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To Mittermeier’s Critics: $20,000 Is Small Price for Good Governing

I’m as upset as anyone over the county’s planned pay raise for Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier. By a 3-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors, she’s going to get an extra 20 grand.

I say it’s not enough.

What rankles me even more, her critics on the board also want to reduce her powers. Spare me the old days, when special interest groups reigned through elected officials they’d wooed. I’m for a strong county professional in charge.

Not that this is scoring me any points within my own circle of friends and acquaintances. Even some in my private poker game want Mittermeier run out of town.

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Some loathe her for turning county government into a closed society. Since supervisors put her in charge during the bankruptcy debacle three years ago, they argue, she’s developed a bunker mentality. She even put up new walls around her own office complex, to add another protective layer between her and her less than adoring public.

“It’s easier to get through to President Clinton than it is Jan Mittermeier,” one good friend offered.

She’s been less than tactful with critics, such as Supervisor Todd Spitzer. Even Mittermeier’s defenders bristle at her hard-line style in dealing with others.

“Sometimes with Jan it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ ” said Supervisor William Steiner, who is among her biggest boosters. “She can be obstinate.”

OK, I’m not much of a fan either. She’s never returned one of my telephone calls. Too busy, her aides always say. It makes me wonder if she treats the public that way too.

But here’s the other side:

Mittermeier was a career county employee, winning high marks for efficiently running John Wayne Airport, when she was asked to lead the county out of its financial abyss.

I’m not a bankruptcy expert, but I know the county is better off than it was when she took over. True, she’s not solely responsible; there have been a lot of key players. The economy bouncing back helped too.

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But Mittermeier’s bosses, the majority on the Board of Supervisors, have rated her job performance as “outstanding.” If you got an “outstanding” from your bosses, wouldn’t you expect a raise, despite what your critics said about you?

“She’s given us a respectability that we didn’t have before she took over,” said Supervisor Charles V. Smith. “For the first time we have a five-year financial plan, we have our bond rating back. You bet she’s earned a raise.”

Even one of her critics high up in county government conceded that Mittermeier “has provided us a continuum for how to deal with our financial problems.”

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But to me, it’s mostly beside the point whether her pluses can overcome her minuses. We’re talking about a blip--$20,000--for someone who has to advise the supervisors on a $3.6-billion budget. If my vote as a supervisor was “outstanding” for someone in Mittermeier’s position, I’d throw in a set of dish towels and have a County Jail inmate wash her car twice a week.

The county’s own private consultants have said that Mittermeier’s $140,000 salary was far below the $265,000 made by equivalent executives in private business. And that was two years ago. The city managers of Santa Ana and Anaheim are making more money than Mittermeier, and she’s running a shop bigger than their two put together.

If Mittermeier quits tomorrow, Supervisor Steiner fears, the county isn’t going to get another top executive to come in at $140,000. Not anyone who can really do the job. “We have to remain competitive,” Steiner argues.

If you’re worried that Mittermeier is trying to gouge the county for personal gain, keep in mind: Two years ago, the board’s majority members were so pleased with her work they offered her about a $10,000 pay raise.

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“She turned us down,” Steiner said. “She didn’t think it would be right until the county was in better financial shape.”

Supervisor Spitzer, who last week voted against a raise for Mittermeier, pointed out that she’d be making just $5,000 less than the governor. Well, not really. Left out of that equation is the governor’s hefty benefits package: like free housing and air travel. Did you ever see a governor pick up a luncheon check? I don’t see it as a fair comparison.

But more bothersome to me is Spitzer’s contention that Mittermeier has too much power. I can recall one meeting where he was quoted saying that he represents 500,000 people, and she represents nobody.

To me, that’s all the more reason why we need to keep her job description strong. I would dread returning to those pre-bankruptcy days, when politicians held all the cards. Steiner pointed out that in the old days, before he joined the board, he found it easy to do an end run around what was then the county administrative officer, to get the supervisor from his district to help him out.

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“I couldn’t make the same end run around Jan,” he said. “And that’s to the county’s advantage.”

Richard L. McDowell, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Chapman University, favors a strong chief executive officer too.

“The supervisors need to keep their noses into everything, but their hands off,” McDowell said in an interview. “If you don’t like whoever the chief executive is, then change the chief executive; but don’t change the rules. You need someone in a strong enough position to stand up to the realities of politics.”

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Four years ago, the county faced financial ruin because the supervisors had not asked enough questions of treasurer Robert L. Citron, who was wildly rolling the dice with taxpayers’ money. We can’t know for sure, but if Mittermeier had been around, there’s a chance she would have been all over Citron.

And if so, that would easily have made her worth an extra 20 grand.

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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