'Sound' Politician From South County


The people who like and respect Thomas W. Wilson describe him with words such as "thoughtful" and "deliberative."

With all the issues he'll face as a new member of the Board of Supervisors, Wilson may have to act faster than he is used to.

"Give me a couple of days," Wilson said Wednesday as he checked out his new office in the Hall of Administration. "I don't even know my phone number yet."

Wilson, 56, a longtime member of the Laguna Niguel City Council, faces an array of questions formidable enough to give even the boldest politician pause.

His constituents are fighting mad over plans to expand a jail in nearby Irvine. They are adamantly opposed to the development of a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. He might have to cut still more services and lay off workers.

On top of that, Wilson faces a restless population of South County voters who have long believed the Board of Supervisors has given them short shrift.

Wilson's friends say he will do just fine. They describe him as an unusually conscientious public official, particularly strong on financial and economic issues.

"Tom makes sure he understands the issues and then he steps forward," said Stan Oftelie, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority. "People will follow him on an issue--not because he is spectacular, but because he is sound."

Oftelie recalled a crucial vote in 1995 by the OCTA board, where Wilson is a board member. The issue was whether OCTA should support an annual diversion of more than $75 million of transportation money to help bail the county out of bankruptcy. The board recommended against such a strategy and ultimately gave the county much less money, Oftelie said, in large part due to Wilson's arguments.

"That would have devastated public transit in Orange County," Oftelie said. "Tom really carried the day."

Wilson's detractors see him a little differently. They say that in seven years as a councilman in Laguna Niguel, Wilson rarely took the lead on a crucial issue. Instead, they say, he typically hung in the background until a consensus formed. Then, and only then, did he step forward.

"I have known Tom for 10 years. He is not a person who is going to be on the cutting edge of a controversial issue," said Paul Willems, a community activist in Laguna Niguel. "He does not want to lead the charge."

Willems faulted Wilson for his votes on a controversial 22-unit development proposed to be built by Las Vegas casino owner Jack Binion. Though Wilson was named by the council to be the city's liaison with Binion, Willems said Wilson has kept the public in the dark.

"Nobody knows what he has done," Willems said. "What he has promised to Binion, nobody knows."

Wilson seemed to be learning fast Wednesday. At his first news conference, he declared his stout opposition to an El Toro airport expansion. He called for a summit with South County leaders so he could hear what's on their minds. He announced upfront that he would seek election when his term expires in 1998.

"I think I can bring something to the party," said Wilson, a retired program manager for Rockwell International. "I think that with my background, being in the private sector and public sector, I will have a lot to offer."

Still, Wilson waved off questions about several looming issues, including the proposed 6,000-bed expansion of the James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine. Just Wednesday, the cities of Irvine and Lake Forest filed a lawsuit to block the project.

"I've got a lot of work to do," he said.

Wilson said he first decided to enter public life after his wife of many years died of multiple sclerosis.

"I just chose to reassess myself," he said. "I enjoy serving the public."

Former Councilman Larry Porter said Wilson handled the transition with courage and grace, having to raise a teenage son by himself.

"It was a real tough thing for the family," Porter said. "To be councilman, a working man, a father and a nurse. . . . He had a real difficult cross to bear."

"He's had to be a single parent to his son. . . . Tom always managed to make time for him."

Today, Wilson's son, also named Tom, is 21 and is posted at Miramar Naval Air Station.

Wilson, who is now engaged to be married, got involved in local politics just as the movement to form a city in Laguna Niguel came to fruition in the late 1980s. He was elected to the city's first City Council in 1989.

Laguna Niguel's incorporation happened just as several other cities in South County--Dana Point, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo--also made themselves cities.

Wilson, one of the first supervisors to live in South County, promised Wednesday that he would strongly push for their interests in the next two years. Such a perspective, officials in the area say, would be welcome.

"If you talk to anyone in the cities south of the Newport Beach area, there is a feeling that we have never been represented," Laguna Niguel City Manager Tim Casey said. "I think with Tom we will now have representation from the heart of South County."

Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Rene Lynch.

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