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Top Stories of 2012: No. 7—Voter's Bill of Rights

It may have been the biggest non-story of the year, positioned to get the community talking about a couple of City Council wannabes and city reform. It couldn't have gone more wrong.

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."

Richard Oakley January 07, 2013 at 04:21 PM
Not worth the paper it was printed on. And the two "authors" have ties to two of our Council members who have their eyes on bigger prizes than serving the City of RSM residents. Whittingham should have been removed from the Planning Commission and Hrabik got exactly what he deserved in the election . . . a shellacking.
Sharon Y. January 07, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Deception, government waste, lost productivity, divisive politics…this is what our city has endured for two years since electing Jesse Petrilla and Steve Baric, two self-serving politicians who care little about our community but who are absolutely obsessed with increasing their own political power and advancing their own personal careers. They surrounded themselves with Peter Whittingham (a paid political lobbyist who has supported California high speed rail) and Kenney Hrabik (a small-minded, vindictive wannabe willing to say and do anything to join Petrilla/Baric on the City Council). They all need to go!
J.P. January 08, 2013 at 12:16 AM
Shame on all four of them. Petrilla, Baric, Hrabik & Whittingham, they each owe our community a public apology.
April Josephson January 08, 2013 at 01:32 AM
Martin, great summary of two years of drama for nothing. It's definitely a huge milestone in RSM to have this nonissue finally laid to rest. It was a shame that such divisiveness was brought to town by those with personal agendas instead of the best interests of the community at heart. The residents certainly stood up and showed them what we thought of their ridiculous claims. Kenney Hrabik's monumental loss should send a message to others that such behavior won't be tolerated in Rancho. Now that the voters have seen Jesse Petrilla in action, I expect that any other nonissue he tries to raise in the upcoming State Assembly race will be met with a similar response. I'd be surprised to see another 300 vote "landslide" in his future, especially after two consecutive failed petition efforts that cost taxpayers. We can only hope that the individuals involved have learned something from this and will think twice before being so deceptive and wasteful again.
Something Special Cateirng Inc. January 08, 2013 at 02:10 AM
I have a feeling you two are not done with Jesse or Kenney, really with all that's going on in the world and our city Martin you chose something to publish that you all say is dead and buried? Wow all should see that the Patch has its own agenda funny no info on the article from the Register about CC&R 's contracts hummmmm probably won't see anything eithe
Richard Oakley January 13, 2013 at 08:37 PM
If the citizens of RSM could vote Whiitingham off the Planning Commission, he would be gone in a flash! Do the right thing, Peter, resign and run for Assembly.

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