Orange County Charter OKd by State Court

Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court Monday unanimously upheld Orange County's voter-approved charter, validating January's election of former Assemblyman Bill Campbell as the newest member of the Board of Supervisors.

The three-judge panel said the charter, which passed last year as Measure V, properly changed only one aspect of state law as it applied to Orange County -- requiring supervisorial vacancies to be filled by special election rather than appointment by the governor.

All other state laws were incorporated into the charter.

"There is absolutely nothing substantially inconsistent [with the state Constitution] in deliberately choosing to adopt large swaths of general state law as the county's own," Presiding Justice David Sills wrote for the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana. "If that is the county's choice, then that is the county's choice."

Campbell hailed the court's 34-page ruling for removing "whatever cloud was over my head." He won a Jan. 28 special election to replace now-Assemblyman Todd Spitzer.

The appellate court overturned a ruling by Superior Court Judge Andrew P. Banks -- two days before the election -- that Measure V was unconstitutional.

Mike Feuer, a private attorney who argued against the charter, said the matter would probably be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

"We thought all along that the Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of what's constitutional," he said Monday.

Firefighter union chief Joe Kerr, the lead plaintiff in the case, said he was surprised by the "level of sarcasm" in the appellate court ruling. He said justices appeared unsympathetic during a Feb. 24 hearing. "It seemed like we'd lost even before we argued the case."

Banks had concluded that Measure V was fatally flawed because it failed to comply with requirements in the state Constitution for creating county charters. Voters also were told the measure would give residents more local control over government; in reality, the judge said, the measure left all other areas of government except filling vacancies under the control of the state Legislature.

In his opinion, Sills argued the opposite.

"If, for example, the Legislature changes a law in the future that affects county governance," Sills wrote, "the matter can be put to a vote of Orange County voters who will be able to determine for themselves whether they like the change made by the Legislature. Without a charter ... county voters would not be able to make the change, and would be stuck with whatever the Legislature had prescribed."

Critics argued that politics, not local control, were behind Measure V. They said it was an attempt by Republicans to prevent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from appointing a replacement for Spitzer, who argued that it merely allowed local voters to choose their own representatives.

Spitzer said Monday that the appellate court ruling was "the most significant hurdle" for the case because the Supreme Court may not choose to hear it.

"I've always said that it's a preferable form of government to have constituents decide who their representative is rather than a distant governor in Sacramento," Spitzer said.

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