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Orange voters are now electing their City Council members by district for the first time, while also deciding the fate of a controversial development proposal that has become a key dividing line among candidates.

All in all, the race has drawn two candidates for mayor and 13 candidates for the four council district seats up for election this year, under a new system the city agreed to after being sued for allegedly violating the California Voting Rights Act.

One of the key issues in the election is whether to let a developer build 128 homes on an old sand and gravel quarry in east Orange, which is on the ballot as Measure AA

The project, which its developer calls The Trails of Santiago Creek, is opposed by many residents who say the development would worsen traffic congestion and raise the risk of back-ups in the event of a wildfire evacuation. 

Supporters say it will create more open space than developed land, provide much-needed housing, and that the developer has dedicated millions of dollars to city coffers by committing to additional traffic lanes in nearby streets, among other mitigation measures.

The developer, Milan Capital Management, has donated $700,000 to the campaign for Measure AA, as well as $29,000 to the Republican Party of Orange County. The party is endorsing Mark Murphy for mayor, as well as council candidates David Vazquez, Jon Dumitru, Mike Alvarez and Rick Ledesma.

The Democratic Party of Orange County is endorsing Adrienne Gladson for mayor, and council candidates Eugene Fields, Martin Varona and Danett Abbott-Wicker.

Candidates that have publicly supported Measure AA are Murphy, Vazquez and Alvarez.

Candidates that have publicly opposed the measure are Gladson; Barrios and Fields in District 1; Varona and Daniel Correa in District 2; John Russo in District 3; and Ana Gutierrez in District 5.

One candidate said he doesn’t yet have a position on the measure: Jon Dumitru, who said he’s been studying the issue and hopes to reach a decision by this week.

Mayor

The mayoral race is pitting incumbent Mark Murphy against challenger Adrienne Gladson, a former city planner in Brea who now works as a land use consultant.

Murphy didn’t respond to an interview request. Gladson did, and said she’s running to bring accountability to the mayor’s office and respect for the community.

“When did we become the enemy? The people, the community, the property owners, the taxpayers – why did we become the enemy?” she asked. “His mindset are investors, special interests are what rules the day, and so [his] goal is to make it easy for them,” Gladson said of Murphy.

Gladson said she jumped into the race in late June, inspired in part by the way the mayor treated a friend of hers who came to speak at a meeting in late March.

“I just couldn’t have him not have somebody run against him. He needed to explain his record. I challenged him, and he said no, to a debate on Measure AA. And I think he needs to explain his connections to the developer and the lobbyist on that project,” Gladson said, adding that Murphy is “very tight friends” with a leading lobbyist for the developer.

“I’m not opposed to development…but you [have to] do it authentically, you do it by following the rules,” said Gladson, who opposes Measure AA.

Gladson also has weighed in on another controversy in the city. She’s critical of Councilman Mike Alvarez running for a third consecutive four-year term in November, in light of the two-term limit on council members that Orange voters put in place in 1996.

“I think it’s unethical. I think it totally disrespects the voters of Orange, who established term limits in ’96, and I voted for it,” Gladson said in the interview.

Alvarez didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, but his lawyer has maintained Alvarez can run again because of the switch to district elections.

“The community isn’t going to stand for this any more,” Gladson said. “Term limits are term limits.”

City Council District 1

This district, centered on Old Towne Orange, pits four candidates against each other: Arianna Barrios, Eugene Fields, David Vazquez, and Christian Vaughn.

Barrios, a marketing consultant and Rancho Santiago Community College District trustee, says she opposes Measure AA because she doesn’t “bow down to a development agreement that’s not in the community’s interest.”

“Sadly the City Council has become really insular, and has not [been] really interested in hearing from the community,” Barrios said of the panel’s overall attitude.

“There’s been a lot of party politics, and very partisan party politics at the City Council level that had no business being brought forward. And while they may have been good purity tests for the people bringing them forward,” they didn’t serve the community, she added.

Barrios counts as her endorsements Alvarez; former mayors Teresa ‘Tita’ Smith, a Democrat, and Carolyn Cavecche, a Republican; as well as construction trade unions and the Orange County Business Council.

She frames herself as an independent thinker who wouldn’t be swept up in partisan politics.

“Our city is changing. And I want to be that candidate who bridges the gap. Because we’re going to need people who are in the middle, who can bring that understanding, that right now, it’s just not there. And I am that bridge builder,” she said.

Vazquez, an Orange planning commissioner and executive at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, is endorsed by a majority of the current council.

In an interview, Vazquez said he would ensure the city’s police and fire agencies have the resources they need, and that he would work to address homelessness “through enforcement, services” and continuing to work with nonprofits and faith communities.

To manage the city’s budget, Vazquez said he would look at city services that could be contracted out, eliminating consulting services that are no longer needed, and working with the city employees’ labor unions on potential changes to their contracts.

He also wants to see the city be friendlier to businesses, including adding more types of business licenses that can be renewed online and devoting city community development block grants to help businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“My approach to COVID is, we have to find out a way to open across sectors, and of course do so responsibly,” Vazquez said, adding he would advocate state and federal lawmakers to establish liability protection for businesses that reopen.

Vazquez supports Measure AA, pointing to benefits like adding open space and $8 million in traffic improvements the developer would pay for along Santiago Canyon Road.

“When you strip it down, to me this is really the question: Do you want a sand and gravel quarry that has been there for a century, or do you want 100 acres of open space? And to have that property [turn into] 128 homes, 100 acres of open space is a benefit to the city,” Vazquez said.

Vaughn, a longtime Riverside police detective and Army veteran, says he brings strong leadership and experience qualities to the table from his 23 years in law enforcement.

“Whether it’s rioters, critical [incidents], or the pandemic, those are the kinds of things that are in my wheelhouse,” Vaughn said in an interview.

Homelessness is one of the major issues he wants to address, through more police enforcement and making citizens more aware of common code violations that can be enforced.

“When they’re in jail, they get back on their meds…they get rehabilitation,” Vaughn said of homeless people with mental illness and drug issues, adding officers’ hands have been tied by the state’s reduction of penalties for theft and drug crimes. 

“It’s pretty amazing that once word gets out that we’re not an easy city to be in, the one thing homeless don’t like and transients don’t like is being hassled,” Vaughn said. “Through greater attention, and a little bit more enforcement, we can make orange less hospitable” for homeless people.

Vaughn also supports adding more police officers in Orange once the economy recovers.

He opposes Measure AA.

“I would like to see it developed, but unfortunately I think the decision-making process leading up to [it] wasn’t transparent so that all the people can be behind it,” Vaughn said, adding there’s unanswered questions about cleaning up the sand and gravel site. “I think the developer’s gotten some favorable treatment,” he added.

Fields, a former Orange County Register reporter, points to his experience covering the city for the Orange County Register for five years, including attending City Council and planning commission meetings.

In an interview, Fields said he wants to add 35 more police officers over the next five years to focus on homelessness and traffic enforcement, along with additional social workers to work alongside the Police Department’s homeless outreach officers.

“We need more officers to be able to interface with the homeless and we need more social workers” to help route people to mental health or addiction services, Fields said, adding he wants to hold regular town hall meetings and office hours to hear from constituents.

To help local businesses during the pandemic, Fields is proposing a moratorium on business license fees on businesses that make less than $100,000 annually. He also wants a full ban on use of the weed-killer product Roundup at all city parks, as well as flashing-light crosswalks in front of all elementary schools in the city.

“We need to take care of our kids in these high-traffic areas,” said Fields, pointing to the 2014 hit-and-run deaths of three girls who were crossing the street in front of an elementary school near Orange on Halloween.

Fields said he opposes Measure AA mainly because of evacuation concerns during nearby wildfires, and said city council members should respect the will of the people when they gather enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.

“I someone can get a referendum [on the ballot], it is incumbent upon the elected officials to listen to their constituents,” Fields said.

City Council District 2

This district, on the city’s western end, pits Martin Varona, Daniel Correa, Jon Dumitru and Caroline Alatorre against each other.

In an interview with Voice of OC, Dumitru said he’s running to support police and fire services, as well as local businesses struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want a very strong presence of public safety,” said Dumitru, a longtime Orange County Fire Authority employee. He noted his endorsements from the city’s police and firefighters’ unions.

To support local businesses, Dumitru is proposing to eliminate city inspection fees for businesses that remodel during the pandemic. And he wants to explore having the city buy protective equipment at bulk discounts and have the local chamber of commerce sell it to local businesses at-cost.

“It’s win win win,” Dumitru said, where businesses get savings, and the city doesn’t cost taxpayers anything extra.

“I really think right now, across the county we have a lot of folks running for office that are inexperienced. Now mind you, that brings new ideas as well. But I think right now, especially in Orange, we really need to get folks in” who are ready to go fast, said Dumitru, who previously served on the council.

On Measure AA, Dumitru said he hasn’t taken a position yet but is closely studying the arguments on both sides and hopes to take a position by early this week. “I’m catching up a lot of it,” he said.

One of the possibilities Dumitru says he’s considering is whether, if the project is rejected, the developer would be legally entitled to build affordable housing.

“That would be a huge deal to those neighbors out there,” Dumitru said, because they would “block 128 homes only to get four-story low income housing…people would go insane.”

Varona, a civil engineer who works at the city’s public works department, said he wants the city to make itself accessible to its immigrant communities – including live Spanish translation of council meetings – and supports shifting certain police responsibilities and funding to social workers.

“Right now I think a lot of people feel like democracy is deteriorating in front of our eyes,” said Varona, adding the city “hasn’t introduced a lot of ways to connect with marginalized communities in a meaningful way.”

In addition to live translation of council meetings, Varona said he supports increasing the number of council meetings to at least double. And he supports having council members be paid full-time, which he says would allow them to focus full-time on addressing the needs of the citizens they serve.

“The city of Orange doesn’t have a great history of being super friendly to immigrant communities,” he added, pointing to a gang injunction that a federal court ruled was unconstitutional and the council’s 2018 support for a lawsuit against California’s sanctuary cities law.

The city, Varona said, has an “over-reliance on police to be the answer to homelessness, to be the answer to all our public safety concerns. And I would very much like to have some very serious discussions about how we can take some responsibilities they have and reprioritize it to” other professionals like social workers.

Varona says he opposes Measure AA and wants to “go back to the drawing board” about the land, including potentially adding affordable housing options.

If he wins, Varona says he will step down from his job at the city. State law doesn’t allow city employees to also serve as city council members.

Correa and Alatorre didn’t respond to interview requests. Alatorre will appear on ballots but reportedly dropped out of the race earlier this month.

City Council District 3

This northern district features incumbent Mike Alvarez against John Russo and Danett Abbott-Wicker.

Alvarez, who didn’t respond to an interview request, has drawn criticism for running for a third consecutive four-year term despite the city’s voter-approved term limits of two consecutive terms. His attorney has maintained Alvarez can run again because of the switch to district elections.

Russo, a coach at Orange High School, says the city code is clear that once you serve two back-to-back terms, you’re out.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Alvarez has manipulated the system to benefit himself, which is very upsetting. His first year in office was in 1996, which was the year that term limit [measure] passed.”

Alvarez served from 1996 to 2004 before winning election again in 2012 and re-election in 2016.

“It is for sure not ethical,” Russo said of Alvarez’s re-election effort.

Russo said his top priorities are “increasing public safety and supporting our first responders,” making sure the city budget is balanced, and ensuring “Orange is as business-friendly as possible.”

He said he’s a no on Measure AA.

“The city turned a blind eye to this whole situation. And because of our [current] leadership, the council has personally – each and every one of them – and the prior council members as well…they have left the city liable for the mistakes,” Russo said, pointing to a $1,000 donation he said Alvarez got from the project’s developer.

“It’s not technically illegal, but it does raise an eyebrow as far as the ethics of this. To me that doesn’t seem very ethical,” Russo said.

Abbott-Wicker, a field coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America, said she’s a Bernie Sanders supporter who favors more affordable housing and shifting some police spending to having social workers present on drug and mental crisis calls.

When it comes to mental crisis calls, she said in an interview, the city needs to shift from relying almost entirely on police. “Punitive does not work. And it’s inhuman the way [people with mental illness] get treated. And that needs to change,” she said.

Abbott-Wicker also said a struggling mall in the city, Village at Orange, is “a perfect place for affordable housing.”

“We desperately need it. We’ve got a lot of homeless people,” she said, adding the city should opt into renewable energy programs like Community Choice Energy.

Abbot-Wicker opposes Measure AA, saying she’d prefer affordable housing at the property instead of the current higher-priced home plan, but given the likely neighborhood opposition to affordable housing, would support open space there.

“I really don’t want high-end development up there, because people can’t afford it” unless they’re wealthier, she said. “Open space is better than upper-priced housing.”

City Council District 5

This southern district, centered on the El Modena neighborhood, features two candidates: Rick Ledesma and Ana Gutierrez.

Gutierrez, an elementary school teacher, says in campaign materials that she’s a lifelong resident of El Modena who says she opposes any new taxes, strongly supports police and firefighters, and won’t accept donations from developers. She has come out in opposition to Measure AA.

Ledesma, a board member of the Orange Unified School District, is endorsed by the Republican Party of Orange County. He says in campaign materials that public safety is his top priority and that he opposes any efforts to undermine Proposition 13.

Ledesma didn’t respond to an interview requests, and Gutierrez wasn’t available before the publishing deadline.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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