Tales of Official Overstepping in San Juan Capistrano

Adam Elmahrek

A parking sign at a trail access site in San Juan Capistrano dictates parking hours. It is part of the latest salvo in a war of words between Mayor Londres Uso and Councilman Mark Nielsen.

San Juan Capistrano Mayor Londres Uso has fired another shot in his escalating war of words with his predecessor, and rival, Councilman Mark Nielsen, saying that Nielsen overstepped his bounds when he ordered improvements to a trail access site in the city.

The improvements to the site at the end of Camino Las Ramblas — which include trash and recycling cans, a bag dispenser for dog poop and signs limiting parking hours — are not that significant. But what is significant, Uso said, is that Nielsen, along with Councilman Tom Hribar, ordered city staff to make the improvements without consulting the council.

Uso called this a “direct violation” of city policy and said it demonstrates that a new city policy clarifying what a mayor can do outside the council’s purview should not be directed at Uso, as he said Nielsen intended it, but at Nielsen himself.

“Guess what, my friend, this is a big deal,” Uso said, noting that city residents are particularly upset about the new parking rules.

Nielsen acknowledged that he was at a meeting with staff regarding the site but denied ever directing staff to do any of the improvements. He added that staff has every right to do some things without council approval, so long as they’re not changing city policy.

If the council had to make every decision in the city, “the city would fall apart,” Nielsen said.

Hribar backed Nielsen, saying Uso is making a big deal out of nothing. These kinds of directions are done “all the time,” Hribar said.

City Manager Joe Tait said he and Community Development Director Steve Apple had not been made aware of the work done at the site. Tait said he became aware when residents started complaining about some of the improvements.

“We both kind of looked at each other, and it was a surprise to both of us,” Tait said, referring to himself and Apple.

The root of this verbal tempest is last week’s unanimous approval by the council of a new policy that clarifies the mayor’s role in the city. The new policy, for example, includes specific prohibitions against such things as meetings with developers without council authorization.

Uso voted for the policy change, but not before taking personal offense at what he considered insinuations regarding his actions as mayor. Nielsen, who was mayor before Uso, said after last week’s meeting that city staff has complained about Uso overstepping his bounds.

Regarding the access site, Tait said that the confusion stems from either one of two scenarios. Either one or two council members directed staff to make the improvements without his knowledge, or the council as a whole made the decision to direct staff before he became city manager.

Tait, in hopes of getting to the bottom of things, placed the issue on the agenda for council discussion at its meeting on June 1. “Everyone, including yours truly, is interested in what happened,” Tait said.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

 

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