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Supervisors to Consider Placing Charter on Ballot : Government: Business leaders support commission’s proposed draft. Opponents ask their version also be put forth.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After almost a year of negotiations and debate, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider placing before the voters a charter aimed at making government more efficient and accountable in the wake of the county’s bankruptcy.

But the board’s decision may not come easily.

Some charter provisions remain contentious and have rekindled some of the political tension created by another bankruptcy-related ballot issue: Measure R, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase that voters rejected in June.

“These are such basic, important issues,” said Jean Askham, director emeritus of the League of Women Voters. “This is going to be a significant meeting.”

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An unusual coalition of anti-tax activists and civil rights leaders oppose the draft charter and have crafted a detailed alternative which would radically alter county government. Among other things, their plan would place more power in the hands of supervisors and allow voters to check “None of the Above” on all county ballots.

Business leaders are more supportive of the county’s charter proposal but still plan to offer amendments designed in part to enhance the chief executive officer’s powers.

Other government watchdog groups such as the League of Women Voters question whether a charter is needed at all. But all sides seem to agree that, whatever document finally is chosen, it will stand as a lasting legacy of the county’s financial crisis.

The idea of restructuring county government became popular soon after the Dec. 6 bankruptcy filing, which was precipitated by a $1.7-billion loss in the county-run investment pool. The losses resulted from risky investments made by the treasurer’s office.

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Within weeks, the Board of Supervisors appointed a 38-member commission charged with crafting a charter. Only 13 of California’s 58 counties have charters. The rest, including Orange County, are governed by general laws set down by the state.

When the commission began work in February, members said they hoped to produce a document that would protect the county against future system breakdowns like the financial crisis.

But discord quickly developed among the elected officials, business leaders and activists who make up the commission, with a vocal minority complaining that the panel was not going far enough in its reforms.

The competing charters reflect different philosophies of what local government should be. The commission’s charter would put day-to-day operations in the hands of the CEO and establish the Board of Supervisors as a policy-making body. It also would give voters the option of expanding the board from five to nine members.

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The charter would limit supervisors to two four-year terms and give the chief executive officer the power to hire and fire county employees, though the board would ratify the hiring of top officials.

To address the issue of risky investing by the county treasurer, the charter would make that position and three others appointed rather than elected. Bruce Sumner, a retired judge and head of the commission, said the provisions are meant to have those jobs filled with the most qualified candidates, not simply with individuals who can get elected.

The alternative charter, by contrast, would give more power to supervisors and moderate the influence of county staff.

“We want the supervisors to have the tools they need to be responsible and accountable,” said Patrick Quaney, an author of the alternative plan. “I think this turns on whether you want [the county] run by our representatives.”

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His group’s proposal would keep the treasurer’s post as an elected office and create citizens oversight committees to monitor county government. The committee monitoring law enforcement would even have subpoena power. The charter also would require that all special districts, such as water and sanitation authorities, be absorbed by cities or the county.

Quaney admitted the proposal is radical and would probably face court challenges. Still, he said, “it offers the voters a real choice.”

The activists unveiled their proposal last week and requested that the supervisors place both the commission’s charter and their alternative on the ballot.

Sumner and others oppose sending voters both charters for fear that neither would be approved. They say all the ideas in the alternative plan were carefully considered but then rejected by the commission, which overwhelmingly approved the draft to be presented to the supervisors.

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“When people say the charter doesn’t go far enough, I don’t know what they mean,” Sumner said. “I think the one question out there is this: Do you want to keep county government the way it is, or do you want to improve it? I think what we have is a vast improvement.”

Some business leaders agree, even though the commission rejected their suggestion to convert the post of supervisor into a part-time job.

The Orange County Business Council plans to support the charter while suggesting two amendments. One would allow the CEO to hire top county officials without board ratification. The other would establish an independent auditor who would report to the supervisors.

Those changes would “show both Wall Street and the voters that this is not just business as usual,” said Wayne Wedin, chairman of the Business Council.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Charter decision

The Board of Supervisors will decide Tuesday whether to ask voters in March to approve a county charter. Some anti-tax activists have submitted an alternative document. Here are key provisions of each proposal.

CHARTER COMMISSION PROPOSAL

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* Limits supervisors to two four-year terms.

* Places more power in the hands of the chief executive officer.

* Converts some elected posts such as treasurer-tax collector into appointed positions.

* Establishes the Board of Supervisors as a policy-making body, with the CEO running daily operations.

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ALTERNATIVE CHARTER PROPOSAL

* Places more power in the hands of supervisors.

* Allows voters to check “None of the Above” on all county ballots.

* Adds new countywide elected offices, including coroner and transportation director.

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* Establishes citizens oversight committees to monitor government actions. The committee monitoring law enforcement would have subpoena power.

Sources: Orange County Charter Commission, Concerned Citizens Charter Committee, Times reports. Researched by SHELBY GRAD / For The Times.


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