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Charter Campaign Instantly in Full Swing : Politics: Hours after board vote to put reform proposal on March ballot, backers outline plan to win over public support while opponents vow ‘all-out war’ to defeat it.

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Predicting a tough election fight is in the offing, both supporters and opponents of a charter designed to reform the county’s bankrupt government shifted into campaign gear Wednesday, just hours after supervisors placed the document on the March ballot.

Some who had a hand in drafting the proposed charter said they will spend the next four months attempting to educate voters about how its various provisions would make government more efficient and accountable.

But anti-tax activists and other critics vowed an “all-out war” against the charter proposal, which they complain places too much power in the hands of county bureaucrats.

“It doesn’t stand a chance,” said Bruce Whitaker, a leader of the citizens watchdog group that spearheaded the successful voter revolt against this summer’s ballot proposal to raise the county sales tax.

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“We have no choice but to throttle it,” said Whitaker, a founder of the Committees of Correspondence.

The proposed charter, drafted over the past 10 months by a 33-member commission appointed by the supervisors, was the subject of a heated four-hour meeting that ended late Tuesday night when supervisors voted unanimously to place it before the voters.

The charter would establish a strong chief executive officer to run day-to-day county operations, convert four elected offices, including that of treasurer, into appointed posts, and limit supervisors to two four-year terms. The measure also asks voters whether they want to expand the Board of Supervisors to nine members or keep it at five.

Supervisors added a few last-minute amendments Tuesday night that would create the post of a chief financial officer, allow the CEO to select department heads without board ratification and require officials to regularly compare county wages to those in the private sector.

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But the board failed to place on the ballot a more radical alternative charter backed by activists, who on Wednesday compared the impending election to last spring’s battle over a proposed half-cent sales tax increase known as Measure R.

“This is deja vu in terms of Measure R,” said Patrick Quaney, an author of the alternative charter. “You have the same players on both sides.”

The March 26 election will be historic. Only 13 of California’s 58 counties have charters, which are individually crafted sets of laws. The rest, including Orange County, are governed by general state laws.

Proponents argue that a charter would give the county a greater ability to restructure government and privatize some services in the wake of the bankruptcy, which was caused by a nearly $1.7-billion loss in a county-run investment pool.

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Despite the criticism from some activists, the charter has won praise from other segments of the county. The Orange County Business Council, for example, urged the board to place the proposal on the ballot and will decide in the coming months whether to formally endorse and campaign for it.

Bruce Sumner, the retired judge who chairs the commission, said he was optimistic that voters would embrace the charter. He pointed to a recent public opinion poll conducted by UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology that found broad support among residents for government reform, including increased privatization and the creation of a powerful county executive.

“I think the key question is whether voters feel the charter is an improvement, or if they want to continue doing business the way we did before the bankruptcy,” he said.

It remains unclear exactly what role top county politicians will play in the election campaign. Said Supervisor Jim Silva: “I’m out in the community talking about the charter. I want to get input from people before I decide whether to support it.”

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