Saying No Is Nothing New to Norby

Times Staff Writer

When Chris Norby is sworn in Monday as Orange County's new supervisor, he will bring a reputation for independence that some find refreshing but others warn could be quixotic.

The longtime high school history teacher -- known for being the dissenter in numerous 4-1 votes during his nearly two decades on the Fullerton City Council -- is seen by many as the supervisor most likely to question county policies and scrutinize the bureaucracy.

To many activists and government watchers, a fresh perspective is exactly what's needed at this pivotal moment. The county faces the possibility of sharp cutbacks because of the state budget crisis while also dealing with a financial meltdown at the planning department, which may have to lay off a fifth of its staff because of budget shortfalls.

"The board needs people like Norby," said Bill Mitchell, former head of the county chapter of Common Cause. "The board always needs that independence and that willingness to hold other people who work in the county accountable. There's nothing wrong with being on the wrong side of those votes. It shows that he ... doesn't always go along with what everybody thinks."

Norby was elected to the 4th District seat on the board in March in an upset over incumbent Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad. Norby ran as a strong opponent of a proposed airport at El Toro, shattering the conventional wisdom that his North County district was solidly pro-airport.

With the El Toro fight now history, the issue that dominated and divided the board for a decade has disappeared. Norby believes this could result in better cooperation. "I was elected by voters to represent [the people]," he said. "That means stating my views and working for compromise with fellow board members when possible, but also standing on principle," he said.

A third-generation Fullerton resident who recalls long-gone citrus groves blanketing northern Orange County, Norby, 53, taught history at Brea-Olinda High School for 17 years and served on the Fullerton City Council for 18 years.

A fiscal conservative, he gained a name statewide as a fierce critic of redevelopment projects. He argued in his book, "Redevelopment: The Unknown Government," that such revitalization efforts are out of control and a facade to allow big-box retailers, auto malls and sports teams to shake down cities for tax breaks.

His position sometimes left him as the lone dissenting vote in actions before the city.

Still, he surprised environmentalists by leading the charge in Fullerton against renewing the Orange County Sanitation District's waiver that allowed it to dump partly treated sewage in the ocean.

Norby is already being compared to former Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who was elected to the state Assembly in November. Spitzer shook up county government because of his vocal opposition to the El Toro airport and criticism of county officials.

Fullerton Councilman Mike Clesceri, who served on the council alongside Norby for two years, said he is a "natural replacement" for Spitzer.

"I saw Todd as a leader on that board, one who spoke his mind and didn't shy away from the tough issue. Chris Norby will very much be the same," Clesceri said. "He'll always be well-informed. You'll never catch Chris Norby off-guard."

Others, however, say Norby will succeed on the board only if he can learn to compromise.

"His biggest challenge is going to be to learn how to get along with the rest of the board and the staff," said Shirley Grindle, a longtime activist who wrote the county's campaign finance laws. "It's nice to have your views, but you're elected in office to get something done and you can't get something done with one vote."

For his part, Norby said he believes decisions are too often made by the board members before public hearings. He said he plans to use board meetings to question officials and explain his position.

"I don't know how my style will compare to Todd's," he added. "Certainly, I don't want to make myself look good unless I'm actually doing good."

During his first months in office, Norby said priorities will include dealing with the fallout of the state budget crisis, investigating the planning department fiasco and choosing new voting machines.

Norby will serve on the boards of the Transportation Corridor Agencies and the Orange County Transportation Authority. He said he believes the Foothill South tollway ought to be completed and finds the idea of tunneling through the Santa Ana Mountains intriguing. He expressed strong misgivings about the proposed Centerline light-rail system.

Over the long term, Norby hopes to change the way local governments are financed. Norby said cities and counties are too reliant on sales taxes, forcing them to support too many large retail developments. He wants to reduce this dependence on sales tax by forcing the state to return a greater share of property taxes to local governments.

While some compare Norby to Spitzer, others say he might find an ideological soul mate in another supervisor: Jim Silva. In Silva's eight years on the board, he earned a reputation as an outspoken conservative. He questioned the Social Services Agency on policies he considered too liberal and pressed the county to make paying off bankruptcy debts its top priority. Sometimes, Silva found himself the board's sole dissenting vote.

"I think he will be ideologically aligned with Silva," said Fred Smoller, chairman of the department of political science at Chapman University. "If he's smart, he's just going to bide his time and spend a good deal of time learning how the county works. The name of the game is to count to three [votes] and also develop some credibility. He's still a newcomer."

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