By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Out of all of Lance Robert MacLean’s many public-relations problems, the most important may be the widely held perception that the Mission Viejo city councilman, if provoked, will choke you. It’s a matter of public record. Right there in the UC Irvine Police Department crime report dated Oct. 26, 2007, is an account of what happened between MacLean and a co-worker:
“After a short verbal altercation (about 30 seconds) between the two men, Maclean [sic] took a step forward and bumped [Jack] McManus against the chest. Maclean then extended both his arms out and placed his hands around McManus’s neck. Maclean then shoved McManus against the wall and started to lift McManus up while his hands were still around McManus’ neck.”
The police report then says it took four cops to break MacLean’s grip, wrestle him to the floor and handcuff him over snarls of “Get the fuck off of me; get the fuck off of me.”
MacLean says the police report is largely a work of fiction. He says that as associate executive director of the Associated Students of UC Irvine at the time, he was worried about student safety: During the student government’s “Shocktoberfest” celebration, UCI hospitality-and-dining-services director Jack McManus had locked the doors to the student center and its bathrooms, leaving kids to crush against the outside doors, pound on the windows and pee in the bushes. So MacLean says he sought out McManus and told him to open the facilities. When McManus ignored him and started to walk away, MacLean grabbed him. He says he didn’t choke him, per se, but rather leaned his forearm across McManus’ collar to keep him in place while MacLean talked. And, according to MacLean, what happened next lingers vividly in his mind like a nightmare that won’t fade: McManus turned his head toward the cops down the hall and calmly, matter-of-factly said, “Assault. Arrest him.”
The assault-and-battery charges against MacLean were eventually dropped on the condition that he attend anger-management classes. When UCI launched an investigation into what happened, MacLean decided to retire from the university after 27 years.
But he was faced with a new consequence of the incident when, on Feb. 2, at the start of a Mission Viejo City Council meeting, a man walked up to the dais and handed him an envelope. MacLean, currently mayor pro tempore of the city, opened it, read it and smiled. “A notice of intention to circulate a petition to recall,” was the title. Fifty-one residents had signed the document, expressing a desire to see MacLean thrown from office.
The first on the list of eight complaints against MacLean was “VIOLENCE.” The rest: “ANGER AND INCIVILITY . . . HATRED AND DISRESPECT . . . SELF-DEALING . . . GREED AND CORRUPT PRIORITIES . . . FINANCIAL MISMANAGEMENT . . . TAX INCREASE . . . FALSE PROMISES.” A camera flash went off; some of the recall proponents were in the audience, snapping pictures to record his reaction. MacLean nudged his friend Mayor Frank Ury, showed him the recall papers and laughed. They exchanged words; the sound didn’t travel, but the sentiment could have been “These people really go for the throat, don’t they?”
* * *
Roughly 100,000 people live east of Interstate 5 in South County, within the narrow, arrowhead-shaped boundaries of Mission Viejo. Start at Capistrano Valley High School near the south edge of the city and drive north, past the car dealerships and the Shops at Mission Viejo mall, past the orange-and-aqua fortress of the Kaleidoscope shopping center, past the blinking electronic display for Saddleback College, and you get to the part of Mission Viejo that its residents and politicians seem to consider the “real” part of the city. Or, at least, that must be what they’re referring to when they talk at council meetings and coffee shops about how Mission Viejo is one of the few places in the county that is still close to nature.
Tall, white-barked sycamore trees shade stretches of Marguerite Parkway, where the grassy medians and leafy hedges are manicured just enough to make one wonder about the city’s landscaping bills. Take a left or right into one of the housing tracts: Yes, all the homes are variations on a Spanish-mission theme, but they’re just blocks from verdant patches of golf courses and untrimmed, development-free valleys. Keep heading north. You’ll hit Lake Mission Viejo, a man-made reservoir that glitters in the daylight, hemmed in by gated-community homes.
It is, in many places, a clean, pretty, idyllic city. Its politics are none of these things.
“Lance MacLean has broken his promises to the citizens of Mission Viejo and the people who got him elected in many ways,” says Dale Tyler, a local activist and blogger. “He’s arrogant. He’s out of control. And he is a blot on the city of Mission Viejo. A stain on the character of Mission Viejo is actually how I would put it.”
Tyler was the first of 51 signatories on the notice of intention to recall MacLean. Go to Mission Viejo’s website and pick any city council meeting from the database of video recordings. Chances are you’ll see Tyler in the audience. He might get up during public comment, looking like an affable, ordinary working guy wearing glasses and a cell-phone holster on his belt—and then he’ll unleash some scathing statement about how the city council is essentially a band of liars.
He won’t be the only recurring face. You’ll see Larry Gilbert, the bald guy in a tracksuit jacket or Hawaiian shirt, with sunken eyes and the vocal cadence of a New Jersey transplant. There’s Connie Lee, the small blonde who always sounds like she’s passing along some fabulous, hush-hush secret. And, up until November 2008, in the audience would have been Cathy Schlicht, cordial but often scolding, dressed in formless sweaters and T-shirts.
Schlicht won election to the city council in last year’s race, moving her from behind the speaker’s podium to behind the council dais. Now, she’s the official representation for a class of Mission Viejo citizens that has no generally accepted name (they’ll often call themselves “activists” or “watchdogs,” though MacLean calls them “these people”) but has had, for years, one common passion: being pissed off at the city council.
Schlicht and her friends have a lot of reasons, big and small, why they don’t like the way the city is run. Schlicht says the current council majority of MacLean, Ury and Trish Kelley (or, as critics have termed them, “MUK”) all campaigned as fiscally conservative Republicans but spend money needlessly on “feel-good projects” from rec-center locker rooms to a $360,000 Rose Parade float. She says they have no regard for the community or for honest government and that they’re all beholden to special interests and aspire to higher office.
The targeted council members, though, say that their opponents find fault with everything simply out of personal vendettas and power lust.
“There’s a few people in the community who just want to be able to control what’s going on with the council, and they’re mad they can’t,” Ury says. “To characterize it as anything else is to miss the point.”
All five members behind the dais also say that the council’s most vocal critics are the same people who helped each of them get elected in the first place. This includes MacLean, the man they now want to remove.
Once the city clerk formally signs off on the statement against MacLean, proponents will have 60 days to qualify the recall for a citywide vote by collecting about 9,300 signatures, one-tenth of the registered voters in Mission Viejo. There has been talk of recalling MacLean since 2003, but only recently did the talk become action, with the official charges against him drafted in a series of e-mails and Lee collecting the signatures of 51 supporters.
“I don’t know how many solid supporters out there that Lance has anymore,” says Brad Morton, editor of the Mission Viejo Dispatch blog. “Lance’s whole core constituency were the people who signed that petition.”
* * *
MacLean’s story in Mission Viejo politics begins with defeat. The father of two had been coaching his kids’ soccer and basketball teams for years, but he knew he’d have to get a new hobby as they entered high school. He says he wanted to give back to his community, and his big idea was to build a gym with basketball courts because there weren’t enough hoops for public use in Mission Viejo. MacLean tried to get involved with city government and lobbied for an appointment to the planning commission or the community-services commission. He put in applications but never got anywhere. “Maybe I should just run for office,” he told his wife.
The story of MacLean’s enemies begins with defeat, too. In 1996, a proposed high-density housing development drew Dale Tyler and a few other citizens to collect 7,000 signatures to oppose the project. A judge rejected the petition and the apartments were built anyway—but in the process, Tyler founded an advocacy group called Citizens for Integrity in Government (CIG). The group quickly moved on to other issues and, in the process, built a core membership of dozens and a mailing list of thousands. At get-togethers, on websites, in political campaigns, at demonstrations and during council meetings, members of CIG loudly objected to anything that could conceivably be construed as government waste, from the construction of a new “Taj Majal” city hall to the subsidization of a minor-league baseball team. It wasn’t just the spending they were fed up with, but also the attitude of the city’s elected officials, who had developed a habit of naming Mission Viejo amenities after themselves. Ex-CIG member Don Wilder remembers going to his first meeting and being shocked at the conduct of council members. “It was like royalty of old Europe saying, ‘Let them eat cake,’” he says.
MacLean started showing up to CIG meetings, and members say he became a vocal participant in discussions of the latest city news. “He was lockstep with us on the things we held important: fiscal conservatism, open government, listen to the citizens, redevelopment, no taxes—all this kind of stuff,” Wilder says. “It seemed like he was right there with us.”
MacLean ran for city council in 2000. He lost. He ran again in 2002, alongside CIG member and popular PTA mom Patricia “Trish” Kelley as well as John Paul Ledesma, a friend of CIG who was first elected in 1998. Orange County Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut dubbed the results the “Revolution in Mission Viejo”: incumbents mayor Susan Withrow and vice mayor Sheri Butterfield lost badly, garnering less than 14 percent of the vote between the two of them. Activists who supported MacLean and Kelley were ecstatic. Alongside Ledesma and Gail Reavis, a CIG-supported candidate from 2000, their representatives would have a 4-1 majority.
The jubilation didn’t last long.
“There are two different personalities here: the Lance before the election, and the Lance after,” Connie Lee says. “Not even an evolution. Just . . . different.”
Near the top of CIG’s enemies list was city manager Dan Joseph, who was believed to be a shill for the council majority that the group despised. At MacLean’s first-ever closed-session council meeting, Ledesma moved to have Joseph fired. MacLean objected. Perhaps more symbolically damaging, MacLean had said during his campaign that he would take Joseph’s desk, which had been purchased for $6,000 in taxpayer money, and put it on eBay. After the election, MacLean claimed he’d just been joking about the whole thing. Recall proponents, even today, bring the desk up as a reason to oust him.
“Let’s think about that for a second,” MacLean says about the desk. “The desk has been paid for, it’s sitting there, and he’s using it. I could put it on eBay. What do you think I could get for that desk? A thousand bucks? That means we’ve lost $5000, and now I’ve got to buy another desk for the city manager to work off. What did I prove? I won an argument of principle, but I just sold the taxpayers out in terms of being fiscally responsible.”
The disagreements with his former supporters just got more acrimonious from there. MacLean backed a deal to provide a tax credit for an auto dealership; critics called it “corporate welfare.” He proposed the gym that he thought the city needed; the idea was defeated in a 3-2 vote amid a hail of charges that MacLean’s “pet project” was a waste of money. The council proposed a tax increase on hotel guests be put to a citywide vote; when MacLean volunteered to write the ballot argument in favor, his former supporters took it as a betrayal of his “no new taxes” campaign promises.
As some of MacLean’s original proponents abandoned him, he took on a new role that brought more responsibility—and more controversy. Shortly after MacLean’s election, the city council appointed him to the board of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (F/ETCA) to help oversee the controversial Highway 241 toll road extension. He worked his way up to be chairman of the F/ETCA. Last year, at a packed U.S. Department of Commerce hearing on the toll road—where the F/ETCA’s plan was eventually rejected—activists booed MacLean as he advocated the project. MacLean sees a parallel between what happened to the toll road and what’s happening to him now.
“It’s continual nitpicking. It’s Chinese water torture. Drip-drip-drip,” he says. “It’s a farce. But it’s a means to an end.”
MacLean says his “deliberative” approach to making decisions clashes with the demands of the CIG crowd. A few weeks after being elected, he says, Reavis and her husband met him at a bagel shop and asked him to solicit her approval for any proposals he wanted to put on the council’s agenda. He says he rejected the idea. “They were very upset because I didn’t take my orders from them,” MacLean says. “They felt I turned on them. I didn’t turn on them. I’m just not their puppet.”
Reavis says the meeting never happened. She does, however, think MacLean, Ury and Kelley have all insulted their supporters since entering office. “I think it’s a character flaw if you don’t have loyalty,” Reavis says. “I do not for the life of me understand what motivates people who freely take your nourishment, your help up the ladder, and then turn around and do the things they’ve done.”
CIG disbanded in 2004 as some members decided to support Ury in his first run for council while others backed Brad Morton. The fallout of that election left some of the activists not speaking to one another. When Kelley, Ledesma and MacLean ran for re-election in 2006, the fragmented activist community divided its support among seven challengers. Even with split-vote opposition, MacLean appeared to have lost his seat on election night, only to win the next day by only 94 votes once the absentee ballots had been counted.
The ex-CIG rifts endured until recently, with Schlicht’s campaign and, now, the MacLean recall. “There’s something about a common enemy that brings people together,” Lee says.
* * *
The day after being served the intent-to-recall notice, MacLean has dropped any semblance of the amusement he showed at the meeting. Sitting at a coffee shop across the street from the civic center, he wears a pinkish-red collared shirt patterned with a single palm tree running up the front. Sunglasses hang from the his unbuttoned collar; his face is tanned near-orange and framed by silver-haired sideburns. The 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound MacLean looks like one of those cool-dude Orange County business guys who surf to stay chill. But today, MacLean is not chill.
Eyes darting around, hands fidgeting, he rattles off the exact circumstances surrounding each vote he has taken that is mentioned in the recall letter. He’s a deficit spender? No, he says: The fact that expenditures exceeded revenues in the last fiscal year simply means the council used money saved up from past-year windfalls to pay for city improvements in 2008. He’s a tax-raiser? No, taxes never went up, and he merely wanted to allow voters to decide whether to approve an increase. He supported a 100 percent pay raise for council members? Well, yes, but all that meant was doubling a $500-per-month stipend that hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1988.
MacLean points to a blog post by Gilbert on the Orange Juice Blog. “I call it the Gilbert Manifesto,” he says. The post is an annotated summary of Marxist agitator Saul Alinsky’s “rules for radicals.” Most important, says MacLean, are rules 5 and 12: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon,” and “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.” Gilbert’s is the second name on the notice-of-recall letter.
“This is their tactic. They make it personal and they make it painful,” MacLean asserts. “I’ve got a kid in college; I’m trying to pay college fees. I’m having a hard time getting a job. Look at all the blog shit out there [about me]. I’m not gonna get a job.”
He’s referring not so much to the blogging about MacLean’s spending habits on the city council, but to the personality-driven charges against him. The UCI choking incident is only the beginning; there’s a whole host of reasons why people have called him “dangerous,” “childish” and a “bully.” MacLean thinks it’s based on his appearance: “‘Let’s just pick on the big, hulking guy who looks like he could kill people.’ That’s how I feel now,” he says.
After watching a few council videos and speaking with MacLean, one can understand why some people see him as arrogant. He overenunciates words, with the inflection of a parent lecturing a child. He tilts his chin upward when speaking, giving off an air of righteousness. He walks a line between folksy charm and folksy dopiness, peppering his speech with the phrases “oh, heck” and “well, you know what?” At a council meeting last year, he tried to explain a complicated, contentious deal in which the city would sell cell-phone-tower leases. But he used the weird, forced analogy of being a farmer and having to decide whether to use your cows for meat or milk.
What matters most, though, are the public instances when others have said they’ve felt intimidated by MacLean. A few weeks before the 2006 election, rival candidate Diane Greenwood called 911 on him during a confrontation on a street corner. She says he tried to steal her campaign sign and “exploded” when she challenged him about it. “He got in my face, and he went crazy, absolutely going off at me,” Greenwood says. “I put my hands behind my back and said, ‘Please don’t hit me; please don’t hit me.’”
MacLean calls Greenwood’s account a “complete fabrication” and says that she was the one who flipped out when MacLean moved her sign a few inches away from one of his own. But Greenwood says she is genuinely terrified of MacLean—so much so that she didn’t run in 2008, for fear of having to sit on the same dais with him. “He’s really scary stuff. He was just screaming,” she says. “Maybe I would run in the replacement election, but never if I’m serving with him. I really value my life.”
The recall notice also lists an incident that is on tape. In August 2008, MacLean scolded Reavis for taking notes during a closed-session meeting of the council. The audio recording of what happened next was released by the council a month later after public pressure to do so:
Reavis: Sweetie, I’ve been taking notes for eight years. If you don’t like it, I’ve got drawers full.
MacLean: You know what, let me tell you something. I don’t like you. I haven’t liked you for a long time. . . . Shut the hell up. Shut up.
Reavis: I’m really glad that . . . I’m glad that’s been recorded because, um, I’m not going to take abuse from Mr. MacLean. Mr. City Manager and Mr. City Attorney?
Reavis said the “shut the hell up” comment made her fear for her life. MacLean says the transcript exonerates him: What he said was rude, he says, but certainly not dangerous.
“What it was was an opportunistic time for [Reavis],” MacLean says. “I had this incident at UCI, I tell her to shut up, and any other time or place in the past six years I’ve served with her, no big deal. But now, it’s, ‘Ah-ha! Gotcha! I can now make these claims.’”
MacLean’s relationship with Reavis was fairly fraught before the closed-session exchange. Reavis was the most outspoken member of the council for eight years, consistently at odds with her colleagues and not shy about saying why. A master of the mocking grin, the dismissive sideways glance and the facetious eyelash flutter, she consistently upped the entertainment value of council meetings. City secretary Kathy Rios filed a claim against Reavis in 2004, alleging that, among other things, Reavis had stroked Rios’ hair inappropriately and grabbed the ass of a male staffer. The city settled the suit for $10,600 without investigating the claims. In return, Reavis filed a claim against the city and a few council members for $10 million. When she received no response, she initiated a lawsuit for an unnamed amount against MacLean, Kelley and Rios. A judge threw out the suit and ordered Reavis to pay $3,105 in legal fees. Even so, the other council members like to point out that if she had won, she could have cost taxpayers a lot of money.
Reavis’ past litigiousness was used, some say, as a pretext when the city council voted to reinstate lifetime medical benefits for council members who serve 12 years and are older than 50 when they retire. Last May, Ury said the benefit was wasteful and proposed to have it removed. The issue returned in November, with the city attorney cautioning that a certain council member might sue the city if they didn’t reinstate the benefit. Ury has said Reavis had indicated she would sue, but Reavis denies it, and the council has never produced any evidence to substantiate the claim. Due to changes in policy over the years, and with Reavis retired, the only three council members who could ever possibly get the benefit are the “MUK” majority—the three votes that reinstated the lifetime benefit.
In council meetings, MacLean, Ury and Kelley never endorsed the idea that part-time council members deserved medical benefits. After dealing with the recall, though, MacLean has changed his mind.
“Look at all this stress that I have. Go out there and Google how many council members across the United States have been gunned down and killed. You’d be surprised,” he says. “When I first got onto the city council, not three months prior, there was a council member in New York. Some disgruntled gadfly person came in and gunned him down at a council meeting. At my orientation, they walked around, and they said, ‘Lance, you’ll be happy to know that when we built this city hall, when we put this dais together, there’s Kevlar in it. So if you see somebody come in and they’ve got a gun, duck, because it’s bulletproof.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck did I get myself into?’ I am a target. I have people who don’t like me. I have been intimidated. They come to my doorstep; they take pictures of my house. Most agencies have a duty and obligation to protect the people who are working for them. I’ve been elected to work for the city of Mission Viejo. I think my health should be taken care of. If I were to get murdered in a council meeting by one of these knuckleheads, you know how much life insurance I’ve got through the city? Goose egg. None.”
And if they don’t take his life, MacLean says, they’ll at least take his job.
“I’m almost positive I’ll be recalled,” he says, sounding somewhat cheerful. “Absolutely. How do you fight something like that?”