Charter Plan Ekes Out Modest Lead

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A charter proposal that would reshape county government holds a modest lead in a new Times Orange County Poll, but public doubts about Measure T's effectiveness pose potentially serious obstacles to voter approval.

With just over two weeks until the March 26 election, the charter is ahead 41% to 30%, with 29% of registered voters still undecided, the poll shows.

But only about 4 in 10 poll respondents believe that passage of Measure T would make government leaders more likely to spend taxpayer dollars wisely or better represent the needs of residents.

"Those findings indicate a ceiling of support. Obviously, they need a majority to win," said Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine professor of urban planning who conducted the poll for The Times. The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted March 1-4 and has a 4% margin of error.

Charter supporters "haven't gotten their message out that the changes being proposed would help avoid future fiascoes like the Orange County bankruptcy," he added.

The charter is a set of laws designed to repair the structural flaws in county government exposed by the bankruptcy. Only 13 of California's 58 counties have charters. The remainder, including Orange County, are governed by general state laws.

Measure T would impose term limits for supervisors, establish a strong chief executive officer to run day-to-day county affairs and convert several elected positions, such as treasurer and auditor, into appointed positions.

The charter has so far produced a low-key campaign. Backers--including some county supervisors, business leaders and good-government advocates--contend the proposal would make government more efficient and accountable.

But opponents, including anti-tax activists and leaders of local Republican and Democratic party groups, argue that the measure would place too much power in the hands of bureaucrats.

The poll found broad support for some elements of the charter, but significant opposition to other provisions.

Nearly 80% of respondents favor term limits and 65% endorse a charter provision that would make it easier for the county to contract out for some government services.

"The term limits really attracted me," said respondent Michelle Welty of Anaheim, who favors Measure T. "I think it's important that you not have people who are stuck [on the board] for years. You can never get rid of them."

Welty also expressed support for using the private sector to provide some government services. "I think it could save taxpayers some money," she said.

But only 34% of pool respondents support converting some elected positions into appointed ones, while 51% oppose the idea.

"If they are going to handle my money, I want to be the one deciding who serves in office," said respondent R.J. Niknami of Irvine. "I think if they appoint the officials, you could see favoritism. Who knows who they would appoint? . . . They should let us decide. It's the people's choice."

Voters have traditionally reacted with suspicion to proposals that would limit their ability to select representatives, Baldassare said.

"People are looking for more accountability in the government," he said. "They find it hard to imagine that taking away voting for public officials will make them more accountable."

The strong opposition to the conversion idea bodes poorly for the charter because "all people have to do is find one thing they don't like and decide to vote against it," Baldassare added.

Measure U, which asks voters whether they want the Board of Supervisors expanded from five to nine members, is falling well short of majority support, according to the poll. Half the respondents said they oppose Measure U, while 40% favor it.

The survey found support for the board expansion proposal varied by region. In North County, 37% favor Measure U while 52% oppose it. In South County, where some elected officials have complained about their lack of clout on major countywide issues such as the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station conversion, 49% of respondents favor the proposal while 43% opposed it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Change to Charter Still Seeking Majority

Measure T, which would enact a county charter for Orange County, is leading in the Times Orange County poll but does not have majority support. However, voters are embracing some of the changes it would create. The only one of four Measure T changes that does not meet with majority support is one that would convert some positions from elected to appointed posts:

* If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on Measure T, which would result in Orange County becoming a charter county?

Yes: 41%

No: 30

Don't know: 29

* If Measure T passes, will Orange County government leaders be more likely or less likely to spend taxpayers' money wisely?

More likely: 40%

Less likely: 21

No difference: 13

Don't know: 26

* Do you favor or oppose these changes, which are included in Measure T:

- Setting term limits for members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to no more than two consecutive four-year terms in office.

*--*

1995 1996 Favor 85% 79% Oppose 12 13 Don't know 3 8

*--*

- Authorizing Orange County government to contract out with private companies to provide county services.

*--*

1995 1996 Favor 69% 65% Oppose 25 25 Don't know 6 10

*--*

- Having a county executive officer appointed by the Board of Supervisors to manage all day-to-day county operations and supervise department heads.

*--*

1995 1996 Favor 61% 54% Oppose 31 30 Don't know 8 16

*--*

- Changing the Orange County treasurer, clerk and auditor from elected positions to appointed positions in Orange County government.

*--*

1995 1996 Favor 39% 34% Oppose 55 51 Don't know 6 15

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- . . . represent the needs of residents?

More likely: 42%

Less likely: 22

No difference: 11

Don't know: 25

Note: The 1995 questions were worded, "set term limits for the Orange County Board of Supervisors," "appoint a chief executive officer to run Orange County government" and "change the Board of Supervisors from full-time to part-time positions." Questions on contracting services and appointing treasurer, clerk and auditor were identical.

Measure U

Measure U, which would increase the number of county supervisors from the current five to nine, does not appear to be a change voters are willing to make. Only South County residents like the idea:

* Measure U on the Orange County ballot would increase the number of members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors from five to nine. If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on Measure U?

*--*

Yes No Don't Know All voters 40% 50% 10% North County 37 52 11 South County 49 43 8

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Source: Times Orange County Poll

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