North and South. Some of the most classic battles have been divided that way: The Civil War, the NCAA’s all-star football games and just about any issue in Orange County.
In the late 1980s, a slow-growth initiative — that would have capped development in South Orange County — failed at the ballot box. More recently, the North approved the El Toro airport measure.
But a more subtle battle has been won by the North.
Never has a South County resident sat on the Board of Supervisors.
Seems hard to imagine, especially considering the five-member body is elected by geographic area.
But, the basic boundaries — that put Fullerton and Rancho Santa Margarita in the same district — were inked long before the Mission Viejo Co. began attracting residents to its artificial-lake-side community.
The “Fabulous Fifth” ran from Newport Beach to the Western White House in San Clemente well before developers poured enough foundations in Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel to consider joining the areas with its immediate neighbors for a South County district.
“This whole South County isn’t represented by the Board of Supervisors,” said Gerald Addy, a member of the Rancho Santa Margarita Civic Association. “Look at Gaddi (Vasquez’s) seat. They selected a guy from Orange, and the first thing he said is he’s in favor of an airport.”
At least Vasquez’s replacement, Don Saltarelli, lives in the 3rd District which he represents, said UCI political science professor Mark Petracca. Many of those reportedly considered for appointment to the post didn’t live within the boundaries, he said.
Serving as a further illustration of Orange County’s jigsaw-puzzle-like representation, Saltarelli also lives in the same city as another supervisor, William Steiner. Part of Orange is in the 3rd District, part in the 4th.
And while Saltarelli and Steiner live just neighborhoods apart, residents of Laguna Niguel will find their closest county representative living miles up the coast in Newport Beach.
Every decade, when census data is made available, the districts are changed by the supervisors to reflect shifts in population so each of the five areas has roughly the same number of residents.
“You take the population (of the county) and divide by five,” former Supervisor Harriett Wieder explained. “Then the boundaries are drawn by negotiation. There is the attempt to have areas that are contiguous to each other. It’s as simple as that.”
But because supervisors haggle over those changes themselves, the process is muddled by politics and personal interest.
“What sometimes rears its ugly head … (is) a little jury mandering,” Wieder said recalling a former colleague attempting to use the process to dodge an election showdown with a foe. “Probably what would be the wisest thing to do … would be to appoint a committee. There was a time, before I came on (the Board), that Fountain Valley was in the 2nd District (with Huntington Beach). I think it belongs there.”
By only slightly adjusting boundaries rather than throwing out the old maps and starting over, supervisors have been able to keep South County fragmented, effectively squelching the area’s political voice in the county, Petracca said.
“It’s an obvious attempt to disempower South Orange County voters,” he said. “South County is where the money is to be made. What you have is a conflict between the people who are going to make the money and the people who live where the money is going to be made. (If) people don’t want an airport, don’t want Mello-Roos taxes, don’t want toll ways, you can’t give them their own supervisor.”
By population, part of South County could form its own district with the remainder joining a few Northern cities for a second zone, Petracca said. That would give South County 1 1/2 supervisors.
However, he noted, even with one guaranteed vote on the five-member board, South County still has a problem on regional issues — they’d lose on 4-1 votes instead of unanimous tallies.
The best remedy is to stop electing the supervisors by district so that each member represents the entire county, not just a portion. Such a change might even break the logjam on issues — such as where to put a new jail and airport expansion — that have lingered for decades.
Until such a change, Orange County’s toughest political battles will continue to pit North versus south, not Democrat against Republican.
“This is not a partisan split,” Petracca said. “It’s a power question, which is a more important consideration than partisanship.”
Because, Petracca says, the county’s power brokers want South County to “remain an economic supplement to the center of power in the county.”
Petracca points to the recent approvals for the Ladera development east of Mission Viejo as one such economic engine. Addy, the Rancho Santa Margarita association president, said despite opposition from residents, his town will get a new auto mall that will help boost county coffers.
“The Board of Supervisors basically took every (concern) we had and tossed it aside,” Addy said, adding his plug for a nine-community supercity proposal. “I’m not one who’s in favor of another layer of government, but in this case I think that might be best.”
Earlier this year, some of Addy’s fellow South County neighbors pitched a bankruptcy bail out plan that differed drastically from those drafted in Santa Ana: Secession. But those plans to form a new county from the South cities fizzled.
Petracca says that’s with good reason.
“It’s probably not a bad idea to talk about it — the same way couples talk about divorcing when they fight,” he said. “But it’s silly. Why would you want to recreate all the bureaucracy that’s in Santa Ana in, say, Laguna Niguel. It seems like such an inefficient thing to do.”