By Collin Breaux
Two years after being elected to the San Juan Capistrano City Council, District 5 representative Howard Hart was named the new mayor.
Hart’s colleagues on the dais nominated him for the role during the City Council’s annual leadership organization on Tuesday, Dec. 13. Hart expressed his gratitude for the distinction and said he was fortunate to serve along his fellow councilmembers.
“Two of you sitting up here tonight have experienced this moment and know how humbling this is to sit in this chair—the mayor of, really, a unique town,” Hart said in reference to John Taylor’s and Sergio Farias’ previous terms as mayor. “There is just no other city in Southern California like San Juan Capistrano.”
The San Juan mayor serves one year in the role during their four-year term on the City Council.
Hart thanked his constituents for electing him in 2020 and his family, including wife Laura Hart and daughter Christa Hart Raj, for being by his side. He also referenced his late brother, Bill Hart, who ran for the San Clemente City Council in 2020 and died in May 2021 after being diagnosed with lymphoma.
“He was my best friend,” Hart said. “There’s just a gaping hole that’s never going to be filled by that loss.”
The year 2022 was an “incredibly productive” year in San Juan, and there is a great deal to look forward to in 2023, Hart said. The major emphasis for the coming year will be ensuring the long-term future of the town’s open spaces, he continued.
“In that regard, beginning tonight, we’re going to consider a long-term lease for The Ecology Center,” Hart said. “That’s going to, hopefully, allow farming to continue for at least the next 20 years and, hopefully, longer.”
That lease was later approved by the City Council on Tuesday night.
Hart further noted negotiations are being finalized with The Ridland Group for long-term operations of the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, which is expected to preserve the city’s equestrian heritage and expand community use of the park.
“These are all going to not only protect our open spaces directly, but they’re going to protect them against future initiatives from state government that could potentially take away our discretionary authorities to do so, so it’s important that we finalize these this year,” Hart said.
Hart recapped numerous local accomplishments during 2022, including the adoption of a new city seal design, the start of street repaving on Camino Capistrano and return of the Swallows Day Parade after a two-year hiatus induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joining Hart on the City Council is new District 3 representative John Campbell, who was sworn in at the Tuesday meeting. Campbell won this November’s election for the seat, beating candidates Paul Lopez and Cody Martin.
Campbell’s first remarks on the dais included thanking Lopez and Martin for being “quality opponents” who ran campaigns in “such a clean manner without rancor.”
“I’ve always had a healthy respect for the dais and the difficult decisions they make and keeping the historical legacy of this special place we call home,” Campbell said. “Thanks to my incredible election team. They worked very hard in getting my message (out) and walking precincts and putting up signs and for your unfailing support.”
Campbell also thanked his wife, Hoa Campbell, and his constituents for their votes. Campbell said he enjoyed meeting residents and understanding how special the town is during the election.
“I promise to serve my office with integrity, and one of the most important things for me is to listen to my constituents,” Campbell said.
Campbell is replacing outgoing Mayor Derek Reeve, who said goodbye to his time on the City Council during Tuesday’s meeting. Reeve served for 12 years and decided not to run again this year, because he felt San Juan Capistrano is now in a better place than when he first began serving.
“In 2010, in 2014 and 2018, I looked at the landscape and I saw—really, from a policy perspective and a political perspective—the perfect storm to move forward,” Reeve said. “When I evaluated in 2022, I didn’t see a perfect storm. I saw, frankly, a perfect sunset.”
Reeve mentioned the previous controversies and divisive issues—including lawsuits against the city—now “virtually don’t exist.”
“Our budget was difficult and challenging at the time, in 2010. Our reserves were very low, and now they’re the highest they’ve ever been,” Reeve said. “We’ve actually eliminated the structural deficit.”
Reeve said he leaves the City Council with four good councilmembers and men “with a wealth of experience and different backgrounds.”
Hart and Campbell both recognized Reeve’s years of service, as Hart said Reeve played a role in the city’s water utility transfer to the Santa Margarita Water District that became official in November 2021, and Campbell thanked Reeve for being asked by the outgoing mayor to serve as his replacement.
“You’ve seen the dais at its most contentious, but now you leave behind a council that is downright boring, so far on the level of good humor, civility and mutual respect that exists in both open and executive session,” Hart said. “On a personal note, I’m going to miss your humor and your intellect. You’re a mentor and a friend and, despite what you once told me, you can have friends in politics. I will miss your voice on the council.”
Hart presented flowers to Reeve’s wife, Jocelyn Ragsdale, and a plaque of appreciation to Reeve himself.
Reeve was given a standing ovation by the standing-room crowd at the meeting before he left.
“It’s nice to hear so many nice things said about you, and you don’t have to die,” Reeve quipped.
Taylor, who was unopposed when his seat was up for election this year, was also sworn in for another four-year term. Fellow incumbent Councilmember Troy Bourne, who was the only candidate to run for his district, was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
Farias was named the new mayor pro tem.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.