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Tiffany Ackley narrowly held onto her title as Aliso Viejo mayor after she showed up and filmed people at a fellow council member’s house, thinking there was a potential municipal violation of using city property for political purposes.
The council decision came about a week after the Orange County Young Republicans (OCYR) organization held their May membership meeting, when they toured the Aliso Viejo Ranch and met back at Councilman Dave Harrington’s house to discuss how to run for local office.
Ackley showed up to Harrington’s house during their meeting, believing there had been violations of city laws and policies.
One person there told Harrington there was a woman outside taking videos and asking guests questions, which was followed by confrontation between the two elected officials, according to the agenda report from Harrington that he read during the meeting.
Ackley apologized at the meeting.
“I know that my decision to drive over there was not my best judgment and I’m sorry for all of the pain that is caused and especially for taking away from my council members’ time to work on city matters,” she said.
The City Attorney Scott Smith said her actions were legal.
Nonetheless, Harrington criticized them as inappropriate and unacceptable.
“She has brought great embarrassment to the city council,” Harrington said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’m not willing to let this go. You were in front of my house accosting people who were guests of mine. That’s intolerable. We have got to comport ourselves to a higher standard and this does not meet that standard,” He said later in the meeting.
Councilman Mike Munzing — who was at the event — backed Harrington.
“When the mayor of a city shows up with a camera out videotaping you and quizzing you and asking questions while you’re walking out of a private event at somebody’s home. I don’t care if it’s illegal or not. It’s inappropriate,” he said.
Council members voted 3-2 to let Ackley keep her mayor title Wednesday night, following two hours of debate. Harrington and Munzing voted to remove her title.
Last week’s controversy sparked a petition to remove Ackley from office that had over 170 signatures prior to the meeting amid concerns that the tour violated city policy.
The Aliso Viejo Ranch has a policy against renting the facility for any political or election related events as part of their guidelines.
Harrington said he notified City Manager David Doyle that college students wanted to tour the ranch, but didn’t tell the city manager that it was a political group.
Harrington said the meeting held at his house was not related to the tour.
“During the tour, there were no political discussions and no campaign discussions,” Harrington said “I did not lie to the city manager. I simply didn’t tell him that I was hosting the meeting at my house.”
But some residents disagreed.
“Some say that leaving out a detail isn’t exactly a lie. I say hogwash. A lie of omission or commission are both intentional lies. Councilman D. Harrington, you lied,” one person said.
Ackley said she believed that Doyle was at Harrington’s house and she took photos of a car she thought was Doyle’s, but wasn’t.
She also initiated an employee evaluation of Doyle during the closed door session of the meeting.
Councilman Ross Chun asked Ackley why she was taking pictures of a car she thought was the city manager’s.
“I have felt for a very long time a strong resistance from the city manager for many of the policies I suggest and I have seen a pattern of behavior of this,” Ackley said.
She said it would be problematic for Doyle to show up to a political event.
Doyle said he went home after the tour, then went to McDonald’s with his kids and that the vehicle pictured was a newer model of his Honda Accord.
Ackley acknowledged it wasn’t his car.
“While it’s certainly within my ability as an American citizen to go to a political event after hours, I have chosen — because of my career — to never do that,” he said.
Smith, the city attorney, said nothing in Doyle’s contract prevents him from attending such events in his personal time — only on city time.
Ackley’s appearance at Harrington’s house sparked backlash on social media.
“This was inappropriate, bizarre, and unprofessional behavior from someone elected to lead the city of Aliso Viejo,” reads a Facebook post from the Orange County Young Republicans group on the incident.
Over 40 people sent emails or left voicemails that were read or played aloud during public comments, many in support of Ackley.
“I do not think that Mayor Ackley’s decision to personally investigate Mr. Doyle’s involvement in the event was wise, but I do not believe that it warrants her removal as mayor, especially in light of her contributions to the city,” one person said.
Others called for her resignation.
“As far as I’m concerned, people are still allowed to have a different opinion and not be harassed by someone who may not align with their political views,” one resident wrote. “I am so disappointed that an elected official would stoop this low.”
Another concern was the flier put out by the Orange County Young Republicans for the event, which initially featured Doyle and the Aliso Viejo city logo.
Doyle and the logo were later removed from the flier.
The ranch also has a policy against using the city logo for marketing without consent from the council.
City code forbids anybody other than city staff from using “official indicia” and it is unlawful to use the city seal for political purposes.
Harrington said he reached out to the Young Republicans after being informed about the flier, who then changed it.
Last year, Ackley wrote a letter using a city letterhead denouncing police brutality amid George Floyd protests and demanded that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department reevaluate their chokehold procedure.
At their meeting in June last year, Council members debated if Ackley had violated city code by using the city letterhead.
The debate came at the request of Harrington — who had an almost 30 year career with the sheriff’s department.
He tried to have Ackley censured, but the council instead amended city code to make it clear that no one can use city logo or city seal without expressed consent from city council.
“There was a big issue … I had a few meetings I was invited to and the first thing I told them is do not put the logo on anything. I don’t even put the logo on my city signature because I know someone is waiting to be like, ‘ahaha, we got you,’” said Councilman Richard Hurt.
He also said the city should not set a precedent for dismissing the mayor for something like this and said there seemed to be municipal code violations.
“We’re making our city look entirely bad right now,” Hurt said. “This is embarrassing.”
Multiple people from the public put in records requests for the footage Ackley took and the electronic conversations she had about the event.
Chun said he was concerned about voting on the matter without seeing the footage and the information those requests could yield.
“Once the documents and electronic files are released, per the demands of the public, this is going to come back for another conversation if something on there is so objectionable or egregious that it warrants a further discussion because I don’t know what was on that phone.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.