This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

San Clemente parted ways with the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agency Tuesday night, ending a politically fraught relationship and potentially setting up a new legal fight between the two.

The city and the agency have been at odds for years over proposed plans to extend the 241 freeway through San Clemente, which led to a lawsuit between the two that’s still ongoing. The agency has publicly backed off the freeway extension, but a majority of the San Clemente City Council members have said they felt those promises were insincere. 

Council members on Tuesday ultimately voted 4-1 to leave, their second vote on the issue after previously asking the agency for permission to exit without waiting the normal 120 day minimum

“We tried to play nice, we tried to collaborate with them, and there is a contingent within the TCA (Transportation Corridor Agency) that’s hellbent on putting a toll road through the middle of our town,” said Councilman Gene James, who also serves as one of the city’s representatives on the toll road agency’s board. “It’s unacceptable.” 

The city’s withdrawal is another blow to the agency following a grand jury report last year that stated the agency had outlived its purpose. Originally created in 1986 to build new toll roads that would later become public freeways, the agency should now be purely focused on paying off the debts from creating those freeways, the report said.

While the agency hasn’t constructed a new highway since 1998, according to the report, it won’t pay off all its debts until 2053 even though it was originally supposed to be finished by 2023. Member cities are required to pay into the agency as long as those debts exist, and can be forced to put in more funds if the agency decides to refinance the debt or invest in more construction. 

“San Clemente did not join this agency to agree to perpetually charge tolls and perpetually incur more debt,” said Mayor Kathy Ward. “San Clemente has one vote on each one of these boards. We alone cannot stop this agency from usurping it’s mission…We can however tonight use our one vote San Clemente has to get out of this agency.”

Councilwoman Laura Ferguson cast the sole vote against leaving the agency, saying it would rob the city of what little voice it did have. 

“I truly believe we need to represent the voice of the people here. We have political powers staying on the TCA board and I believe we lose some political clout if we leave,” Ferguson said. 

Earlier in the meeting, James said he felt the voice the council held in the agency was already gone. 

“I would say it’s one thing having a voice. It’s quite another that there’s someone there to listen to that voice, and our voice has been completely marginalized by the (agency),” James said. 

The city’s departure also opens up a new debate on what will happen with the fees it’s required to pay into the agency. Under the split agreement, San Clemente won’t be responsible for paying off any new debt accumulated by the agency, but is still responsible for helping to pay off any remaining debt from when the city was a member. 

Right now, the city has no idea what that cost is, a month after asking the agency for the information. Last month the council voted to study how much the city was paying into the program and potentially impound those fees. 

Should San Clemente refuse to keep paying the funds, the agency’s board has already said it will fight the issue in court in a second lawsuit with the city. 

While the issue went undiscussed by the council on the dais Tuesday night, James said in an interview Monday he was in favor of impounding the funds, and every council member but Ferguson voted to consider impounding them at a later date. 

The city’s exit from the toll road agency takes effect June 30, at the end of the fiscal year, and the council currently has no set discussion date on whether or not it will continue paying its mandated fees. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.