It’s Easy for Electeds to Misstep During Tragedies

Like so many across the country distraught by the massacre that left 20 children dead at a Connecticut elementary school in December, Meghan Shigo, an Anaheim real estate agent, felt a need to mourn and heal with her community.

Shigo's grief led her to email members of the Anaheim City Council with a request for a candlelight vigil. Upon receiving Shigo's email, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait's staff quickly went to work and organized a vigil that was to take place a few days before Christmas.

But while Tait's office coordinated with city staff and local religious leaders, the news release inviting the public to the event came only from the mayor and made no mention of city staff or other members of the City Council. This did not sit well with Councilwoman Kris Murray, seen as the leader of the council majority and a bitter rival of Tait.

“Not including the Council and city staff was appalling. How could you?” Murray wrote in an email to Deputy City Manager Greg Garcia. “I've asked [City Manager Bob Wingenroth] to take it down and rewrite including mayor, council and staff. Whoever is acting CM [city manager] tonight, I would like a call to discuss and a timeline when it will be written appropriately. I will be waiting for a call on my cell.”

While Tait did not return a phone call regarding the controversy, Shigo and others believe that the exclusion of other members of the council was more likely an oversight than an attempt by the mayor to make political hay.

“When we get emotional, this is what happens,” said Steve Alexander, president of The Steve Alexander Group, a strategic communications firm. “Most anger is to cover up for hurt.”

Regardless, it is an example of the delicate politics surrounding tragic events and how an elected official's emotional reaction can return to haunt them. And it's not the only instance in recent months.

Another example came when Irvine Mayor Steven Choi appeared at a news conference last month announcing a multiagency, $1-million reward for tips leading to the capture of Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles police officer whose killing spree targeting police officers and their families began with the murder of an Irvine couple.

But Choi had not obtained City Council approval to commit the $100,000 in city funds, much less appear at a public event to show Irvine's support for the reward.

Choi's colleague, Councilwoman Beth Krom, said that she first learned about a possible commitment and Choi's plan to attend the news conference in the same way everyone else did, by watching television.

“When the mayor is speaking on something, it presupposes that you have the support of this body,” Krom said.

After the news conference, confusion set in about whether Irvine officials committed the money without council approval.

An Orange County Register article quoted an official in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office as saying that Irvine was on a list of agencies that had pledged funds toward the reward.

Yet at a council meeting earlier this month, Choi denied prematurely committing the funds. And Choi said that he only got a two-hour notice before the event from the city manager, who Choi said suggested the mayor attend.

“As mayor of Irvine, I should have been there. How could I not be present?” Choi said.

Republican Councilwoman Christina Shea, a Choi ally, defended the mayor's appearance at the news conference as appropriate for a directly elected mayor. “You have that right. The voters voted you in, and you need to support our community,” she said.

The skirmishes in both the Anaheim and Irvine examples could be little more than examples of how opposing council blocs will argue about anything, even reactions to tragedies.

Murray is part of an Anaheim council majority that has slashed compensation for the mayor's aide, a move widely seen as retribution for Tait's numerous attempts to undo a controversial $158-million tax subsidy for a local hotelier who helped finance the campaigns of the council majority.

And Krom is part of a two-member, Democratic minority on the Irvine council that has resisted Choi and the Republican majority's moves to, among other actions, change the power structure of the governing board at the Orange County Great Park.

By comparison, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer's effort to be on the scene in Big Bear during the Dorner manhunt elicited no public outrage from his board colleagues.

“So many people thanked me for my words at the time,” Spitzer explained. “Mine was to go into the community and offer words of concern at a time of high anxiety regarding Dorner's apprehension.”

Spitzer added that he spoke only for himself and that the murder of Dorner's first victims happened in his supervisorial district.

Supervisor John Moorlach said that his own style of dealing with reporters couldn't be more different than Spitzer's. But Moorlach doesn't hold it against him.

“I'm the polar opposite” of Spitzer, Moorlach said. “I actually make the media my top priority when they call. I call you right back. But if you were a camera crew, I wouldn't run up to you.”

Alexander said that people shouldn't be too harsh on elected officials for their actions after tragedies occur. It is difficult to judge motivations in highly emotional situations, he said.

“In the midst of a tragedy, it's hard to think rationally or collectively,” Alexander said. The question to be asked of the politician is “were his goals good?”

Shigo shares at least some of Alexander's sentiment.

“There was no ill intent,” Shigo said. “I really think that everybody was operating with a lot of things going on,” including “mourning and disbelief.”

As for Murray's reaction, Shigo noted that Murray has a son approximately the same age as the Sandyhook school victims, making the tragedy “an intense moment” for the councilwoman.

For Shigo, the council spat is in the rearview mirror. Politics is the last thing she wants to consider when reflecting on the shootings, she said.

“That's the most horrific tragedy we've had as a nation — very horrible,” Shigo said. “So who cares about that other stuff?”

Clarification: A previous version of this article left the impression that Supervisor Todd Spitzer drove from Orange County to Big Bear (which is in San Bernardino County) to be on the scene during the manhunt for Christopher Dorner. Following the article's publication, Spitzer made it clear that he was already in Big Bear, vacationing with his family, when the manhunt was launched.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

Comments are closed.