Hoping to score with voters and more clearly define themselves beyond lawn signs and campaign literature, contenders for three City Council seats in Rancho Santa Margarita met Monday at the election season's first candidate forum.
Absentee ballots go out to residents within a week for the general election that will be held on Nov. 6.
Five of the six City Council candidates gathered at the Bell Tower Regional Community Center for the forum, a joint venture between the RSM Chamber of Commerce and Rancho Santa Margarita Patch.
Candidates addressed the crowd in two groups, with Trabuco Canyon Water District Director Glenn Acosta, retired CEO Larry McCook, and planning commissioner Brad McGirr in the group vying for the single two-year seat on the council, and Mayor Tony Beall and councilwoman Carol Gamble angling for the two available four-year seats.
On Monday morning, businessman Kenney Hrabik bowed out of the forum, citing a family medical issue; Hrabik is seeking a four-year seat.
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None of the candidates were supplied questions prior to the event, which was moderated by Rancho Santa Margarita Patch editor Martin Henderson.
He told the audience that the questions should help attendees and city residents “get to know the candidates a little bit and see how they stand on some of the issues.”
And the candidates answered.
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McCook, at 71 the oldest candidate, throughout the forum described himself as a non-politician. In 2010, he ran a six-week campaign on a shoestring budget, and although he finished last among five candidates, he received more than 4,000 votes.
“It’s obvious that I’m cut out of a different piece of a material,” McCook said, referring to those seated next to him. “They’re all politicians. I’m extremely direct. I’m not a flowery orator, but you will get a straight answer from me.”
His answers tended to be shorter than the other candidates, and he announced an unorthodox strategy regarding endorsements after Henderson asked each candidate to endorse two other candidates they could work with: “I’m going to endorse all of the ones that have endorsed me, and that’s none of them."
McCook said that he wanted to bring an environmentally friendly, high-tech company to the city and was already working toward that end.
“This is not minimum wage fast-food jobs,” McCook said. “This is a company that could be medical, bio-med, micro-electronics.”
Acosta, a civil engineer with Los Angeles County, said that his experience with the water district helps distinguish him from his opponents.
“I have the most experience in local government, in public policy,” Acosta said. “I have made the same kind of decisions as a city councilman.”
He also talked about the possibility of trying to woo new business to the city, such as an upscale bowling alley like Lucky Strikes, or a megamart like Costco that could add significantly to the tax base.
Acosta said businesses like those would help Rancho Santa Margarita reach “financial prosperity,” and the city could move closer to that goal by “bringing in the right mix of businesses, of industries and reaching out directly with the key companies that bring the revenues (and) … that fit our family-friendly environment.“
All the candidates were asked their vision for the Chiquita Ridge property, 92-acres of land just east of Canada Vista Park.
McGirr envisioned "a joint venture agreement with Santa Margarita High School to build Eagle Stadium" that would allow the state champion program to play locally rather than Saddleback College.
“I want to see a 23-acre sports park adjoined with Eagle Stadium (there).” McGirr said. “And (I want to) have Eagle Stadium surrounded by restaurants and shops."
He likened his proposal to "a very small version of the Irvine Spectrum,” and said he wanted to add hiking trails in Chiquita Ridge that could double as fire breaks, link Chiquita with O'Neill Regional Park and circumnavigate the entire city for hikers and bicyclists.
McGirr made clear that he was opposed to a vision such as McCook's: “I guarantee I will never ever put a manufacturing plant in the hills,” which he said would supply jobs for Los Angeles residents, not RSM residents.
Beall played off of his record. He said he had served the city for eight years, and RSM had thrived while he was part of the city's decision-making process. He said he would be "proud to continue doing what we have been doing.”
Under his tenure, Beall said the city had $19 million in reserve, had been ranked by the FBI as the safest in California two years in a row and had been “the very first city to adopt meaningful pension reform.”
He added, “I’m proud that In-N-Out Burger is coming here as well,” drawing chuckles from the audience.
Gamble was a primary player in the formation of the city and elected to its first city council in November 1999. She said her main reason for running was to keep local politics honest, especially in regard to Hrabik's “Voter’s Bill of Rights” which she alleged misrepresented data to paint the city in a bad light to further his agenda.
“Lying and deceiving the community, the city that I worked to form is not OK with me,” Gamble said. “We don’t want lies and deceptions in our City Council. We won’t have it.”
Gamble also added that as a business owner, a former mayor and a member of the committee to make Rancho Santa Margarita a city, she had the experience and the qualities necessary to continue to lead the city.
Hrabik has lobbied hard for the dissolvment of benefits to council members, and Gamble said she was "delighted to" discuss the reasoning behind the stipend and benefits that councilmembers receive.
"Rancho Santa Margarita was not set up like a typical city," Gamble said, noting the city council is "viewed like a board of directors. We’re expected to perform. We're paid to perform."
Gamble cited Mayor Pro Tem Steve Baric and Jesse Petrilla—neither of whom now accept the offered stipend and benefits—as examples of why city councilmembers should be paid.
Gamble said that Baric and Petrilla, instead of attending a budget meeting, "opted to go a cocktail party” for a Republican politician.
If councilmembers aren't paid, she said, then they are volunteers: “You can’t make volunteers work. You can't hold them to a standard. You can’t require them to show up.”
Though Hrabik wasn’t in attendance, he and his business was present as a topic.
McGirr and Beall talked about a $50,000 cash settlement the city reached with Hrabik after the candidate—who owns the Dove Canyon Courtyard—threatened to sue the city for more than $250,000 after finally receiving a Conditional Use Permit in a contentious battle that pitted neighbors against neighbors.
Beall said the settlement decision was “the one I regret the most because it did not achieve the results” he wanted, which was for the city to begin healing.
McGirr, a planning commissioner who came into the appointed position on the back end of the Dove Canyon Courtyard battle with neighbors, said he didn’t know the specifics of the threatened lawsuit but would not have offered the cash settlement had he been on the council.
“I’m a litigator. I’m an attorney," McGirr said. "I’ve been an attorney since 1985 and my natural response to any such thing is to defend and to fight what I consider to be an unjustifiable suit.”
The debate was well-attended with about 50 people.
One attendee, 19-year resident Cary Nielson, said that strong leadership and honesty were the traits he was looking for in a candidate.
“I just love the exchange of ideas like this,” said Nielson, a facilities administrator. “I think it makes people accountable for what they say.
“It’s on record, it’s on a camera and they’ve got to be straight.”
Cindy Cossairt, who has lived in RSM since 1986, said the discussion of Chiquita Ridge was important to her and other empty nesters looking for activities, and that the proposed complex should benefit all generations, not just kids.
Cossairt attended the forum to meet the candidates.
“I always like to be an informed voter and hear directly from my own ears what people are saying,” Cossairt said.
She, like everyone else, got an earful.
CAR Candidate Forum
A second candidate forum will be held tonight. Hosted by the Community Associations of Rancho, it will be held at the Bell Tower Regional Community Center from 7-9 p.m.
For more information about the CAR forum, see the CAR Facebook page or email CARcandidateforum@gmail.com.