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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.
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 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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