San Clemente City Councilman Gene James announced plans last night to resign on Friday and move to Wyoming, ending a controversial three year term that took two elections to win.
“I think I’m pretty clear on my concerns with where California is going,” James said in an interview when asked why he’s moving out of state.
James was often a polarizing figure in San Clemente city politics, and has recently been in the spotlight for a proposal to hire private security contractors to police the city’s beaches and ensure no homeless people are sleeping there.
Before announcing he’s leaving office April 28, he proposed moving into an RV and living throughout the city while using help from nearby homeless assistance groups – something he later told Voice of OC was “tongue in cheek.”
He previously called homeless people criminals.
“They’re not victims, they’re victims of their own doing,” James said at the council’s March meeting. “The people living on our beaches are vagrants, they’re criminals.”
The council is set to discuss his proposal more next month, by which time he’ll be gone.
[Read: San Clemente Holds Off on Private Security to Clear Out Homeless People, For Now]
Questions around whether or not James is leaving have been circulating for weeks after his house was listed on April 5 according to Zillow.
Some of James’ most well known votes on the city council were his support of the city’s decision to pull out of the county toll roads agency and his recent push to hire private security contractors to push homeless people off North Beach.
He was also behind efforts to turn San Clemente into a Second Amendment sanctuary city, along with his support of a similar motion from Councilman Steve Knoblock that would ban abortion in the city that he later abandoned.
[Read: San Clemente City Council Backs Off Abortion Ban Following Public Backlash]
Just months into his term, the COVID-19 shutdown pushed the city into the spotlight, with Gov. Gavin Newsom shutting down the county coastline as cases skyrocketed, and weeks later had to handle protestors clashing with the sheriff’s department over fences up at the beach.
[Read: San Clemente Removes Beach Fencing After Pressure From The Sheriff’s Department]
Just days before announcing his resignation on Monday night, James floated a different plan in emails to activists: selling his house and moving into an RV to set up shop near homeless residents at North Beach.
James’ idea to move into an RV came after repeatedly butting heads with homeless advocates over his plan to hire a private security company to police the city’s beaches and ensure no homeless people sleep there.
He announced his plan in a post to a private Facebook group, where he posted screenshots of an email he sent to Elizabeth Andrade, the CEO of a nonprofit that assists the homeless known as Family Assistance Ministries, or FAM.
In the email, James told Andrade that his house would be sold next week, and that he planned to use the ministry’s address for his mailing address so he could remain on council.
“I am buying a derelict RV that I will park in various locations throughout the city,” James wrote. “The City Attorney concurs this will fulfill my residency requirements.”
“Thank you for ALL you do and for the help you will provide me as a homeless person,” he continued. “Looking forward to your free food.”
He sent a similar email to Kathy Esfahani, chair of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition, and Councilman Mark Enmeier on Friday evening after Esfahani sent the council a letter asking them not to choose Gatekeeper Security for the council contract.
“I was contemplating resigning from Council and moving to Wyoming, I have now decided to buy a dilapidated RV and stay outside Cheyenne a few days at a time but mostly live in my dilapidated RV in the North Beach area,” James said.
He added that he’d be working to recall Mayor Chris Duncan and Enmeier, the two Democrats on the city council.
“Your note convinced me to stay! Thank you Kanniving Kathy say hello to that Mensa candidate husband of yours,” James wrote. “By the way, I cleared this with the city attorney.”
City Attorney Elizabeth Mitchell did not return requests for comment.
When asked by Voice of OC whether or not he would go through with the RV plan on Monday morning, James said “I probably am, I don’t know.”
On Monday evening, he announced plans to resign from the city council and complete his move to Wyoming.
By Tuesday morning, he said the RV plan was “tongue-in-cheek.”
James joined the council in Dec. 2019 after he won a special election to fill the seat of former Mayor Steven Swartz, who died while in office, and he won a full four year term in the 2020 election.
That means James’ seat still has another year left on it, but it remains unclear if the city will host a special election to fill the seat or appoint someone else to fill the vacancy.
Whoever fills the seat could set which political party has a majority on the council, with Mayor Chris Duncan and Councilman Mark Enmeier backed by the Democratic Party while Councilmen Steve Knoblock and Victor Cabral were both endorsed by the Republican Party.
It also remains unclear if he informed city leadership of his decision to resign, after City Manager Andy Hall said he didn’t know if James would be staying.
“I simply do not know any details about Councilman James immediate or future plans,” Hall said in an email Monday night.
James’ tenure also wasn’t without controversy with his council colleagues.
At one point, Knoblock filed an official complaint against James, in which he claimed that James tried to fight him for attempting to strip away James’ largely ceremonial mayor pro-tem title.
[Read: San Clemente Councilman Files Police Report On Colleague After a Heated Argument]
James also voted in favor of censuring former Councilwoman Laura Ferguson after she released a city commissioned poll that city staff claimed was confidential, and supported the creation of a new system for managing confidential records at the city that was later repealed.
[Read: San Clemente Repeals Loyalty Pledge for City Council, Restoring Access to Public Records]
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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