After more than 4½ hours on Sunday, the four council members of the Rancho Santa Margarita City Council decided to call it a night. They didn’t choose a successor to Gary Thompson, which was the goal. They didn’t interview any candidates, which was an option. And they didn’t really impress anyone, either.
They did determine that they would call another special meeting, possibly as early as Tuesday. They heard from former Councilman Thompson, who thought his four former colleagues were so deadlocked and facing such a tight deadline that a special election was required. They ignored candidate Carol Gamble when she addressed the councilmen—as a resident and not a candidate—and asked who has accepted money from any of the other finalists.
Yes, they did eventually reach the point where all four council members submitted their top three choices—and even that didn’t come without a struggle. It took about 30 minutes to convince Councilman Jesse Petrilla to give more than one name at a time despite the council’s unanimous decision to do so.
The meeting began with residents addressing the council and a number spoke, many expressing support for Gamble or Brad McGirr. Afterward the council made a procedural mistake by not determining up front an acceptable point system, and whether it was binding or non-binding, for later in the meeting if a consensus couldn’t be reached through discussion. Instead, they tried to do it after each had disclosed his top choice, at which point the integrity of any succeeding rankings would come into question as councilmen could sandbag to skew the point totals.
Petrilla, who was participating for the first time via teleconference—audio only—from Fort Knox, KY, while he is in training with the California National Guard, exasperated his colleagues and the crowd in the council chambers in which he basically held his colleagues hostage. He wanted to submit only one name, and find out if his top candidate—Kenney Hrabik—was on any other lists.
“I don’t want to throw a name out there that’s not on anyone’s list,” Petrilla said.
At a loss for how to continue with Petrilla’s refusal to follow the decisions and with no legal mechanism to compel him to do so, Councilman Jerry Holloway shook his head and said: “I’m stumped.”
Beall responded: “This is not a game. No council member should be playing ‘hide the ball.’ ”
Petrilla remarked that it was Beall who was playing a game and that when Petrilla votes for president, he votes for only one candidate, he doesn’t rank them by preference. “I want to choose a council member that is the most qualified that represents the voters,” Petrilla said. “I don’t want to turn this into the Capistrano Unified School District.”
That line drew a loud collective gasp from the audience. Beall was previously involved in the recall of CUSD board members, and many thought Petrilla was taking a jab at him.
Beall asked Petrilla if he was unwilling to rank three candidates even if the council agreed to do so by a properly made motion—which had happened earlier—with weighted scoring, to illuminate a consensus candidate. Three times Petrilla responded that he was unsure of what Beall was asking. Several in the audience then spoke out the words “special election.”
Petrilla countered with a substitute motion to rank one, two or three candidates on a list.
“I will accept it and I’ll second it, and now discussion,” Beall responded. “It’s a bad idea.”
Petrilla’s motion was defeated, 3-1.
Petrilla did make at least one valid contribution: “The point is to discuss and appoint a council member, and we’ve only discussed and voted on two out of the 12.”
However, when Beall tried to develop discussion, Steve Baric said he didn't want to talk negatively about any candidates, same as Holloway. The only "discussion" was a monologue of why each candidate chose his top applicant.
In contrast to what Petrilla said, they only voted on one candidate, and that came relatively early in the meeting after each candidate named their top selection. Beall and Holloway named Gamble, a former mayor of RSM; Baric named Peter Whittingham, the man he appointed to the planning commission; and Petrilla named Hrabik, who owns the Dove Canyon Courtyard. The vote for Gamble to be the next council member ended in a 2-2 deadlock.
Finally, hours into the meeting, Petrilla relented amid the discussion of expressing more than one choice. “If you’re forcing my hand and will not continue the meeting until I choose two more, I’ll submit two more,” he said.
That decision may have owed to Petrilla’s schedule. He said that Sunday night was the only time he had available through May 2, apart from April 23-24—Easter weekend—at which time Holloway will not be available.
If the council doesn’t choose Thompson’s replacement by 5 p.m. on May 2, the choice goes to a special election.
After a short recess, and by secret ballot, Petrilla’s list of top candidates was transmitted to City Manager Steve Hayman. The top candidates were then announced by Hayman and gridded on a whiteboard. They were:
- Beall: Gamble, Brad McGirr, Curt Stanley.
- Holloway: Gamble, Michael Safranski, Hrabik.
- Baric: Whittingham, Safranski, Hrabik.
- Petrilla: Hrabik, Safranski, Whittingham.
Using the city staff-recommended 5-2-1 point system, four favorites emerged: Gamble (10 points), Hrabik (7), Safranski (7) and Whittingham (6).
Baric and Petrilla were both in favor of a 3-2-1 system, which would have resulted in scores of: Gamble (6), Safranski (6), Hrabik (5), Whittingham (4), McGirr (2) and Stanley (1).
Curiously, Baric and Petrilla had the same three choices but in reverse order. Both of their top choices were contributors to their election campaigns. Whittingham contributed $200 to Baric. Hrabik contributed $600—including $500 in a non-monetary contribution for use of his Dove Canyon Courtyard—to Petrilla.
Hrabik also contributed $100 to Holloway.
McGirr, who is Beall’s appointee to the Planning Commission, contributed $100 to Beall.
Because Petrilla was free until about 1:30 a.m. PDT—he expressed a desire to hammer out the process Sunday night. Beall expressed a desire to interview the candidates. Petrilla, who had earlier said that council members had done a sufficient job of interviewing the second set of candidates at a meeting that Petrilla missed, countered that he wanted to be present so that he could also interview candidates that he didn’t get a chance to address in person.
At one point, Thompson requested to speak to the council, and he suggested that they call a special election because of Petrilla’s lack of availability beyond Sunday: “I’d be very concerned if you made a decision that isn’t as thought-out as it should be but it’s done in the next couple of hours because the councilman has to get back to duty, which is understandable.”
When Beall asked Thompson who his choice would be, he indicated he had read all the résumés, had only seen the second round of interviews, and knew most of the candidates. He said Gamble was the best choice.
“She is the one who can jump in with both feet and move forward with very little training, very little work by city staff to get up to speed on how the city operates, how the government operates, how the budget is put together,” Thompson said. “Just teaching someone how the budget is put together is a difficult task.”
Petrilla made a motion to appoint Hrabik to the City Council but didn’t get a second.
“I don’t think we’re going to find somebody that all four of us agree on,” Petrilla said. “If the three of us can agree on one, the other can agree to work with the individual.“
He then made a motion to appoint Safranski to the City Council.
Holloway seconded for the purpose of discussion, then said the reason he wouldn’t vote for Safranski or Hrabik during the meeting was because it was too important to hurry through the process.
“It’s important. We need to do it in a reasonable fashion, and now we’re getting to the point where it’s not going to be the best decision, in my opinion,” Holloway said as the meeting moved past the four-hour mark.
Said Baric: “I don’t think the mayor’s request [for a special meeting] is unreasonable. … I’ve been assured all four members will be included in this process. That is absolutely essential. I trust the comments of my colleagues that they want input from all council members to make an educated decision that’s important for the future of this community.”
Petrilla then withdrew the motion after being given the opportunity by Beall but cast doubt that a special meeting could be called for any purpose other than choosing a candidate without him.
“What’s the purpose of those interviews if ... I’m not available before [May 2],” Petrilla asked. “We have two people on three lists … I’d hate to waste this opportunity to put this to rest and end all the unpleasantness that’s occurred in the newspapers the last couple of months. … We need to have somebody on that council so we can move forward and put this all behind us.”
The other three council members then voted to adjourn the meeting.