Top Stories of 2012: No. 3—The Election

It was 'Old Guard' vs. New in Rancho Santa Margarita. And when things are going well, why switch?

The 2012 election for Rancho Santa Margarita City Council was one for the record books.

It was a three-way contest, with incumbents Tony Beall and Carol Gamble trying to stave off businessman Kenney Hrabik. By all appearances, there was no love lost between the old guard and the new option.

For Hrabik, it was an election campaign that had been building for at least two years. He was a business owner upset at the City for, what he thought, changing the rules on him. He owned the Dove Canyon Courtyard and was given a permit to operate there, but after residential neighbors began to complain to the City, it determined he needed a different permit. And that's when the feathers started to fly.

Hrabik was a constant presence at city council and planning commission meetings while the City conducted sound tests and whatnot in an attempt to find out whether Hrabik's neighbors had a legitimate complaint about noise coming from his outdoor wedding and banquet business in the Dove Canyon Plaza.

He used the public comments portion of the meetings to launch criticism at the City and plead his case. He was plainly frustrated.

Hrabik received the proper conditional use permit in 2011—with certain restrictions to protect the interests of the neighbors—and the matter seemed done. But with the threat of litigation, the of the more than $60,000 he had spent on city and legal fees to end the matter for good in December of 2011.

That money was then earmarked for a campaign, which unofficially began in January with the "Voter's Bill of Rights," a petition he created with planning commissioner Peter Whittingham that claimed the City was not business friendly; they posited the way to solve the City's business issues was to instill term limits, remove council benefits, and post photos of councilmembers—and what they earned from the City—on the City's website.

Failing to lay the proper foundation for what Hrabik really wanted—term limits and the removal of benefits—would hurt him in the long run. And by making his claims based on faulty information—that Rancho Santa Margarita was included in a national study (it was not) ranked behind Philadelphia, New Orleans and El Centro in business friendliness—he lost credibility and became an easy target.

Hrabik's missteps benefited his opponents. It gave Beall and Gamble fodder at every door they knocked on, for every crowd that heard them speak. 

Hrabik seemed to campaign like a madman. His campaign-themed vans were parked around town for months with "Kenney" emblazoned on their side. He promised to bring jobs back to RSM, cut government waste, restore safe schools, and to join with—and he used their names on his literature—councilmen Steve Baric and Jesse Petrilla to instill the term limits and the removal of council benefits. He even adopted a portion of the 241 toll road called "Kenney."

Gamble, elected to the city's original council before resigning in 2004 to care for her parents, called the campaign an opportunity to "Stand up for Rancho," which was her slogan. A 2011 appointment to replace Gary Thompson, which put her back on the council—Hrabik was a finalist but quit at the last moment—she talked about the arrival of mudslinging politics in Rancho Santa Margarita in 2010 and that, by voting for her and Beall, residents could make a statement that they didn't want someone's spin, that they cared more for results than rhetoric.

When it came time to vote, it was no contest. Residents sided with the so-called "old guard." And if business as usual was a bad thing, it would be hard to tell. A statistically reliable survey conducted over the summer indicated random resident voters were overwhelmingly pleased with the City and its government and supported the manner in which councilmembers were paid.

Business as usual it was. On the strength of a presidential election turnout, Beall recorded more votes than any council member in the city's history, and if he was the primary target of Hrabik, then Beall scored an easy knockout.

Beall carried 45 percent of the vote (13,011 votes), Gamble 33.9 percent (9,793), and Hrabik 21.2 percent (6,121).

Although he was a new face, the electorate also sided with Brad McGirr, who successfully campaigned against Larry McCook and Glenn Acosta for a two-year seat on the council.

If the Beall-Hrabik rivalry was a bloodbath, the two-year seat was a gentleman's contest between planning commissioner McGirr, retired businessman McCook and Trabuco Canyon Water District board member Acosta.

Respect was shown at nearly every corner as the three men mostly spoke highly of the other. McCook played the everyman role that he wasn't a politician like the others, though he had campaigned longer than anyone. He received more than 4,300 votes as a late entry in the 2010 election, and had essentially campaigned from that point forward in a grassroots effort to get people to know him. He was everywhere, it seemed, with a lanyard identifying him hanging around his neck and handing out business cards at city festivals and music events.

He increased his votes in 2012, but it wasn't enough to beat McGirr, who had the full endorsement of Beall (who had appointed him to the planning commission) and Gamble.

McGirr won 41.3 percent of the vote (7,036 votes) to McCook's 31.7 percent (5,391) and Acosta's 27 percent (4,591).

Beall, Gamble and McGirr promised the same kind of leadership Rancho Santa Margarita had in the past—which yielded $20 million in reserves for a town running on a $19 million budget—and that was good enough for the residents who, lacking a better description, stood up for Rancho.


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