A council member accused a former mayor of resigning because of a "public outcry," a longtime official called a colleague “immature and uncaring,” and a businessman said he was “ashamed” of the council's actions that evening. All in all, it was an interesting night at Rancho Santa Margarita City Hall.
Following a contentious debate Wednesday, the City Council voted 3-2 to take no steps to place a term limits initiative on the 2012 ballot that would prevent council members from serving more than two terms.
Currently, City Council members serve terms of four years at a time with no limit on how many terms they can serve. Elections are usually staggered so that every four years, two seats are open. Then, in the next election, three seats are open.
An earlier motion by Councilman Jesse Petrilla—who originally brought the issue before the council—to create an online poll to find out what locals think about term limits and to have the city staff move a discussion on the item to January was defeated 3-2.
“I’ve always been a strong proponent of term limits,” Petrilla said. “I think it creates a fresh perspective with innovative ideas from new blood.”
Petrilla said that term limits encourage new people “to enter into public service” and that the Founding Fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson, were in favor of it.
The council members who voted against Petrilla’s motion—Mayor Tony Beall, Jerry Holloway and Carol Gamble—raised a number of arguments against the issue, including that a ballot measure on the item would cost too much money during a rough economic time, that term limits would remove people with needed experience, and that there are more important issues to deal with.
Six people spoke out during the public comments section on the item: three in favor of term limits, two in opposition and one who proposed letting the voter’s decide. Two of those in favor of term limits were not residents of Rancho Santa Margarita.
That last individual, Dove Canyon Courtyard owner Kenney Hrabik, wanted the issue on the ballot.
“Put term limits before the voters,” Hrabik said. “When we have an impasse, this is the fair way to decide.”
Hrabik added, “Not just a vote of five sitting City Council members, but a vote of the people. The only way to keep the public trust is to let the good people of Rancho Santa Margarita decide."
Nick Alivojvodic of RSM spoke against term limits during his public comments.
“I encourage you to adopt what council member Petrilla has put forward,” Alivojvodic said. “The power of incumbency is the biggest detriment to the democratic process.”
“How many terms in office is enough?” Alivojvodic added. “How much is enough for you guys? What type of person needs to be in a position of power for so long?”
Resident Brad McGirr, on the city's Planning Commission, disapproved of term limits, calling the issue “the removal of experience for inexperience" and replacing "competency with incompetency.“
“Let me support who I choose to support,” McGirr said. “We have term limits. It’s a called a voting machine. It’s called a ballot box.“
Councilwoman Gamble said Petrilla used the issue to try to get elected and questioned him about his reasons for supporting it.
“What I’ve heard is that when you rang people’s doorbells [running for office], this was an item that you brought up to them,” Gamble said. “This was not an item they brought up to you.”
Petrilla said that a number of people he talked to said they were in favor of it, and at the meeting, he read a letter from a former City Council member who was in favor of term limits; Gamble pointed out that the councilwoman, Christy Riley, was an incumbent who was defeated at the voting booth.
Beall questioned Petrilla at length about Petrilla’s past attempt to collect signatures to place a term limit initiative on the ballot in 2009, as well as Petrilla’s understanding of the issue, including legalities.
“Are you concerned that by doing this, the City Council could become far less effective? That you would be removing people with extensive experience?” Beall said. “I’m sure you’ve been undergoing a pretty steep learning curve.”
“I think I was ready on Day One,” Petrilla said.
Later Beall asked if Petrilla was concerned that term limits would limit who the people could vote for.
“Isn’t it undemocratic to do this?” Beall said.
“I don’t think so,” Petrilla said.
“Why?” Beall said.
“If anything, it inspires democracy,” Petrilla said. “It encourages people who otherwise would not run to get involved in the democratic process to run for political office.”
Councilman Steve Baric, who sided with Petrilla on term limits, said that he felt the issue was a tricky one but that he wanted the voters to decide.
“In general I support term limits,” Baric said. “I’m not going to comment or speculate as to why this item is arriving here now. From my perspective, I would like to investigate the issue.”
Baric suggested that the city staff send out some type of questionnaire to get the opinions of locals on the issue.
In a controversial statement, Petrilla also said that former Councilman and Mayor Gary Thompson resigned because Thompson bowed to pressure to do so. Petrilla later said he misspoke.
After Petrilla said that the public removed two local incumbents from office in the last election he added, “There was a third incumbent that managed to stay, and it took another outcry from the public for him to step down.”
Both Beall and Holloway disagreed with Petrilla’s comment.
“You made the statement to the effect that there were two council members that were defeated, and you said it took an outcry from the public for a third to step down? “ Beall said. “Can you tell me what you’re talking about?”
“No, I’m not going to stray from discussion here,” Petrilla said.
“Well if the suggestion is that Gary Thompson resigned because people were threatening him with being recalled … I take substantial issue with that," Beall said. "Especially knowing that Gary Thompson, who served this city well for many years, resigned for personal reasons to take care of his family.”
Thompson’s father recently passed away, and his mother is in hospice care.
Beall said, “For anyone to suggest that he resigned because of political pressure by supporters of yours who were threatening recall—I find that deeply offensive.”
“I’m going to stay on topic here,” Petrilla said.
Holloway called Petrilla’s comment “very uncaring, unprofessional, and insensitive.”
“I think it’s [because of] your youth that you don’t see the harm in making statements that are factually untrue,” Holloway said.
“If I misspoke, then I apologize,” Petrilla said, interrupting.
After the end of the meeting, when asked if he’d like to clarify his comments on Thompson, Petrilla said, “No, I misspoke.”
After discussion with the city clerk about the best time to bring the issue forward, Petrilla motioned that the city staff bring the item back for discussion in January and ask the staff to set up a Web poll to find out if residents support term limits.
The motion failed, 3-2, with Petrilla and Baric casting the dissenting votes.
Near the conclusion of the meeting, local business owner Hrabik spoke again during final public comments saying that he was “ashamed” of the actions of the City Council and their treatment of Petrilla, especially Beall’s “cross-examination” of Petrilla.
- Council member Carol Gamble asked the council to consider creating a Business Mentor of the Year award, and officials directed city staff to look into the item. The suggestion was part of months-long independent investigation by Gamble into the process by which a business expands in Rancho Santa Margarita.
- The evening was also the “soft opening” for the first live audio recording of the meeting. You can listen to audio of the meeting by clicking here.
- Longtime City Manager Steven Hayman officially announced his retirement for health reasons and to spend more time with his family.
- All City Council members were in attendance.
The next City Council meeting is Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, at 22112 El Paseo.