OC Supervisor Tom Riley’s Final Days Tarnished by Bankruptcy

These were supposed to be Supervisor Tom Riley’s glory days.

By Marc S. Posner
Daily Pilot
Serendipity kept my feature about Tom Riley’s pending retirement from elected office from running as scheduled. And then, boom, the entire county went bankrupt. I called the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, added a couple of quotes, and had an award-winning story (second place, non-breaking news, Orange County Fair, July 1995).

Instead, the retired Marine Corps brigadier general is back in the thick of battle as his 20-year tenure on the county Board of Supervisors comes to a close.

The past few weeks have produced a near whirlwind of ceremonies thanking Riley for his work on the board.

And there have been other rewards over the course of two decades: His name has been given to the new John Wayne Airport terminal, a building at Chapman University and a South County wilderness park that will be dedicated this weekend.

But the lasting image may be Riley’s sad face announcing that the county’s gone belly-up.

“I’ve almost had tears in my eyes a couple of times today,” the 25-year-plus Newport Beach resident said between emergency-session board meetings on Wednesday. “I’ve had people call up today and say ‘Tom, for all you’ve done this shouldn’t have happened to you.’ I’m … somewhat flattered that people are calling and saying this is too bad that you have to be concerned with this situation your last month in office.”

Calls such as those, he said, just reaffirm that “living in Orange County is a great privilege.”

Riley said he’s declined invitations to appear on national television shows since the financial woes came to light a week ago.

But he wants his constituents to know it’s not because there’s something to hide: The bottom line, he said, is that those on the East Coast wouldn’t understand the emotional impact this has had on him.

“I love this county,” an obviously worn Riley said. “I love the people who work for it. The situation is not one that the board could have foreseen. None of these things showed.”

Not even in a financial audit that recently was completed, he said, adding that county services will continue as normal.

It’s too soon to put into historical context the county’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection after discovering a $1.5 billion loss on the bond market, Riley said.

Still, he’s aware that it will leave a large black mark on a mainly stellar political career. The question is how large?

“That’s a very challenging question, and it’s one that scares me somewhat to answer,” Riley said. “Almost everything that you do pales in comparison to the impact of what’s happened here.

“Bankruptcy,” he said, letting the word linger. “That’s a hard word for me even to say.”

Christie McDaniel, who served as Riley’s chief of staff for 9 years, said she fears this chapter in county history will overshadow all of Riley’s positive achievements.

“It’s real sad for me to watch,” said McDaniel, now a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison. “It breaks my heart. I do worry that the last couple of days will be remembered more so than all of the great things he’s done — the libraries, the open space, the airport agreement — mainly because it has come in while he was chairman.”

Riley’s list of accomplishments, awards and civic involvement runs nearly six type-written pages.

“I think one of his most positive and far reaching legacies will be his on-going commitment to open space in the county,” McDaniel said. “Under his leadership there have been thousands of acres that have been left as open space, especially in the 5th District.”

That dedication will be rewarded on Saturday when Wagon Wheel Wilderness Park officially becomes Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park.

Riley said he’ll wear a forest ranger uniform and the No. 1 badge a group of rangers gave him after heart surgery a couple of years ago to the Coto de Caza ceremony.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of folks there,” Riley said. “And that’s going to be special to me.”

Building public libraries and accessibility also will be remembered as keys to Riley’s term, McDaniel said.

“He’s always had a lot of integrity in his dealings as supervisor, McDaniel said. “His door was always open for people to come in to see him. I think it was widely known and widely respected.”

Former Newport Beach City Councilwoman Evelyn Hart recalls a tough negotiator on issues of joint city and county concern, such as Back Bay, John Wayne Airport and the harbor.

“His first duty has always been to the entire county,” she said. “But he has not been unfair to Newport. I think it definitely has helped to have our supervisor live in our city.”

Hart, too, lauded Riley’s open-door policy.

“I could call at 7:30 in the morning and Tom would answer the phone,” she said. “He would be there for us.”

Riley has an emergency wake-up alarm set to sound daily at 5:10 a.m., but he’s almost always awake before then; Wednesday was only second time this year it’s actually been pressed into service, he said.

At 82, Riley’s not sure what retirement will bring.

“I hope to take a month or two to see if you have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Riley said in an interview at before a Board of Supervisors meeting last week. “I do want to see if there’s something less strenuous and (less) demanding.”

Most of his hobbies have gone by the wayside, he said.

He used to golf, but donated his clubs for a Rotary fund raiser.

He used to fish, but gave his gear to an aide.

Riley said he still owns three shotguns and loves to hunt.

For now, Riley said, he’s just wondering “if life’s going to be challenging without being involved.”

Even before the bond crash and bankruptcy filing, Riley vowed to be involved to the Jan. 3 end of his term.

Riley uses a cane to off-set a leg ailment, but vigor got the better of him at the Nov. 29 meeting. He left the instrument behind, steadying himself with a railing and the help of colleague Roger Stanton as he walked down a set of steps from the dais to make a presentation to a group of students.

And his sense of humor persisted, even when a group of Laguna Hills Leisure World residents addressed the board, protesting a proposed airport at El Toro.

“I would like to address the board for one minute,” Sheri Hanson said.

“I like to hear that — one minute,” Riley quipped.

Back in his office after the meeting, Riley is surrounded by pictures, plaques, political cartoon featuring his likeness, memorabilia, and religious objects.

Politics, he said, was something he never considered after leaving the Marine Corps in 1964. That changed with a phone call from then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the coaxing of other associates.

Reagan appointed Riley to fill the remaining term of a vacant board seat in Sept. 1974. Riley went on to win election in 1976, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990.

“I didn’t think there was anything to match being a Marine,” Riley said. “I found (county employees) who could respond and do a job as well as a Marine did. That’s the highest compliment I can give them.”

The “Fabulous Fifth” as Riley calls his district, has seen the most growth during his tenure. He said he always tried to make sure it was done responsibly and included elements of undeveloped land and low-income housing.

“I treat that like a command responsibility,” Riley said of the responsibility.

In that interview, less than two weeks ago, Riley said he felt some remorse that he was leaving without more definitive planning being done on the closing El Toro Marine Corps base.

That now appears a diminished concern.

Will he be able to leave office with a smile?

“Today that seems almost impossible,” Riley said Wednesday afternoon. “But I’d like to think so. I’m hopeful in the next 10 days to two weeks that the situation will be stabilized and on the way to recovery. Maybe people can have a smile as we say goodbye.”