Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro

Thursday, May 20, 2010 | Listen to the rhetoric of candidates vying for the Fourth District seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and you might wonder if they truly understand what kind of elective office they’re seeking.

In the run-up to the June 8 primary, voters are hearing chatter about “creating jobs,” getting rid of “burdensome regulations” and “defending property rights” at speeches, at debates and in the candidates’ mailers.

Presidents, governors and members of Congress have some measure of control over these things. But county supervisors, by and large, don’t.

Yet supervisor candidates are spending as much — or more — time on talking points out of their parties’ national playbooks than on issues and policies they’re likely to be confronted with in office.

“Some of the things they talk about sound good. But I’m not sure you could find a way to do that here,” said Supervisor Bill Campbell, who represents the Third District.

This disconnect doesn’t seem to bother the supervisor candidates.

Republican Harry Sidhu, an Anaheim city councilman, often says he’ll keep eminent domain under control. But in 2006, supervisors pushed through a ballot initiative that severely restricted the use of eminent domain in Orange County. And even if those restrictions weren’t in place, there are hardly any unincorporated areas left where supervisors have such control over land.

The reality of the ever-shrinking unincorporated sections of the county also cuts against Sidhu’s other pledges — holding job fairs, helping businesses expand and cutting regulations.

Today, it’s the cities of Orange County that typically have more control over lowering — or hiking — revenues most closely linked to local residents: things like street parking rates, water and sewer fees, paramedic rates, and general business and developer fees.

Anaheim City Councilwoman Lorri Galloway talks about the jobs that public projects, like the expansion of John Wayne Airport, can provide. But Galloway, a Democrat, doesn’t mention that most capital projects at the county are on hold.

Those capital budgets have been eroded in recent years as budget managers raid funds to keep pace with current program costs. The only officials who can change that reside in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

And in the current environment, state officials are talking about raiding, rather than supplementing, local revenues. Meanwhile, Orange County’s Republican congressional delegation has taken a “no earmark” pledge, declining to pursue any big projects on behalf of local jurisdictions like the county.

“I don’t see my job as creating jobs,” Supervisor John Moorlach said. “I need to get out of the way so the private sector can create jobs.”

Fullerton City Councilman Shawn Nelson, who won the endorsement of the Orange County Republican Committee, talks passionately about solving the county’s pension woes — which now feature a $3.3 billion unfunded liability. In the last debate, Nelson mentioned that the county shouldn’t be allowed to carry unfunded liabilities.

Yet a county supervisor can’t do anything about unfunded liabilities. They are largely what Moorlach years ago termed a “lobster trap.” Once benefits are expanded, there are few options for controlling unfunded liabilities as time goes on. They largely ebb and flow depending on the markets.

What voters won’t hear much about during the campaign is that a county supervisor is essentially the steward of a $5.5 billion health and social welfare agency. The main job is to administer a slew of pass-through funds from the federal and state governments.

Not exactly a sexy campaign tidbit.

In fact, county supervisors have direct control over less than 10 percent of the county budget. And most of those discretionary funds are divided between the sheriff and the district attorney, who are themselves separately elected.

“It’s equivalent to the mayor of unincorporated areas,” said Campbell — who, along with Supervisor Pat Bates, represents the largest swaths of such areas.

And in that respect, city council officials actually have direct experience that will help them serve as a county supervisor, Campbell noted.

In unincorporated areas, the issues are more closely related to those in a city — pot holes, public safety services, flood control, trash.

The biggest difference between a mayor or city council job and that of supervisor, Campbell said, is the direct participation in policy. Where city council members largely rely on a city manager to deal with policy, supervisors have entire staffs and work directly with the county bureaucracy.

“We have the ability to get really down deep into the policy,” Campbell said.

And county supervisors do exert influence on regional issues and services, such as the airport, landfills, health and social services, and community services such as parks.

County supervisors serve on regional boards, such as the Orange County Transportation Authority or the toll road authority, and can help set policy countywide. Supervisors appoint each other to such posts and then rely on those officials to be the area experts.

Serving on so many boards — which are chock full of hard policy questions — is one of the biggest challenges in terms of time, said Moorlach.

“I knew I would have changes in time management,” he said about making the switch in 2006 from treasurer/tax collector to supervisor. “There’s more time in scheduled appointments. And preparing for meetings … just getting refocused on how to manage my time.”

Probably the toughest aspect of the job facing county supervisors is overseeing the budgets of other elected officials, such as the sheriff and the district attorney.

And it’s unlikely that any candidate will tell voters that he or she will be in charge of figuring out how to downsize public safety services.

“For us right now, through June, it’s going to be dealing with the district attorney and the sheriff as they glide down their expenses,” Moorlach said.

And it’s not going to get any easier in coming years.

“It’s going to be a real issue over public safety,” Moorlach said, “which is the Holy Grail.”

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