Mittermeier Agrees to Reduced Powers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending months of speculation about her future, County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier accepted a new three-year contract Wednesday and said she will try to adjust to the new power structure established by the Board of Supervisors.

Mittermeier said she "cautiously" agreed to the new contract, which reduces her authority to select top county managers.

"My concern has been, can I continue to be effective under the new structure, and do I have the commitment of the board to continue in the direction we've been going," she said. "It remains to be seen how well it will work."

The 54-year-old executive's decision to stay came as comfort to some supporters, who feared she would quit if the Board of Supervisors made any attempts to reduce her authority.

Mittermeier said she was convinced to sign the contract by an avalanche of phone calls and messages of support from Orange County business executives, county workers and labor leaders.

"An entire range of people urged me to stay, and that weighed heavily," she said. "I feel I owe something to all of those people."

Mittermeier has been praised for her efforts to pull the county out of its 1994 bankruptcy. But she has been harshly criticized by some supervisors who believe she has kept them in the dark on important issues, such as plans to convert the El Toro Marine base into a commercial airport.

On Tuesday, supervisors approved a new contract allowing the board to reject any of her department manager appointments with a four-fifths vote. Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson, who oppose an airport at El Toro, had wanted a more restrictive clause allowing the board to reject her appointments on a 3-2 vote.

Her supporters expressed relief that Mittermeier excepted the changes.

"There was a lot of hard work put into this agreement," said Supervisor William G. Steiner, who crafted the contract. "This was really a trial by fire for her, and she actually came out in a stronger position."

Supervisor Jim Silva said it was critical for her to stay on board to steer the county through its remaining bankruptcy-related problems.

Silva originally had backed Spitzer and Wilson's plan for a 3-2 override of Mittermeier's management selections. But he backed down after Mittermeier made it clear she would not accept those terms.

"I feel that she is a fighter, and she wants to see [her] strategic plan [for the county] through," Silva said.

Wilson, who has clashed with Mittermeier over the El Toro airport issue, was guardedly optimistic that their relationship could improve.

"In the past, it has been my observation that Jan Mittermeier reported only to three supervisors," he said in a statement. "I hope that the stark reality of the previous days is evidence enough to the CEO that her duties are to report to and work with all five members of the board."

Spitzer, Mittermeier's most vocal critic, was unusually restrained Wednesday, saying only: "I've always insisted on strong board oversight. And by the board gaining department head approval, Jan has finally accepted the board's responsibility to the taxpayer."

Steiner said Spitzer's constant attacks probably contributed to Mittermeier's decision to stay.

"One of the defining reasons for her was that she was not going to let Todd Spitzer get the best of her," he said. "She will be working with Wilson to improve their communication despite their differences on El Toro. The criticism from Spitzer has been so personalized that she doesn't see a chance of gaining his support."

Mittermeier, however, denied Wednesday that Spitzer's attacks were a factor in her decision.

Under the new contract, Mittermeier will be given a raise in April from $148,000 to $160,000. Her title is changed from chief executive officer to county executive officer.

But she faces more potential problems in the coming months.

Steiner, one of her biggest boosters, is retiring from the board in January, and Silva faces a tough reelection fight.

At least two of the four supervisorial candidates said they were disappointed that the board voted on the contract before the election.

Huntington Beach Councilman Dave Sullivan, who is challenging Silva, called the action irresponsible. "They should have waited until January," Sullivan said.

Anaheim Councilman Lou Lopez, who is running for Steiner's seat against North County Community College District board member Cynthia Coad, expressed similar sentiments.

"I would've liked the opportunity to have some input," he said. "If it turns out I don't like her, I'm stuck with her."

Coad, however, said that it would not have been fair to Mittermeier or the county to delay the decision.

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