This is the time of year you can see the county Supervisors gearing up for their annual June budget Kabuki drama with its predicable fourth act – sarcastically known to insiders as “frugality theater.”
During this part of the show the Supervisors will wring their collective hands over this or that pittance that the public simply can’t afford. There is irony in this performance since so much is simply wasted in County government; and even worse is the long history of the county handing out public assets to the wealthy, the well-connected and the clients of lobbyists who have invested liberally in supervisorial political campaigns.
Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about.
In November 2004 the County of Orange granted land use entitlements and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) approval for the massive development of 14,000 new houses and millions of square feet of commercial space to Rancho Mission Viejo (RMV). Part of the approval of “The Ranch Plan” included a development agreement that required RMV to perform certain obligations in order for it to continue to proceed.
One of the requirements that RMV agreed to was the construction of a storm water mitigation facility in Gobernadora Canyon, south of Coto de Caza. The purpose of this facility was to control periodic rain water flow from the development to the north that had been built without regard for the effect of concentrated urban storm runoff. This situation had caused significant ecological erosion damage downstream along Gobernadora Creek. As stated in the Development Agreement, the responsibility for building and maintaining this facility lay squarely on Rancho Mission Viejo.
Let’s jump forward now to early 2011 when the Orange County Public Works Department brought a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Board of Supervisors between the County, RMV and the Santa Margarita Water District to build a dual-use facility alongside Gobernadora Creek. The northern portion was to be a percolation/recharge basin for the water district; the southern half was to be the promised storm water deceleration basin identified in the 2004 Agreement. As party to a future agreement, the County was to pay for ongoing maintenance of the basin at a projected cost of $5600 per year. The alignment of a future recreation trail across the creek in this vicinity was also to be part of the discussion.
In my then-capacity as an executive assistant to a County Supervisor, I questioned staff on why the County was in any way obligated to participate in this arrangement, and why the public was paying for facility maintenance when there was absolutely no requirement for the County to do so. I received no cogent answer from County staff. Despite the obvious problems, the MOU was approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Almost two years later, in the fall of 2012, the formal agreement finally returned to the Board for approval; but, in the intervening time, details were now included that caused a significant change to the scope of the original MOU. Now the County was to take ownership of the Gobernadora Basin after it was built, and was to assume liability for its operation and maintenance.
In effect, the Gobernadora Basin, that was never a County responsibility, was to become a de facto public flood control facility, despite the fact that Gobernadora Creek is not part of the County Flood Control system. To add insult to injury, the County staff now advised that we taxpayers subsidize the cost of construction inspection service fees for RMV, and proposed a budgeted an amount of $300,000 for that purpose.
When I inquired of the Public Works Department and the County Counsel’s office about the propriety of the proposed arrangement I received the usual admixture of double talk, obfuscation and shrugs, a reliable sign that this strange agreement had already been promised at the highest level, and that of course, the Fifth District Supervisor, Pat Bates, in whose district Rancho Mission Viejo lay, must have been fully apprised of what was going on.
In short, I kept asking why the County was voluntarily taking on what was supposed to be a purely private obligation; and the engineers and lawyers kept telling me how they had the legal ability to do it. I argued that the proposal was nothing more than a gift of public funds to an extremely wealthy and well-connected developer, as well as an unnecessary assumption of risk by the public.
Naturally, at the same time I began asking uncomfortable questions, the RMV lobbyist was making the rounds on the Fifth Floor lauding a great “win-win” deal, observing that the County was going to be getting a recreation trail in the bargain. Of course he omitted to tell anybody that provision of a recreation trail alignment all the way across Gobernadora Canyon was yet another requirement of the RMV per the 2004 development agreement; and that this basin “trail” only consisted of a short, unconnected part that would run along the top of the basin dike – an alignment, ironically, that was not even preferred by the County Parks Department.
The final agreement was approved in December of 2012 by Pat Bates, Janet Nguyen, Bill Campbell and John Moorlach. If any of them were the least bit bothered by this completely unnecessary assumption of risk and cost by the taxpayer, they didn’t show it.
To you, the story of the Gobernadora Basin may seem insignificant.
Not to me.
In my experience, this was far from being an isolated instance of the Orange County government working, sometimes working pretty darn hard, for private interests with disregard for the public.
You may be one of the people in Orange County who believe that the wealthy and privileged receive special treatment from a government that is supposed to belong to everybody. You may be one of the people in Orange County who think that the lobbyists who work for the special interests have way too much influence. You may be one of the people in Orange County who are right.