News

Power politics at OC transit board

A shift in power at the Orange County Transportation Authority in part reflects a dispute over power in the largest town in OCTA’s jurisdiction – Anaheim.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait was elected to the 17-member OCTA board to a two-year seat pegged to population. His own city, Anaheim, which holds nearly half the voting power of the district, and three other cities – Brea, Fullerton and La Habra – backed him. Two cities, Placentia and Buena Park, backed OCTA director Gail Eastman, who also serves on the Anaheim City Council and is a colleague of Tait. The selection of Tait ousted Eastman, a specialist in land-use issues and community relations, from the board.

Tait, is viewed by some – including himself — as more fiscally prudent than many on his council and at OCTA. He said that was an important element in his selection, and he will begin his term Jan. 1.

“I think I’m more conservative spending the people’s money, so I’m more interested in making sure we decrease people’s commute times and increase mobility for those who don’t have a car,” Tait said.

But Eastman believes her ouster was part of a coup engineered by Tait in retaliation for her earlier support of a rule that blocked the mayor’s ability to unilaterally add items to the city council agenda, even at the last minute, and for her opposition to Tait on key council issues. Tait has rejected her assertions of a coup, but Eastman is skeptical.

“To me, it was political payback. That (adding items) was about the only power he had left,” she said.

Politics at the council as well as fiscal issues appear to have played out in the change at OCTA, as do issues of potential conflict arising from Tait’s company, Tait Environmental Services, which was awarded a three-year, $330,144 OCTA contract in June 2012. To date, OCTA said it has paid Tait’s firm about $127,000. The contract is for the repair, testing and certification of underground storage tanks.

As a member of the OCTA board, Tait said he would abstain from voting on issues related to his company, as he has abstained on similar issues at the council level.

OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said Tait’s company is permitted to retain the current contract but will not be able to get new OCTA contracts as long as Tait remains on the board, under a board policy that follows the state’s policy.

Tait, who has served on the council since 1995 and was elected mayor in 2010, said that Anaheim’s role in OCTA would not be diminished by his business interests and being potentially forced to abstain from OCTA votes. And Tait is familiar with OCTA’s procedures – he served on the OCTA board for several months two years ago, but left to focus on Anaheim issues.

“My company had a contract for an underground storage tank,” Tait said, noting that if “anything related” to a potential conflict arose he would abstain from voting. “I can’t imagine it.”

Eastman contends the issue is important could hamstring Anaheim’s clout at OCTA if Tait is abstains from voting on proposals affecting the city. Tait’s critics note that he had 11 abstentions from March 2012 through September 2013 on the Anaheim City Council because of potential OCTA-related conflicts.

“If you’re talking to different lawyers, they have different opinions on what constitutes conflict,” she said. “He has never voted on anything that is related, on any issues that are related to OCTA. In fact, he turns over the gavel to me because of the concern for a perception of a conflict of interest.”

“He can get out of the contract if he wants. But what I don’t understand is the fact that if he abstains on our dais how he can vote on the OCTA dais. Out of 17 votes, he can vote “no” or abstain and not affect the ultimate outcome,” she added.

But the politics are about more than potential conflicts: Eastman and Tait have differed philosophically for some time on issues that include a $319 million street car line between the Disney parks, local hotels and the Anaheim Convention Center. Tait has questioned the costs. The project remains before OCTA for action.

And the politics include a run for mayor. Tait is up for reelection. His principal opponents both spring from his own council — current Councilmember Lucille Kring and former Councilmember Lori Galloway.

Service on the OCTA board is important in traffic-clogged, freeway-laced Orange County. The entity was formed 22 years ago by combining earlier agencies into one body responsible for rail, buses, toll roads and streets and some freeways.  The politically savvy board, selected through an elaborate process, includes county supervisors, former state lawmakers and members of city councils.

As for Tait, he says he’s ready for the demands of OCTA – or a campaign.

“I will take the issues as they come,” he said. “The purpose is not just to represent the city (Anaheim) itself, but to represent the area. Of course you look out for all the cities, but, transportation issues are regional and not city specific.”

Ed’s Note: This story appeared in CaliforniaCityNews.org, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.

 


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