After talking about revitalizing Mission Viejo’s downtown since 2007, city officials recently took a first step forward after a key property at the older shopping center across the street from city hall went on the market.
Yet, it’s unclear how acquiring the one property might play into city plans to transform the entire shopping center.
That’s because most of the discussion is being kept secret.
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Since the start of 2021, city officials have met privately twice to discuss negotiations and the possible acquisition of a bankrupt Stein Mart building at the shopping center.
Council members are scheduled to discuss the issue once again in secret, during tonights’ city council’s closed session.
Earlier this month, city representatives refused to comply with a request under the state’s open records laws seeking information about any written communication about the project between council members and the city manager.
City officials refused that request, citing the deliberative process privilege, attorney-client privilege, and government code 6255 in denying the request.
“The potential release of communications regarding current or pending real estate negotiations could negatively impact negotiations, which would be contrary to the public’s interest,” Robert Schick, the director of community relations, wrote in response to the records request.
When asked about the closed session discussions and the public records request denial, Mission Viejo Mayor Patricia Kelley said that city officials are careful to fully comply with the Brown Act, and she said there is no doubt that their actions are in compliance with the law.
Kelley was the only city council member to answer an email request for comment about the issue.
However, Sherene Tagharobi, a legal fellow with the First Amendment Coalition, tells a different story.
“It is difficult to imagine that the City cannot disclose any of its communications regarding this real estate transaction,” Tagharobi said.
Under the state’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act, public officials are only supposed to be able to talk about price and terms of payment for property acquisitions in closed session.
Tagharobi said without more information she could only offer a limited review of the specific exemptions cited by city officials but did raise several points.
The deliberative process privilege might only apply if the publication of the records diminished the city’s decision-making abilities and negotiation processes, Tagharobi said.
The attorney-client privilege protects communication between a lawyer and a client, but Tagharobi said it is unlikely that emails between Mission Viejo city officials and property owners would be considered attorney-client communications.
Lastly, government code 6255 allows public agencies to keep records secret if they believe that “the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”
Tagharobi said it’s possible to surmise that the city is using this privilege to claim that negotiations could be negatively impacted by the release of communications regarding the Stein Mart property.
The secrecy about the development has local residents — like former Mission Viejo Mayor Cathy Schlicht — claiming the council is the least transparent the city has ever seen.
“When was the last time this council held a meeting to update the public on these plans?” Schlicht wrote in a public comment to the council Feb. 23 regarding the downtown revitalization. “Maybe we could get some straightforward answers and not some twisted legal jargon.”
Schlicht — who ran for a Mission Viejo City Council position in November 2020 and lost to incumbents Kelley and council member Brian Goodel, garnering 10.96% of the vote — emphasized the secrecy of city officials.
Schlicht, who herself files lots of requests unders state law for public information, said she often questions the legality of the exemptions cited by city officials who keep public records secret.
She also questions whether city council members have really tried to bring the public into the discussion about such an important project for the city’s future.
“Government is only as good as the council members who want to have an open, transparent government, and we don’t have any on there who do,” Schlicht said. “Their attitude is that we elected them to make the decisions, but you have to make decisions with the consent of the governed.
“They ignore that part.”
Here’s what we do know about the future of Mission Viejo’s downtown.
In 2007, Mission Viejo hired the Urban Land Institute of Orange County, which presented a report describing findings and recommendations for the downtown area near Marguerite Parkway and La Paz Road and future renovation and revitalization. On April 12, 2016 — with a 4-1 vote and then-council member Schlicht voting no — the council hired SWA Group to create a civic core vision plan in this area.
SWA presented three potential plans of varying scale to the council March 28, 2017, focusing on revitalizing Oso Creek and creating a renovated walkable village across the street from city hall.
The Mission Viejo City Council voted unanimously Feb. 23 to begin a 60-day negotiation period with the Kinstler Family Trust — the owners of the Stein Mart property on Marguerite Parkway — to determine if the city can gain ownership of the building in the core area.
“It’s important for us to get a foothold and make an effort to see if we can get this project to work,” Goodell said at the Feb. 23 meeting. “We don’t have all the answers… We don’t have the liberty or the luxury of having all the answers before we do anything.”
The council has not voiced any current plans to directly begin construction downtown. Mayor pro tem Wendy Bucknum said the owners of the Stein Mart property approached city officials regarding possible acquisition.
The difficulty in navigating the revitalization effort stems from the 14 different property owners in the downtown area and backlash from Mission Viejo residents, who claim they don’t want unnecessary renovation in the shopping center. Kelley clarified at the Feb. 23 meeting that this action is a first step and may fail, but either way, she promised the city will keep people informed moving forward.
Schlicht and other Mission Viejo residents have also voiced complaints regarding a promotional video, claiming the video is unrealistic due to how clean the creek is depicted, which they claim contrasts reality too harshly and gives false expectations. Schlicht also explained how the video is misleading because the water only flows freely after rainfall, unlike the video, and normally the creek is still and stinks.
The city council emphasized that extensive community research and outreach was implemented before the city even presented the revitalization effort.
However, an opinion survey with a random sample of 798 Mission Viejo residents — of the nearly 100,000 in the city — conducted in August 2016 presented that a majority of residents don’t necessarily want change in the city’s downtown area.
Respondents were asked to indicate the one thing that the city government could change to make Mission Viejo a better place to live.
A clear majority — 38% of responses — said that they could not think of any desired changes or that no changes should be made.
Additionally, Schlicht, who attended most of the outreach programs and workshops, says that actual public input and approval of this project is not as strong as public officials claim it to be.
“The main thing people wanted was to scrape up the speed bumps and throw some paint on,” Schlicht said. “[The workshops] felt like we were in kindergarten class. They were more like a dog and pony show, and they were not popular or very well attended.”
In response to repeated claims that the residents should directly vote on this issue, Goodell responded that there isn’t enough time for a city-wide vote, and the people already voiced their opinion when they elected their representatives.
When SWA presented the revitalization plan in 2017, the representatives clarified repeatedly that they did not plan to implement housing developments of any kind in the area. However, many citizens still voiced concern regarding high-density housing built along or near Oso Creek.
In contrast, the 2007 document from the Urban Land Institute discusses 350 to 450 residential units in the downtown area to create a mixed-use village center. Additionally, Mission Viejo residents also voiced concern regarding the possible addition of below-ground parking structures, like the 2020 project approved on Marguerite Parkway near the downtown area.
City leaders have made it clear that this development is just a first step toward an ultimate goal: a larger development to implement the vision plan. While direct next steps aren’t clear, the city council expressed the desire to just take one step forward, even if they are unsure of their next move.
“We heard very clearly from the people and the voters of Mission Viejo that they wanted something to happen with this center and we’ve been hearing it over and over for many years,” Goodell said. “We have to take action. We don’t have time to waste and not act.”