A Rancho Santa Margarita City Council meeting that began with hugs and kisses ended with spears and arrows.
After a gentle opening in which community leaders and members were in agreement in their praise of Jack Leonard, the last original member of the planning commission who retired after 12 years, and after several commendations acknowledging pre-schoolers, and seniors pushing 90 years of age, the final meeting of January got pointed.
The subject was whether the council would follow the recommendation of City staff to award a business development contract to Economic Development Services of California, which is owned by Suzanne Singh. She is president of the Rancho Santa Margarita Chamber of Commerce.
The City solicited two dozen companies but received only four Requests for Proposals, and Singh's provided the most hours dedicated to the acquisition and retention of businesses in the City (estimated 1,200 hours vs. 600 compared to the next-most inexpensive option) at the lowest price, not to exceed $75,816 over the course of this year.
- Follow RSM Patch on Facebook and Twitter.
- Sign up to receive the daily Patch newsletter.
- Read other stories on RSM Patch.
She eventually won the vote, 3-2, with Mayor Tony Beall, mayor pro tem Carol Gamble and councilman Brad McGirr voting in favor. Voting against the City's recommendation were Steve Baric and Jesse Petrilla.
Both men prefaced their comments by speaking highly of Singh. Baric said he wasn't going to vote for EDS because the RFP lacked a plan, which Beall later disputed, and that the duties "will be slightly different than developing the Chamber." He eventually offered a compromise: Approving portions of the contract incrementally.
Petrilla admitted the EDS proposal provided "the most bang for the buck," but "looking at the economic climate in Rancho Santa Margarita at this time, as things are greatly improving, I don't feel the need for us to spend over $75,000 in taxpayers' money on this at a time when it may not be fully needed."
Petrilla sat on the board of the RSM Business Alliance and used that association to build his resume prior to being elected in 2010; he advocated the need for a stronger business presence in the process. But when he said he wanted to stand pat because the business climate was good, Gamble took him to task for his support of Kenney Hrabik, a City Council candidate who derided the city's business climate from January to November before getting beaten badly by Gamble and Beall in the election.
Gamble pointed out Hrabik's role in creating the RSM Voter's Bill of Rights, which proferred the city's business climate was poor and ranked behind cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia and El Centro in a national survey though the survey never actually included RSM. Coincidentally, the co-author of the "Bill of Rights" was Baric's appointee to the Planning Commission, Peter Whittingham.
"You put trucks around RSM with Kenney’s name on it who perpetrated that fraud called the voter's bill of rights because you felt that the business climate in Rancho Santa Margarita was terrible," Gamble said. "Now it's time to actually do something ... and if this proposal doesn't turn out to be what you want, then roll up your sleeves and tell us what you want because we've been waiting for two years, and if you have input into the RFP that you wanted some outcome in these proposals, where were you? ... I've had it up to my eyeballs with all this stonewalling.
"We want economic development in this city, our residents deserve the restaurants, the businesses, the venues. Our citizens deserve these places to work and enjoy, and if we don’t get off our duff and stop talking about it, it’s not going to happen. ... Doing nothing is not a battle strategy in this economy."
Beall asked Kathleen Haton if she received any comments or concerns from his council colleagues about the plans in the proposals.
"No, I didn't," said the director of development services for the City.
Baric then took on Gamble and accused her of making things personal on the council when they didn't need to be.
"You seem to get really excited when people are in opposition to what you believe in," Baric said, adding that his decisions are "not based on personalities" and that Singh had "no prior experience and we're going to give an almost $100,000 contract based on that. ... One would argue that you go with a newcomer who brings new energy and excitement, but as a steward of the taxpayers' money, that's my legitimate concern."
Gamble responded it was a legitimate concern, but Singh's experience with the Chamber was the experience Baric said was lacking.
"I think I have a vantage point and an opportunity to have observed some things that you haven’t," Gamble said, referring to her own attendance at Chamber of Commerce functions. "Suzanne Singh ... has developed and changed the Chamber in the two years since she introduced herself to the council and I’ve seen it grow … so that it’s thriving to a membership like I’ve never seen in all the years I’ve been in business here in town or on the council. I've seen this and because I don’t see you there, I know you’re not seeing what I’m seeing."
Baric: "Well, you were just running for reelection, thank you very much. I spent a lot of time at the chamber earlier. Yes, you did spend a lot of time there recently. I know that you helped form the city and you’re the only one doing anything, Carol."
Gamble: "That’s terribly personal."
Baric: "That’s right. You should know. What I’m telling you is I’m perfectly aware of what [Singh's] doing and what she’s accomplished. The thing is, I sit here every council meeting practically, and if Jesse votes on something you come after him. And quite frankly I think we should focus on the issues."
Gamble: "Would you like to have the conversation about Jesse or would you like to have a conversation about the issues?"
Baric: "The issues."
Gamble: "I'd like to talk about the issues, and Suzanne Singh and her work with the Chamber of Commerce is unparalleled."
Gamble went on to say Singh "is not only demonstrating her skills every day" in a nonpaid capacity as Chamber president, but "she's demonstrating them in front of all of us which is something most contractors we hire in the City don't do."
Baric admitted, "I was there when she took over the Chamber and it was in shambles and she turned it around," then offered his compromise of approving portions of the contract incrementally.
McGirr managed to avoid the fray. He talked about business acquisition and retention and said EDS' competition for the City's contract was offering "50 percent less work for 40 percent more money," and that the EDS contract was a bargain. "When it comes to business retention, Ms. Singh knows every business owner in this city on a first-name basis," McGirr said. "I know because she's introduced me to half of them."
The gamesmanship wasn't done.
Petrilla, who was deployed with the California Army Natinal Guard to Afghanistan from May 1, 2012 to Sept. 14, responded to Gamble's comments: "I thought the election was over and had hoped that coming back from Afghanistan—so far we have been able to address the issues and talk about the issues and not about politics. ... It's unfortunate that has been brought back up but the election has seemed to continue into January and I think it's an amazing magic trick that I was able to, quote, 'You put those trucks around town.' I think that's a magic trick that I did from 10,000 miles away and I would like to move on from that election and to only talk about the issues."
Beall then said he had "a question for you, Councilmember Petrilla."
Petrilla quickly responded: "I'm not going to sit here and be cross-examined."
Beall, in his third year as mayor, said his question was "in good faith" because "when you were elected you were one of the most vocal advocates for the need to do increased economic development. ... If this isn't the direction you think we should go, do you believe there is additional economic development activity this City Council should be engaging in to help improve our business community, or is it now your position that things are good and there's no need to do any additional economic development from the City's standpoint? I just want to understand on a going forward basis what your goals will be so that we can help achieve them."
Petrilla: "I'm not going to sit here and be cross-examined. I've stated the economic climate in the city has turned around greatly from where it was in the recession and it's truly a great thing, and is this really needed is my only point when I said that."
Petrilla, 29, has good reason to move on from the election and any political missteps he may have made; he announced last month his intention to run for state assembly.
Still, Petrilla didn't get in the last word. That belonged to Gamble during councilmember statements.
She talked about the most recent Chamber of Commerce function at Rancho Santa Margarita Honda attended by about 60 people.
"The number of people who were there was a testament to Suzanne Singh and the Chamber and its board of directors," Gamble said.
"Councilmember Baric and Petrilla, you would have really enjoyed yourselves."