Early last year when Navy reservist Mike Merino took a break from the Orange city Planning Commission after being called to active duty, he made it clear that he wanted to return to his spot once he got back.
“Please accept this correspondence as my formal request to take a leave of absence from the Planning Commission on a temporary basis until my return from military service,” Merino wrote in a January 2012 email to the city.
“However, I reserve the right, in accordance with the federal protections and provisions afforded military personnel, to re-assume my position on the commission with no loss of seniority or time of service,” he added.
Now, 21 months later, Merino is back from serving as engineer director with Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay and wants back on the commission.
But it seems that a majority of Orange City Council members have other plans in mind. In fact, at last week's meeting nearly every council member voiced support for retaining Merino's temporary replacement.
The council members' statements left Merino dumbfounded, he said. “It’s sort of shocking. They recognized another veteran that had been deployed, and in the same meeting the implication is they’re not going to assist me in getting my seat back.”
That implication was reinforced Thursday by Councilman Mike Alvarez, who reiterated that he wants the temporary replacement, Bill Cathcart, to remain for continuity's sake. He also suggested that Merino had a choice in whether he went on deployment.
“We need to maintain a certain stability, especially on the Planning Commission, because we depend on them to do the site review work that they do before it gets to council,” Alvarez said in an interview.
At last week's City Council meeting, Mayor Teresa Smith and Councilmen Fred Whitaker and Mark Murphy echoed Alvarez's support of Cathcart.
“I would not like to accept the resignation of this commissioner either,” said Smith, adding that she’d like to keep the commission intact for an upcoming decision on a major project.
Alvarez took the issue a step further and asserted that Merino volunteered for deployment.
“I didn’t think that was an issue, because Mike wasn’t called to service. It’s my understanding he took a position,” said Alvarez. “I think it’s much different than being called to service.”
Merino was emphatic that he was called to active duty. “It was not a choice. It was involuntary mobilization,” said Merino, adding that he has the documentation to prove it.
“I’m very disappointed that the council isn’t recognizing the fact that I did this on an involuntary basis,” he added. “The whole thing is strange and smacks of weirdness that I don’t understand."
Cathcart stepped down Aug. 21, citing his commitment to resign when Merino returned. In his resignation letter, Cathcart went on to say he’d be happy to be reappointed.
At last week's meeting, Murphy joined his fellow council members and said he “would share the thoughts of my three colleagues” and was encouraging Cathcart to reapply and be put back on commission.
Councilman Denis Bilodeau was the lone dissenter, emphasizing from the dais that he’d be soliciting resumes before making his recommendation.
“Anybody’s welcome to apply,” he said.
Reached later, Bilodeau said he "absolutely" supports Merino getting his seat back.
"It's shameful that they would not honor a man's service to our country [who] was called off in a time of war," Bilodeau said. "It's disturbing to me."
The council instructed City Clerk Mary Murphy to post a notice of the vacancy, a requirement under the Maddy Act, which mandates that a city inform residents within 20 days when unscheduled vacancies open on appointed commissions.
Cities also generally must wait at least 10 days after the notice before appointing the replacement.
Both Cathcart and Merino have applied for the position.
The Planning Commission serves a key role as a city’s primary land use decision makers. When major real estate projects such as housing developments or big-box stores are proposed, the commissioners vet the plans and suggest changes before choosing whether to refer it to the City Council for final approval.
Merino said he doesn’t want to be on the commission forever but “would like to finish the term I was given in the first place.”
“If somebody doesn’t feel like a veteran that’s sacrificed for their county isn’t worth that deference to, I guess that’s something they have to live with,” he said.