Thomas F. Riley; Former Orange County Supervisor


Former Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who held office during two decades of unprecedented growth but retired from the public arena just as the county collapsed into bankruptcy, died Thursday. He was 85.

Paramedics were called to Riley’s home overlooking Upper Newport Bay just before dawn by his wife, Emma Jane, who reported that the former Marine Corps brigadier general was having trouble breathing but refused to go to the hospital.

They found Riley lying on his bed in full cardiac arrest and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him, said Lt. John Blauer of the Newport Beach Fire Department.


His health had been failing in recent years. Riley’s left foot was amputated last year because of a severe infection worsened by diabetes. A year earlier, he was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for surgery to relieve pressure on his spine, which was causing severe back and leg pain.

From the marble-lined terminal at John Wayne Airport that bears his name to the state’s first public toll roads, which he championed, Riley helped transform the nation’s fifth-largest county into an area brimming with new jobs and homes. He was an early advocate of the types of large planned communities that now define Orange County.

“He was a role model for elected officials. He had a blend of honesty, integrity and hard work,” said Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner. “He leaves a remarkable legacy.”

“Future generations will be able to thank him for the expansion of John Wayne Airport, all the major park acquisitions and, for better or worse, all the homes in the south county,” said Fred Smoller, a professor of political science at Chapman University.

Riley was proud of the land he helped set aside for public parks, but he could never shake a public perception that he favored the interests of builders over those of residents wishing a slower approach to development.

“You could say the legacy he left south county was the overdevelopment and the congestion,” said longtime development foe Tom Rogers. “He was loyal to his friends, and they happened to be developers. Unfortunately, his loyalty was misplaced.”

During Riley’s 20 years in office, nearly 1 million people moved to Orange County, and more than 300,000 homes were built. Five new cities sprang up, three of them in Riley’s district.

But the end of Riley’s tenure was marred as his retirement coincided with Orange County’s financial fall. Riley and two fellow board members, Gaddi H. Vasquez and Harriett M. Wieder, were able to escape misconduct charges by leaving office.

While others sought to shift blame for the bankruptcy, Riley was one of the few to take responsibility.

“I wish I had listened just a bit more, questioned just a bit more, and trusted just a bit less,” Riley said just moments before he formally retired as board chairman.

Randy Smith, an influential lobbyist and longtime Riley friend, said the bankruptcy weighed heavily on him during the last years of his life.

“It was one of the saddest things,” Smith said. “He felt bad it happened on his watch.”

Times staff writers Janet Wilson and Esther Schrader contributed to this report.