In the end, it amounted to nothing. Rancho Santa Margarita's "Voter's Bill of Rights" was sparked by two men with close ties to two sitting City Councilmembers and for all intents and purposes, their plan to reform city government blew up in their faces—ultimately costing the City thousands of dollars and perhaps themselves the election.
Peter Whittingham and Kenney Hrabik were at the heart of the movement. The "Rancho Santa Margarita Voter's Bill of Rights" as it was introduced to city manager Steve Hayman on Dec. 22, 2011, included six items ranging from reasonable to kinda dumb.
It resolved to remove councilmember benefits, impose term limits, fill vacant positions by special elections and post the photos and total annual incomes from the City to every council member who held office since incorporation in 2000. For good measure, violation could result in seven days in jail and a fine up to $1,000.
Whittingham was councilman Steve Baric's appointee as planning commissioner, and Kenney Hrabik was Jesse Petrilla's choice for any available council seat. Although Baric said he didn't agree with the premise—a bad business environment in the city—he didn't publicly hold Whittingham to the fire, unlike Whittingham's colleagues on the planning commission.
Petrilla brought two of the elements from the bill of rights to council meetings, term limits and removal of benefits. The Council didn't support either item, but opted for a survey to get the public's opinion about such matters.
Hrabik told the Council, "If I need to gather 3,000 signatures for the public to have a voice, I will."
He and Whittingham set about trying to get a petition for the bill of rights on the November ballot. Shortly into the process, only term limits and benefits were in play.
The bill of rights seemed to provide the jumping off point for a run at City Council by both men. However, Whittingham didn't follow through after showing early interest. Hrabik did, and had vans and trailers parked around town during his campaign that described his opponents as greedy and that he would join with Baric and Petrilla to remove benefits and install term limits.
The men made a critical error at the outset. To make their point that reform was necessary, they picked on the city's business climate and even threw in the city's traffic congestion that adds "hours" to the monthly commute: "Unfortunately, according to national sources, El Centro, Bakersfield, Philadelphia and even New Orleans are more job friendly. New Orleans!"
And that's where the bill of rights hit the fan.
Rancho Santa Margarita was never part of the Milken Institute study, which Whittingham cited as the national source. Whittingham and Hrabik used figures for greater Orange County—specifically, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine—and passed them off as Rancho Santa Margarita's. It essentially made the men liars in the eyes of Mayor Tony Beall and councilwoman Carol Gamble.
In a memorable council meeting on Jan. 25, Gamble grilled both men in an attempt to correct the record if false information was being disseminated nationally. Hrabik, who had for many months lobbed unreturned criticism at the council during the public comment portion of council meetings—much of it stemming from his battle for a conditional use permit for his Dove Canyon Courtyard business—exclaimed they weren't there to be cross-examined. Gamble would have no part of it. For more than 16 minutes she systematically questioned the men and revealed their claims to be untrue.
Councilman Jerry Holloway pointed out a disconnect as well: The items in the bill of rights didn't do anything to address the reason for the bill of rights, which was the business environment and traffic congestion.
Both Gamble and Beall pointed out to anyone who would listen that a common political ploy is to create a problem that only the candidate pointing out the problem can fix. The bill of rights as presented created ample fodder for the incumbents on the campaign trail, and it was a target from which Hrabik would never escape.
Whittingham also caught it from both sides at the subsequent Planning Commission meeting. Jim Eakin, sitting to Whittingham's immediate right, and Brad McGirr, sitting to his immediate left, both criticized him for his role in portraying the city as one with traffic congestion and a poor business environment that, McGirr said, "have no foundation in fact."
Hrabik, who had attended nearly every planning commission and city council meeting for two years, didn't attend another even though he ran for city council. Whittingham stopped attending council meetings and never followed through with a campaign after receiving preliminary paperwork to do so.
That wasn't the end of the fallout.
With benefits and term limits shot down by the city council, Hrabik in particular wanted to circulate a petition that would get each item on the November ballot.
Though Hrabik's campaign platform for city council included being a watchdog for tax dollars, his lack of attention to detail cost the city thousands: Four petitions covering two items collectively went through about eight iterations from February to July in order to get the wording correct.
When it was all done, not a single signature was provided to the City.
Endorsed by Petrilla, Hrabik lost in a landslide to the incumbents for city council. Hrabik garnered 21.2 percent of the vote, Beall 45 percent, and Gamble 39.3 percent.
Last week, Hrabik and Whittingham were sent a letter from the City advising them the window had closed on their second set of completed petitions; the last vestiges of the "Voter's Bill of Rights" were now "considered void for all purposes."