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Top Stories of 2011: No. 4—Capt. Chaos

Jesse Petrilla's call to military training at Fort Knox was anything but the gold standard. His reputation suffered, and he didn't do his colleagues on the City Council any favors either.

Jesse Petrilla attends a retirement fete for Gary Thompson though asked by the city manager to not attend. Photo/Martin Henderson
Jesse Petrilla attends a retirement fete for Gary Thompson though asked by the city manager to not attend. Photo/Martin Henderson

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted Jan. 25, 11:14 a.m. Portions of it were lost during Patch's crossover to a new CMS; the lost content has been restored. The article now appears in its original form.

To Jesse Petrilla, it's all about him. That much became evident in 2011 soon after Rancho Santa Margarita's youngest city councilman was called to military training with the California Army National Guard in February. The gamesmanship that followed was hard to watch.

When 2nd Lt. Petrilla received his papers from Uncle Sam to report to Fort Knox, KY, he had attended just four meetings in his role as a newly elected public official. 

By law the city had the option of temporarily replacing Petrilla during his four-month, or leaving the seat vacant and taking a four-man approach to local governance—a move that would run the risk of a 2-2 deadlock on council voting.

Petrilla didn't want anyone keeping his seat warm while he was gone. Instead, he said he wanted to govern from long distance.

He admitted during his last council meeting before leaving for U.S. Army Armor Basic Officers Leaders Course that he knew he would be called away for extended military training during his City Council term, though he didn’t expect it before December of 2012.  However, he had failed to openly share this notable information with voters while running for the council seat, and some in the community were critical of the omission. 

What followed after he received his marching orders was a poor reflection on Petrilla, who seemed to use his military uniform as a shield against criticism. But he was no Capt. America.

Like a schoolboy asking Dad to let him stay out late on prom night, Petrilla did everything short of begging his council colleagues not to appoint a temporary replacement for him. 

Petrilla told the council “my time is my own” and that he could engage in teleconferencing—thereby governing by long distance—as long as he wasn’t out in the field at the time.

Even though Fort Knox is a military base with a three-hour time difference, Petrilla insisted that members of the general public could attend meetings on the base at his location so there would be no open meeting Brown Act violation. He got that info, he said, straight from a guard at the gate.

Yet councilmen Gary Thompson and Jerry Holloway had reservations indicating they knew more about military workings than Petrilla did. Or maybe they just had more common sense. Thompson had for decades worked with the military and supervised the repair of a nuclear submarine fleet in San Diego in the wake of 9/11. Holloway was a retired police officer.

The council wanted assurances that the on-base teleconferencing that Petrilla proposed as an alternative could take place, and that members of the public could have access to Petrilla’s location during the meetings so that a Brown Act violation didn’t occur.

The army, though, refused to provide such assurances.

Thompson, Holloway and Mayor Tony Beall had been through the complex and time-consuming budget process before, and took the stance that five heads were better than four when it came to analyzing every item of the city’s budget—the major task during Petrilla’s absence.

Additionally, City Manager Steve Hayman said there were several upcoming matters, such as “important land issues, several key contracts,” that could bog down the city with a 2-2 deadlock vote. The council chose to appoint a temporary replacement for Petrilla, who by law would resume his role as councilman immediately upon his return. 

Steve Baric, the other newly elected councilman, cast the sole a dissenting vote because he had “grave concerns that a significant portion of the community would think this is political payback.”

Petrilla fanned those flames. He responded to the council’s decision by sending a misleading e-mail blast that painted his colleagues as disrespectful toward the position he was elected to, and implied they were unpatriotic and disrespectful of the military uniform he wore.

Petrilla's message was that the Army had his back and he could teleconference as necessary.

But the Army ultimately provided correspondence to the city that demonstrated Petrilla was wrong on every count. Civilians wouldn’t have the run of Fort Knox at midnight—or later—on nights when Petrilla would be attending to his city council duties. He would also likely be too busy to attend meetings through teleconferencing anyway.

Rancho Santa Margarita Patch contacted Maj. Chris Almagauer at Fort Knox and shared the language Petrilla used to his followers indicating the military had endorsed his participation: “The Army has expressly stated that teleconferencing would be possible despite some statements made in council meetings, or in various media.” Almagauer specifically would not endorse that comment.

The city, and the military, deserved better from Petrilla.

Through misleading e-mails and Facebook posts, Petrilla tried—somewhat successfully—to rally public opinion against his City Council colleagues.

Thompson, Holloway and Beall had their inboxes flooded by those who had received Petrilla’s messages, many not even from California. They were threatened with being recalled – and their patriotism was wrongfully questioned.

Then, days later, it got even more dramatic and convoluted. Thompson, who had been caring for his ailing father, resigned to focus on his family and his consulting business, a move that some incorrectly credited to the pressure from voters and the threat of the recall. Thompson’s father died four months later; his mother was already in convalescent care.

Holloway indicated that he had misjudged the emotional impact on the residents who had filled his inbox. As a show of goodwill, Beall offered to nominate Petrilla to replace Thompson as the mayor pro tempore when the aspiring tank platoon leader returned from training.

With Thompson’s resignation, Beall, Holloway and Baric wanted to ensure all council members —including Petrilla—were involved in selecting Thompson’s replacement. The notion of temporarily replacing Petrilla was scrapped.

It was determined that Petrilla would participate in council meetings via telephone, and would be involved in the selection of the new council member.

Petrilla did physically attend two council meetings while he was in training.

The first was on a weekend when Petrilla returned to Rancho Santa Margarita on a pass. A special meeting was hastily called to accommodate Petrilla’s schedule — even though the mayor was unable to attend because he was away on a planned business trip.  Six of the 12 candidates for Thompson’s position were interviewed publicly. Each councilman was allowed to ask two questions of each candidate. One of the standard questions Petrilla asked: “How do you define government?”

The other meeting that Petrilla “attended” was the one in which the four councilmen set out to elect Thompson’s replacement. That was the only meeting—city council or budget study session—in which Petrilla used the teleconferencing technology.

With council chambers packed and the meeting heading into the long hours of the night, Petrilla refused to follow the rules. Councilmen were asked to list their top three candidates. Three promptly complied – and but Petrilla refused and listed only one, Kenney Hrabik, owner of the controversial Dove Canyon Courtyard.

Jaws dropped in the crowd.

Petrilla insisted Hrabik was his only choice and refused to name a second and third choice. At one point, Petrilla said he didn’t want to name a candidate who wasn’t listed on any other ballots. 

The crowd groaned and his colleagues shook their heads in wonderment at what to do.

With the process at a standstill Petrilla eventually relented and ranked three candidates, but not before all in attendance saw past the uniform and claims of patriotism and recognized other traits: selfishness and arrogance.

After the better part of five hours, on the last night that Petrilla said he had available to participate in the selection process, the meeting was adjourned in order to conduct additional candidate interviews at a later date.

A few days later, after publication of an editorial in Patch calling for him to find time to participate or excuse himself from the process, Petrilla cut his losses and left it in the hands of Beall, Holloway and Baric to make the choice; they unanimously chose Carol Gamble (whom Petrilla last month nominated to be the new mayor; she declined).

Given the hit to his credibility, Petrilla would have been better off if the council had actually replaced him temporarily.

Petrilla returned to the council in June and, though he had not participated in a single budget discussion, voted for the adoption of the budget. In that meeting, Petrilla didn't bring any of the drama that had marked the spring.

But he was still playing by his own rules. Before the June 22 meeting, Thompson was honored at a reception in the city’s community center. Thompson's family asked, through the city manager, that Petrilla not attend the function because Petrilla’s actions had been so disrespectful to them.

Petrilla attended anyway.

His actions led Beall to rethink the mayor pro tem nomination.

Over the succeeding months, Petrilla proposed some agenda items sure to cause a stir.

He suggested council members be subject to term limits. It didn't pass.

Then he proposed that the position of mayor become an elected position by the people. It didn't pass. 

By year's end, Petrilla’s antics had played a huge role in the most chaotic year in City Council history.

And, in the opinion of many, it didn’t pass.
Sharon Y. January 23, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Nancy, IMHO both Baric and Jesse are using the council seat as a stepping stone to launch themselves to higher office, both at one time or another have stated so. I find it very dishearting that they do not have the love of community that the past council has shown and if I ever vote for a new candidate it will be with great reservation and a proven love of community. With the country in such unstable times it is nice to know our beautiful city is on solid ground and it is in large measure due to past council, you might not value that but I do. I will encourage all of my friends , family and nieghbors to vote current council members, why because they deserve it ! they have done an outstanding job Change for the sake of change........did not work out so well in last election
Chris McLaughlin January 23, 2012 at 07:14 PM
CAPTAIN Chaos?? I'm pretty sure Jesse is still a Lieutenant. Probably a First Lieutenant, but not a Captain...
RSM WATCHDOG January 23, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I'm Back! Mr. Henderson, you really know how to stir it up. Having watched the politics of Rancho Santa Margarita since the beginning, our council is currently a mess. For Tony Beall to be picked as Mayor in back-to-back years, says it all. Cronyism. He is bringing the same problems to RSM that he brought to CAPO. He and his wife are cunning, divisive people. Until he is removed our city will suffer. I know all his supporters will slam this post. Tell me how the Beall's helped CAPO? Our school district stands to lose millions because of the Bealls. Looking forward to supporting a new councilman in 2012.
Flannery4 January 23, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Who is running? I'm pretty new on here, but from reading the articles at the right side of the page it seems like the top dogs were Hrabik, Safranski, McGirr, Whittingham, Stanley. Most seemed to get good reviews. I dont know Hrabic but if Petrilla wanted only Hrabic, I would never vote for him. What about McCook? He is always on here and seems to be running for something.
RSM WATCHDOG January 23, 2012 at 09:02 PM
The only people who have come out and declared they are running are McCook and Acosta. I predict the field could be deep as the last election showed new blood is wanted.
Marilyn P. January 24, 2012 at 12:32 AM
To be honest, the city council was never a mess until after Steve Baric and Jesse Petrilla were elected last year. Before that, our city council worked well together as proven by our safety record and good business climate. But since the newcomers were elected, it's been one fiasco after another, mostly due to Jesse's antics. Who would you have chosen for mayor instead? Certainly not Jesse. He's proven time and time again that he severely lacks maturity. Steve Baric will be busy in the coming election year. Carol Gamble has family issues. That leaves Jerry Holloway, but he didn't seem interested in taking on the position. Why do you think making the best choice for our city an example of "cronyism?"
Wayne Quackenbush January 24, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Using city council as a stepping stone for higher office or for non-RSM interests is disingenuous and putting your own interests above those whom you serve. If Jesse and Steve have indicated that, it's a real shame. But you have to include those city councilmen that have also made such pursuits: Neil Blais running for State Assembly Tony Beall running for and currently on the Republican Central Committee
Eric Richardson January 24, 2012 at 01:19 AM
I just read this "Bill of Rights" and it makes no sense to me. I have to question the intentions of the people who submitted it. It gives no benefits to the voters of RSM. If anything, it looks detrimental to the well-being of the City and city leadership.
Sharon Y. January 24, 2012 at 01:41 AM
I agree Eric, but even more curious is that the infamous Kenny, Jesse's only choice for council, the one who threatened to sue the city, the one who just got a settlement from the city, the settlement voted on by his guy "Jesse" and Baric who both were supported by.....yep Kenny. I see a little pattern here, Kenny bought himself some council seats and those new guys paid their boy back with our tax dollars,tangled web Kenny weaves, what does he want now..........voters beware
Wayne Quackenbush January 24, 2012 at 02:30 AM
Can we get candidates not affiliated with any city council member? Why do we need politically tainted folks?
Chris McLaughlin January 24, 2012 at 02:45 AM
Hi Wayne, can you define 'not affiliated'? (For clarity of discussion purposes.)
Wayne Quackenbush January 24, 2012 at 02:59 AM
Appointed by, sponsored by, campaigned with, contributed money to, related to, has vested interest in...are some examples.
Chris McLaughlin January 24, 2012 at 03:07 AM
I admit there was some sentiment during the last election for a change in Council Members, but a lot has happened since then (see the article above), and the climate is not the same now. I wish there were some way to easily quantify the depth of buyer's remorse the RSM electorate have in regards to electing Jesse, but there's not, and we'll just have to wait another two years from November to see if Jesse is a 4-and-out Councilmember. (Been watching a lot of football lately...) As far as how many people are going to run this year, I'm sure there's several who are mulling it over right now, but I imagine the field will narrow quickly to a fairly short list of the usual suspects in no time. McCook and Acosta are already on that short list of people who want to take it seriously, and the ones who got callbacks last year for more questioning would be the usual suspects.
Paul January 24, 2012 at 05:30 AM
Blais and Beall have without question used their positions for political self-gain, even to the potential detriment of RSM. While running for Assembly, Blais sued Beall's opponent just to protect him. The old guard also wasted their time trying to support some Arizona bill that had nothing to do with RSM, just so they looked better for their campaign. They couldn't care less about RSM. Petrilla is an idiot according to this article, its unbelieveable to me what this kid has done. But how does Baric fit into that? Outsiders perspective here, but everything I've seen about him is positive - gang prosecutor, sex offender ban, only one responsible enough to slot into Mayor Pro Tem. Are you saying he's not interested in helping his community? Most people in a higher office have started locally - are you saying none of them care about the place they live? Ridiculous.
Martin Henderson (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 06:10 AM
Last I heard, councilman Petrilla was a Second Lieutenant.
Chris McLaughlin January 24, 2012 at 10:10 AM
In that case, Wayne, I don't think so. Anyone who is interested in being on City Council is probably already affiliated with one or more sitting Council Members in one way or another. Most people consider the Planning Commission the normal stepping stone to being on the Council, and being appointed to the Planning Commission takes being affiliated with a sitting Council Member (that's who appoints the Planning Commissioners). It's rare that someone comes out of nowhere like Jesse to run and get elected, but even he was connected with local politics already through the RSM Business Alliance and apparently has some strong ties to Kenney Hrabik (see above article). The phenomenon of being an outsider/untainted and having a chance at getting elected is kind of a Catch-22, so that's why it never happens, but like Carol Gamble said last year during the proceedings, it's not supposed to be easy to get on City Council. You need to really, really want it, and work at it for a long time, and go through a thorough vetting process. It's hard to not let that process kind of taint you, I guess...
RSM Family January 24, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Wow. I don't post often, but had to say something now. My family is disappointed in our voters for choosing Jesse Petrilla and Steve Baric. Just look at this mess! RSM was a quiet place until you arrived. Way to go voters is right!!
RSM Dad January 24, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Well Paul let's see. Baric is an election lawyer who makes his money lawyering for politicians and political campaigns, then challenges election results when his clients lose. He is also vice chairman of the state republican party. His campaign counsultant in the city council election is a known political "hit man" operative in county politics. And it just so happens that this last election was the dirtiest on record in this city with negative campaigning by Baric's political ally lawyer from Coto. No politics there eh? Let's face it, Baric is in it for himself, everything he has done so far has been for his own political self interest and every time he takes a vote, he has his finger in the air first so he can see which way the wind is blowing.
RSM Dad January 24, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Follow the money and follow the politics with Baric. He receives significant support from Hrabik, he has Hrabik on his top three list of replacement candidates for Thompson, he appointa a planning commissioner, Peter Whittingham, a known lobbyist working for a lobbying firm that is very politically active, and now both Hrabik and Whittingham dream up this "voters bill of rights"? Who is Baric trying to fool. If it walks like a duck, it is a duck.
Lawrence (Larry) McCook January 24, 2012 at 06:52 PM
I have stated that am no close friend of Jesse Petrilla but, I will defend any actions that I consider unjust to the uniform in which he wears. The motion to replace him while on active duty came before any council member had a first hand opinion of Jesse. A member of the military may not respect our Commander In Chief but, there is some respect to his position and they follow orders. It is obvious that most of the blogging comments are politically motivated. The same people have lined up in support of their favorite incumbent politicians. To respond to comments using "divisive" and to "the Old Guard" there is some truth in both. I have attended more City Council Meetings than anyone blogging here or for that matter, more council meetings over the last two years than three of the sitting council members. There was nothing divisive, of course, until new ideas (some had validity and were shot down) were presented to the City Council by someone not part of The Old Guard. In electing new blood and ideas the voters in RSM has indicated it is time for change in faces (for sure not as in "Obama's Change"). This is not a personal attack but, like it or not, reality.
Nancy Thompson January 24, 2012 at 11:21 PM
wow what is everyone afraid of with this "bill of rights" being presented to the public to decide??? Maybe that their office will not be secured for years on end???
Karl H. January 24, 2012 at 11:39 PM
"I WILL DEFEND ANY ACTIONS that I consider UNJUST to the uniform in which he wears." Good luck running for city council with THAT comment McCook! So as long as Petrilla is in the military, hanging someone in effigy in front of a mosque is something you defend. Wow. I suppose if a military reservist hanged in effigy a Catholic priest in front of a Catholic church, you would defend that too? If not, you are not only ignorant, but a hypocrite too!
angela preston January 25, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I would hope that most people who run for office would be in some way affiliated with the city. I don't want to vote for someone who doesn't take the time to be involved or doesn't have the city's best interest at heart. Personally, I've been happy with the way the city has been run. I think we're lucky to live here. I read through that "bill of rights" and i laughed out loud when I read the part that was comparing RSM town to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Really? Our small town??? According to who? OMG!
Lawrence (Larry) McCook January 25, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Karl, You have brought in a lot of unrelated subjects with your comments. You have also obviously not understood my comments or sentiments and your analogy is incongruous. Of course I find hanging any effigy wrong and once again I am neither a friend or supporter of Jesse Petrilla. But, if you had been at the council meetings and witnessed how some of his good ideas (yes he has had some good ideas) were scoffed at by certain council members. This has been far less than dignified council behavior and embarrassing to me as a RSM citizen.. Larry
Lawrence (Larry) McCook January 25, 2012 at 03:07 AM
I might add that I will always defend The United States Military as much and possibly more than anyone you may ever meet,.
Karl H. January 25, 2012 at 03:57 AM
Unrelated subjects??? Look around Mr. McCook, I quoted YOU verbatim. YOU said that you "defend any actions" of the military, even if "unjust." If you wrote it, we assume you meant it. If we don't understand your comments that are repeated verbatim, that's YOUR fault.
Lawrence (Larry) McCook January 25, 2012 at 06:18 AM
Karl, This is becoming comical. You have taken some words from my comment and left out some words totally changing the meaning of my statement. Do you work for Newsweek? Since you have provided such levity, it is fun!
April Josephson January 25, 2012 at 04:54 PM
Hi Nancy, we've known each other for years and have always worked hard to do what we think is best for RSM—and we're using our real names. So, I thought I'd respond. I believe this proposal is not in the best interest of RSM. The U.S. Bill of Rights protects all citizens' freedoms. To me, this restricts freedom. City council spends a lot of time doing their job. They balance our budget while receiving their minimal compensation, including benefits. This bill takes away their freedom to choose whether or not they want to receive benefits if they need them. It could limit future choices for council if someone who wants to serve decides they can't afford to because they have to make money to pay for insurance rather than serve our city. Ever since Jesse started asking for voluntary term limits, I've made my opposition known. It takes away voters' right to choose from among ALL possible candidates. Why get rid of someone if they are doing well? Let the voters decide between everyone. They've already chosen three new people without it. In choosing council, voters have already chosen who they want to make the decisions. If there's a vacancy, they should be trusted to choose rather than leave RSM unrepresented. Forcing a special election leaves us without representation and wastes money. If people want this, they should go through the initiative process to put it on the ballot, rather than spend city council's time on it. That's is how I believe we let voters decide.
Claire O'Donnell January 25, 2012 at 05:40 PM
Why should a part-time elected position get full-time benefits? Our city council members are using taxpayer money to pay for their health care benefits and to fund their retirement. I don't think that's right. Serve because you want to serve. Don't expected taxpayers to flip the bill for these perks, especially when each person has a full-time job.
Martin Henderson (Editor) November 23, 2013 at 10:45 PM
This article has been restored to its original form. Content had been lost during Patch's crossover to a new CMS.

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