures outside government.
But so far, that anger has generated little in the way of grass-roots political upheaval. Despite the county’s reputation as a hotbed for recall activism, all four attempts to oust politicians involved in the financial crisis have failed.
A fifth recall effort targeting three Irvine council members appeared to fizzle two weeks ago when the city clerk concluded that organizers didn’t collect enough valid signatures, though that ruling is being challenged.
The failure of those campaigns to catch fire has some activists and elected leaders reappraising the public’s sentiment and wondering what it bodes for county politics.
They point out that while the bankruptcy makes national headlines, it has yet to affect the average voter’s pocketbook significantly. Moreover, the issues are so complicated that they have not ignited the passion needed to sustain a broad political movement.
“Financial matters like these are often very abstract to citizens,” said Bruce Whitaker, who led last year’s successful ouster of three Fullerton council members after they imposed a utility tax.
The Fullerton recall and last week’s unsuccessful bid to oust three Cypress council members who backed construction of a carpet warehouse offered voters easily understandable issues and clear-cut choices, Whitaker said.
“It’s harder to grasp the full reality of the bankruptcy,” he said. “As a result, making the case for a recall becomes more difficult.”
Still, some find it remarkable that the loss of nearly $1.7 billion in public funds has not produced a recall election while seemingly lesser issues like the Cypress carpet warehouse have.
When the county filed for bankruptcy protection on Dec. 6, the public reaction was swift and pointed. A Times Orange County Poll in January found that 84% of respondents were “very angry” or “somewhat angry” at local officials involved in the crisis.
Residents packed Board of Supervisors meetings by the hundreds, some contemptuously accusing officials of being “incompetent,” “disgraceful” and “shameful.” One man remarked: “Nobody’s going to elect you dogcatcher now.”
The supervisors, however, remained in office, and many activists turned their energies instead to defeating Measure R, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase designed to help free the county from its financial bind.
The resounding defeat of the tax proposal in June was a “clear manifestation” of the public’s indignation at county officials, said David Ellis, a Newport Beach political consultant. “I think Measure R was a cathartic expression of voter anger.”
But the ballot measure did little to boost the sagging recall efforts against Supervisor Roger R. Stanton and Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis. Both campaigns quickly foundered.
Ellis and others attribute that in part to the recall rules, which require activists to collect thousands of signatures to force an election. Often, recalls are launched by residents with little experience in running campaigns or organizing volunteers.
“It was a difficult process,” said Gary Kingsbury, leader of the Irvine recall. “We would train volunteers, but they would help for just one day. Then we’d have to find new people. Our problem wasn’t getting people to sign the petitions. They wanted to sign.”
The Irvine campaign came the closest to making the ballot, but it also illustrated the difficulties that activists have faced when trying to turn the bankruptcy into political action.
The effort targeted Mayor Michael Ward and council members Barry J. Hammond and Paula Werner, who voted to borrow $62 million for placement in the county’s investment pool. Because of risky investments, the pool collapsed late last year.
From the start, there was some confusion over what organizers hoped to achieve. Kingsbury and other activists vowed to call off the campaign if council members fired longtime City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr., whom they also blamed for Irvine’s investment decisions.
As the drive moved forward, the focus slowly shifted from the bankruptcy to other hot-button city issues. In neighborhoods near City Hall, for example, volunteers played up the city’s controversial proposal to build softball diamonds at Civic Center Park. A low-income housing development also became a recall issue in the area where it was to be built.
Kingsbury defended the strategy, saying that bringing up other decisions by Ward, Hammond and Werner was perfectly reasonable.
But recall critics contended that the changing course of the campaign demonstrated that the financial crisis alone did not generate enough voter ire to oust the council members.
“I don’t think this had anything to do with the bankruptcy,” said William C. Mavity, former president of the Woodbridge Village Homeowners Assn. “It had to do with power and gaining name recognition” for campaign organizers.
The apparent failure of the recall, Mavity said, proves that Irvine residents are generally happy with their leaders and don’t blame them for the financial crisis.
Even in the hectic months following the December bankruptcy filing, local issues like a carwash development and the plan to convert the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a commercial airport seemed to generate more public interest than the fund collapse.
Another factor recall that advocates should not overlook, said County Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville, is the special relationships that voters often form with their elected leaders.
“I think people look at a recall and ask, ‘Do I go against someone who I agree with 90% of the time and disagree with 10% of the time?’ ” Granville said.
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Anger Flares, Action Fizzles
Although eight in 10 residents expressed anger in January over officials’ actions that led to the county bankruptcy, five recall drives have fizzled or are in limbo. Here’s how respondents answered a Times Orange County Poll in January: “At this time, how do you feel about the actions of local officials that led to the Orange County financial crisis?”
Very angry: 51%
Somewhat angry: 33
Not too angry: 10
Not angry at all: 5
Don’t know: 1
Here is the status of five recall efforts begun since the bankruptcy: * Supervisor Roger R. Stanton: Launched in December; by March, organizers said they had fallen substantially short of the signatures needed to get on the ballot. * Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez: Began in July and continued even after Vasquez announced his resignation in August. * Supervisor William G. Steiner: Began in October but fizzled a few weeks later because organizers lacked the money to publish the required legal notice. * Three Irvine City Council members: Most serious effort, but organizers failed to collect enough valid signatures, according to the city clerk. Ruling is being challenged. * Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis: Frequently mentioned as a recall target. But activists said it would be difficult to collect more than 100,000 signature needed to get on ballot.
Sources: Times reports, Times Orange County Poll, interviews, County Registrar of Voters; Researched by SHELBY GRAD/For The Times