By Shawn Raymundo

The San Juan Capistrano City Council on March 19 is likely to re-vote on who to appoint to the fifth seat of the city’s Planning Commission.

After interviewing a dozen candidates who applied to sit on the commission, the City Council on Monday, March 11, impaneled the five-member committee. However, a counting error during the tallying of the votes resulted in Matthew Gaffney, who is currently serving as a planning commissioner, to be incorrectly appointed for another two-year term.

According to the city, the city clerk on Tuesday, March 12, reviewed the ballots and discovered that Councilmember Derek Reeve’s votes were double-counted.

Councilmembers had appointed Lisa Fenning, Harrison Taylor, Tami Wilhelm, Howard Hart and Gaffney to the Planning Commission. Members, who are to serve two-year terms, are tasked with approving or denying development proposals and ensuring that capital improvements and design plans remain consistent with the city’s general plan.

At the start of the meeting, Councilmember John Taylor recused himself from the interview process because his son, Harrison, was then a candidate.

Councilmembers voted on the appointments through a ballot process in order to reach a majority consensus. During the first-ballot selection, Fenning, Wilhelm and Harrison Taylor received a majority of votes from the four councilmembers.

With Harrison Taylor already selected from the pool of candidates, Councilmember Reeve motioned for Councilmember Taylor to return to the dais to vote on the remaining two commissioners. That second ballot vote resulted in Hart and Gaffney being appointed.

Assistant City Manager Jacob Green explained that Gaffney and Hart each received an extra vote. In actuality, Hart had three votes and Gaffney received two, tying him with candidate Stan Braden. A third ballot process should have been initiated to determine the split vote between Braden and Gaffney.

“To correct this issue, staff is presenting an item to the City Council on March 19 to allow for the proper appointment of a fifth member to the Planning Commission,” Green said in an email.

Should the council agree to the re-vote, councilmembers will select the fifth member from the pool that includes Gaffney, Braden and the remaining candidates.

Applicant interviews with the council were conducted in 10-minute intervals: three minutes for candidate presentations and seven minutes for questions from councilmembers. In total, the council received 13 applications for the commission, but interviewed 12, because Timothy Neely, who sat on the most recent commission, was unable to attend the March 11 meeting.

While interviewing for the position, Gaffney said it’s the duty of the commission to work with City Council and consider a potential development’s impact on the city as it relates to needed revenue from sales taxes.

“The object of the Planning Commission is to work with the City Council, not against the City Council – get the projects through,” Gaffney said. “We’ve got some good projects coming through here soon. The city needs money for the sales-tax revenue to fix the streets and take care of other things, and I think those are important to San Juan Capistrano’s future.”

Fenning, a former bankruptcy lawyer and judge, also spoke on the important role proposed developments can have on the city’s revenue, and added that she doesn’t want to see the city go bankrupt because its “long-range finances are a bit precarious.”

“We can’t just raise taxes on the residents,” she said. “Appropriate development is critical to the future of revenues and future viability of this city, but it has to be appropriate.”

As a resident of more than 30 years, Fenning also noted her desire to honor the city’s commitment to its historic character.

“I would honor that tradition. It’s critical going forward to maintain the character of the community,” she said. “But this city is not a museum; it needs to have vibrant commerce, a solid source of tax revenues, ability to provide its citizens with a necessary infrastructure … in order to evolve, breathe and stay alive as a community.”

With a background in lighting and construction, Harrison Taylor, who has an international relations degree with a focus on business from USC, said he’s very familiar with looking at development plans and has a passion for historic charm.

Hart acknowledged that while he doesn’t have a background in construction or reading blueprints, he said he does have a broad experience in leadership and planning.

And Wilhelm, who recently moved to San Juan, previously served on the city of Hemet’s planning commission and currently works as a developer, buying real estate and developing projects in various cities.

Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne commended the applicants, noting that many of them had experience volunteering their time to the community and serving on other local boards and commissions.

As a freshman councilmember, Bourne said he was specifically looking for a diverse group with various skill sets who can look at planning issues from “different sides of the fence.”

The next city council meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on March 19.

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