By Brian Park
The political gauntlet was thrown down Tuesday night, and with it went whatever civility was left on the San Juan Capistrano City Council as a trio of members voted to begin an investigation into the council, stemming from allegations of ethical and legal violations by two others.
The city will now look to hire an independent investigator, likely a retired judge for a contract worth up to $25,000, to look into Councilman Larry Kramer’s allegations of violations by councilmen Roy Byrnes and Derek Reeve. Kramer, who brought up the allegations at the council’s last meeting on October 15, was supported by Mayor John Taylor and Councilman Sam Allevato, who is the target of an ongoing recall effort.
Discussions on the dais were confrontational and peppered by boos and applause from a standing-room-only audience. The majority of those who came to express their viewpoints, spoke up against the investigation. The generally mild-mannered Taylor appeared agitated at times and at one point, asked the crowd to refrain from boisterous response or face removal from the City Council chamber. Reeve called the threat unnecessary.
Kramer, Allevato and Taylor were unmoved by Byrnes’ and Reeve’s attempts to sway them. Byrnes urged the council majority to “not go down this road.” Later, after he was rebuffed by Allevato, Byrnes said, “your pontifications are irrelevant.” Reeve, who called the investigation a waste of taxpayer money, was more defiant, saying neither he nor Byrnes had done wrong. Reeve then fired a warning salvo at the three councilmen by suggesting a change was coming to the council dynamic via a future election.
“Roy and I are loyal public servants to the people and patriots to our nation. But make no mistake, obedience to government and obedience to you is not patriotism. San Juan Capistrano is not an oligarchy. It is part of a republic. A representative democracy,” Reeve said. “Make no mistake, your majority control over the city is coming to an end. I don’t know if it will be next year or a year later, but it’s coming to an end. And I pledge to the residents of our beloved city that are gathered here today that the new majority will be made up of common but dedicated public servants, who will reach across the aisle and give respect to those who disagree.”
Allegations against Byrnes and Reeve developed from a closed executive meeting on August 6, during which the council apparently decided to remove newspaper racks at city hall and the community center. On October 1, Byrnes disclosed to Kim McCarthy of Community Common Sense, publishers of a monthly newspaper, that the council had voted 3-1 to ban the racks.
City Attorney Hans Van Ligten, however, said there was no reportable action from the meeting, and that was enough for Kramer to question whether Byrnes had violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting and public records law. Reeve, an attorney, has acted as legal representative for Common Sense in the newspaper rack issue, as well as in public records act issues, and recused himself from the meeting. Still, Kramer suggested Reeve’s role on the council and work with Common Sense conflicted and that he may have violated “his fiduciary duty to the city or any other laws.”
Common Sense members have been highly critical of Kramer, Allevato and Taylor regarding their support for the city’s controversial groundwater recovery plant and disputed water rates, in editorial columns and during meetings.
Common Sense Editor Kim Lefner said any discussion to remove newspaper racks at city property should have included input from the community. Lefner and other Common Sense members have said they’ve been unfairly targeted by the city due to their critical opinions. Lefner noted that newspaper racks for The Capistrano Dispatch and the Capistrano Valley News, published by the Orange County Register, had existed at city hall long before and were forced to be removed only after Common Sense’s attempt to be included.
“Why was the public not invited to weigh in on this important free speech issue? Don’t you think your constituents have the right to be part of a discussion to ban newspapers on public property?” Lefner said. “In my opinion, this is just another attempt to silence those with whom you disagree. Shielding discussions and votes from the public about issues like this runs counter to our founding principles and is just plain wrong. The residents of San Juan deserve better.”
Former City Council candidate Melissa Kaffen was critical of the council majority, saying their decision to remove newspaper racks was tantamount to “declaring open warfare on the First Amendment and our right to know the whole story about what you were doing on the council.”
“This council’s intention to indict two duly-elected citizen representatives for daring to challenge a majority decision to ban the Community Common Sense from the public square tells us pretty much everything we need to know about this council majority,” Kaffen said. “It tells us of a deep contempt for the free press and the notion that we the people deserve an honest shake on anything this council does.”
Villa Park City Councilwoman Deborah Pauly also attended the meeting to speak against the investigation.
“If any of you press forward with this manufactured charade to silence those who disagree with you, you are in direct violation of your oaths of office,” Pauly said. “I would actually expect something like this in a backward, third-world, dictator-led Communist regime. You bring dishonor on yourself and your city … Please drop this. Drop it like a hot potato. It is radioactive, and it is un-American.”
Some Common Sense members are known to be supportive of the recall attempt against Allevato, and Reeve said the investigation only served to distract people from that effort. San Juan Capistrano resident Jan Siegel, an active volunteer and member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, said it was hypocritical for recall supporters to continue their efforts while calling for an end to the investigation, based on cost.
“I’ve had it. I think that these people that are coming forward and complaining about how terrible the majority of the City Council is, I find it really interesting that they keep raising the fact that this is going to cost $25,000. They don’t seem to care that they’re putting forth a recall election that’s going to cost the city $100,000,” Siegel said.
Steve Behmerwohld, another active volunteer and member of the Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Commission, offered a compromise.
“I have to agree with several of the Common Sense people that I think you should agree to disagree,” Behmerwohld said. “But the thing that we’re going through with Derek and Roy, to me, is no different than what we’re going through trying to recall Sam. What I would like to propose is that you stop the investigation of Derek and Roy and you guys stop the recall of Sam, save us $125,000 and agree to disagree and move forward.”
Reeve warned that any investigation would also look into the actions of the entire council, including Kramer, Allevato and Taylor. That was confirmed by Assistant City Attorney Patrick Munoz.
“I’m fine with that,” Taylor said.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Reeve added.