The Rancho Santa Margarita City Council will not see Councilman Jesse Petrilla on a teleconference anytime soon, but they will be looking at someone else face-to-face.
The four members of the council voted 3-1 on Wednesday to temporarily replace the fifth member, Petrilla, while he trains for four months with the U.S. Army National Guard. Petrilla, 27, will resume his role on the council upon his return in June, in time to approve a city budget that will be developed without him.
During his 115-day commitment, Petrilla—who has attended four meetings in his role as the city's youngest-ever councilman—will miss six regularly scheduled council meetings, as well budget development meetings. He missed his first Wednesday, but his colleagues decided to keep his seat warm.
Citing a need to give the residents the best representation in Petrilla’s absence, the city will accept applications from Rancho Santa Margarita residents who want to try their hand at city government, provided they can get a résumé and an essay to the city clerk by noon on March 4. The subject: “Why I’m qualified to serve in this capacity.”
Petrilla, a second lieutenant, is participating in Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course training in Fort Knox, KY. Because he was unable to attend meetings in California, the councilman had three options. They agreed that teleconferencing was preferred, but it wasn't a viable option.
Even though Petrilla remained resolute in his desire to receive the go-ahead to teleconference, the Army indicated it would not make Petrilla specifically available to participate in meetings three time zones away, nor would it guarantee Petrilla an open meeting place that satisfied the Brown Act, which guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings.
The other options were temporarily replacing Petrilla or leaving his seat vacant.
Mayor Tony Beall said choosing a temporary replacement councilman made sense because of the skills and ideas a fifth voice would bring to the table. “There are many reasons why we are set up the way we are, as a five-man council,” Beall said. “… It increases the probability of reaching the best decisions on behalf of the residents. It’s our duty to do what’s in the best interest of the residents. For that reason, I think it’s more desirable than leaving the seat empty for four months.”
Steve Baric was the only dissenting voice when the option of replacing Petrilla was discussed. He and Petrilla have been on the job since December.
“It’s calling and asking for the distrust of this community,” Baric said. “Councilman Petrilla was the No. 1 vote-getter in the past election and represents the views of the majority of residents of Rancho Santa Margarita.”
Baric also expressed a concern about the “political nature of this response.”
“We had a very divisive election, and this council has been doing a really good job of progressing past that, but if we [do this] I have grave concerns that a significant portion of this community would think this is political payback. ...” Baric said. “The most appropriate response is to allow the spot to remain vacant for the next six meetings.”
Councilman Gary Thompson, the mayor pro tem, said there would be political ramifications and a contrary public perception regardless of the decision.
“In my 11 years, ‘politics’ has never happened” on this City Council, Thompson said. “I believe the residents voted for a city councilman who’s going to serve the city. … I haven’t heard anything yet that tells me his philosophy is any different than the rest of us.”
Jerry Holloway was the final councilman to address the issue and could have created an obvious 2-2 deadlock—something the council would have faced by continuing with a four-man band. He asked city counsel what would happen if there was a 2-2 vote.
“That would result in no action taken under the law,” replied City Attorney Greg Simonian.
That seemed to be the deathblow to the vacant-seat option. The three councilmen who have gone through budget discussions in the past—Baric has not—commented about the importance of having five councilmen to avoid ties when trying to determine where city money is spent. Deadlocks in voting—“no action taken”—would delay the process needlessly.
Additionally, City Manager Steve Hayman said there were several foreseeable issues over the next four months that could bog down the city with a 2-2 vote, including “important land issues, several key contracts.”
Holloway also dismissed the notion that there was an “old boys network” of veteran councilmen against rookie councilmen that was alluded to in an Orange County Register column Monday in which Baric and Petrilla were quoted.
“To think any of us would vote against something [Petrilla] wanted is absurd,” said Holloway, a retired police officer. “If there was a good old boys network, I wouldn’t have been on the losing end of two votes last meeting.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about his best interest or our best interests. This is not a slap in the face to anyone in the military. At the end of the day it’s what’s in the best interest of the people.”
Also discussed briefly was whether Petrilla could choose his replacement, a sentiment that was expressed during the public comments by Eddie Kline, a former sergeant in the Marines who agreed a four-man council wouldn’t work.
Legally, Petrilla cannot choose his replacement. He can make his preference known, and Beall said after the meeting that should Petrilla do so, “that will be given some weight. However, it’s not his appointment and not his decision to make alone.”