One of the biggest Orange County political stories in recent years has been the effort of racial minorities to gain greater representation on city councils by demanding a change from at-large to district-based elections.
The diverse cities of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton are all in various stages of electoral transformations that supports say will help reduce disenfranchisement of Latino and Asian voters.
But in the overwhelmingly white city of San Clemente, some residents say they’re being disenfranchised for an entirely different reason: geography.
A group of residents in this city of 65,000 spread out over nearly 20 square miles points out that the city is being run by a city council majority whose members all live within a few blocks of each other.
The result is a feeling among some residents that the needs and desires of those living in the council members’ enclave come before the rest of the city’s neighborhoods. This feeling, they say, has been reinforced by a penchant among council members to appoint fellow coastal residents to key city posts like the planning commission.
“San Clemente has over 65,000 people in over 19 square miles. It is outrageous that four of our City Council members live blocks or houses from each other,” said Jim Bieber, a prominent member of the pro-districting effort.
During the last round of appointments to city commissions, he added, no one from the 92673 zip code – where nearly half of the city’s residents live – was appointed to serve on any commission. None of the five council members live in that zip code.
Council members Kathy Ward and Chris Hamm live a few houses down the street from each other, while Mayor Bob Baker and Councilman Tim Brown live another half a mile away.
Voters will ultimately decide on the issue, after Bieber and his allies succeeded last week in forcing a ballot measure by gathering 3,867 confirmed signatures of city voters. But it is still unclear when voters will be able to make their decision.
Members of the four-member council majority say districting is a bad fit for San Clemente and is being driven by a small number of residents disgruntled by a decision earlier this year to restrict short-term rentals.
“Before a year ago, the amount of people who reached out to me [advocating council districts] was none,” said Brown. “I think it’s an artificial issue and one that I hope voters will reject.”
The idea that council members only understand the area they live in “is ridiculous on face value,” he said, adding that the council members visit beaches across the city and visit the city’s inland sports park.
“Frankly I just think it’s a convenient way of trying to get different people elected,” Brown said.
But Councilwoman Lori Donchak, who lives furthest from the other council members, said in an interview that the map “did build a strong case for better geographic representation.”
“At this point it’s up to the voters, and choosing the best form of representation is complicated,” she added. “I’m very happy that it’s something that the voters are going to react to.”
Misuse of Government Resources?
The issue has triggered intense debate and accusations of wrongdoing.
Among the most contentious claims is that Ward misused government resources by having city staff help her write a strongly-worded newspaper column arguing against the districting effort.
The column, which was published April 7 by the San Clemente Times as districting advocates were gathering signatures for a ballot initiative, said the pro-districting residents have “ulterior motives” and “are interested in harming the city and creating chaos.”
A Public Records Act request by a districting advocate later revealed emails showing that Ward had city staff help her draft and edit the column using city email systems.
In an email exchange about the “Council Corner” column, Ward sent city Public Information Officer Laura Ferguson excerpts from districting-related articles.
Ferguson replied: “This is helpful as is your own personal comments about districting in your other email. This is plenty for me to together a draft since we have to stay around 600 words. Thanks for providing the tid bits of info—it helps a lot.”
In later email, Ferguson said she had cut 279 words from a draft of the column to help meet the newspaper’s word count limit.
Ward and Ferguson didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Bieber said staff clearly helped write and edit the column, which he called a point-by-point rebuttal of the pro-districting petition language.
“It can’t be more political, it can’t be more campaign-related than that,” Bieber said.
A pro-districting advocate then filed an ethics complaint with the city, which forced three council members to decide whether to pursue an investigation into the matter. The city’s ethics code bans council members from using city resources for “non-city business,” including “political campaigns.”
“[Councilwoman Kathy] Ward used taxpayers’ dollars and city staff as her own personal political consultants to smear members of the public and their campaign efforts in support of a ballot measure to create district voting,” stated the ethics complaint from Ken Royal.
The matter went to the council on July 5 for a decision on whether to formally investigate a potential ethics violation.
In her testimony that day, Ward claimed staff did not help her write the article.
“I wrote that article. Staff did not help me write that article,” said Ward, who was not under oath.
Donchak asked Ward if she felt there was a violation of city ethics rules, “either by mistake or otherwise.”
“No. Not at all,” Ward replied. “And especially to consider that if staff was involved [sic], that is absolutely incorrect. Those emails do not have anything to do with the article that I wrote.
Further city investigation was rejected on a 2-1 vote, with Brown and Hamm voting against an investigation and Donchak supporting it.
Brown said it wasn’t a political campaigning because the work on the column happened well before the ballot initiative’s signatures were certified on July 12.
“We took it seriously,” said Brown. “But at the end of the day I don’t believe there was an ethical violation at all, and I believe that Kathy will be exonerated” by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) or anyone else who looks at it.
Donchak, however, said there should have been a stronger statement that this wouldn’t happen again.
“What I needed to hear from Kathy was that she saw that a mistake had been made, and that we could all learn from it – so let’s acknowledge it, fix it and move on,” said Donchak, who is also chairwoman of the Orange County Transportation Authority.
“It’s so painful to have to be evaluating colleagues on these matters, because it could happen to anyone, either by mistake or not.”
The FPPC, which enforces many of the state’s political ethics laws, is currently considering whether to open an inquiry into the matter after a complaint Bieber filed on June 30.
Government ethics expert Tracey Westen said he didn’t see an issue with city staff being used to help write opinion pieces like this before the measure is officially certified to appear on the ballot.
“I would want city officials to speak out on this, and if they’re going to write something about it, it doesn’t bother me that they ask city staff to help them do it” as long as it’s not a significant amount of time, Westen said.
Fireworks at Public Meetings
The drama over the item has also spilled into heated exchanges at public meetings.
During public comments at a March council meeting, Bieber showed a map that included faces of where council members lived, to illustrate his point about lack of representation.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Brown, who claimed just after Bieber’s comments that the activist was putting Brown’s family at risk by showing where they live.
Brown said: “It happens to be my wife’s at home alone right now, and I’m in this meeting. Just like your wife is probably at home or somewhere else alone right now and you’re in this meeting, one that’s being broadcast to all the rest of San Clemente. What’s your address Mr. Bieber?”
Bieber promptly gave his address, adding that he had already given it publicly.
The councilman then asked Bieber to “hang out for the rest of the meeting with us tonight, because I think you should be as uncomfortable as I am, that now everyone in San Clemente knows where my house is…and that my family’s home alone.”
Bieber denied that the map was harmful, saying he intentionally made the circles large enough so homes can’t be identified.
When Will Voters Have Their Say?
The council is slated to vote Aug. 2 on whether to place the issue on the November ballot, hold a special election on the issue on a different date, or order a study of the issue.
The last option might prevent the question from going to voters during the November general election, because it could push its placement on the ballot until after the Aug. 12 deadline for the general election. But it appears the special election would still have to take place sometime in late October or November.
Bieber is suspicious that the council will opt for the 30-day study. He claimed such a move would be a “trick” to hold the vote in a lower-turnout special election.
Donchak said she doesn’t see any reason to delay the vote with a study.
“Having looked at the reasons to do a study, this initiative doesn’t really fall into any of those categories,” she said.
Brown said it’s unclear which way the council will go on Aug. 2.
“I trust the voters. The city will do ultimately what’s right for it,” Brown said. “And hopefully…everyone will try to be civil.”
Regardless of whether the measure ultimately passes, Donchak said, there’s a separate opportunity to expand geographic representation in November, with two council seats up for re-election.
“What I’d like to see as possible outcome of this, is that people from all corners of the community throw their hats in the ring [to run] for the council [races],” she said.
“The point has now been made that people all over San Clemente should step up.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.