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Signatures of the Times
A law-enforcement inquiry into the petition drive for his recall is one of several reasons Mission Viejo Mayor Lance MacLean is feeling better about election day
For its first nine months, the effort to recall Lance MacLean from the Mission Viejo City Council looked like a one-sided fight. Talking to voters on street corners and in shopping-center parking lots, the activists who wanted MacLean out of office landed some heavy blows—largely by stressing the fact that MacLean was charged with assault and battery in 2007—but the then-councilman didn’t do much hitting back (see “Lance MacLean and the Slums of Mission Viejo,” March 26, 2009).
With Election Day approaching on Feb. 2, though, the Mission Viejo political scene seems more like a hotly contested brawl.
On Jan. 4, MacLean opened the first City Council meeting of the year—and the first after being appointed mayor by a 3-2 council vote in December—with a call to keep the “sniping and the bickering that goes on to a minimum” in 2010. By the end of the meeting, police officers had intervened in two confrontations between audience members, one council member had accused another of “pious sanctimony,” and Mayor Pro Tem Trish Kelley was nearly brought to tears while giving a speech about manners from the dais.
Earlier that same day, Orange County district attorney investigator Carlos Field climbed the stairs to the second floor of Mission Viejo City Hall and presented to the clerk’s desk a one-page court order, signed that morning by Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals. It compelled the city to hand over 1,400 pages containing more than 13,000 signatures that had been collected in the petition drive to qualify the recall for the ballot.
Field didn’t say why he needed them, but it’s an open secret in Mission Viejo that some of the recall proponents might be soon facing legal troubles. Until a few months ago, both recall proponents and MacLean himself seemed confident the attempts to remove him from office would succeed. “I’m almost positive I’ll be recalled,” MacLean told the Weekly last year (see “Go for the Throat,” March 3, 2009). Since then, though, a string of setbacks—not to mention opposition from moneyed interests—has tarnished the recall’s image and left MacLean thinking he might just survive the vote.
“Their house of cards is now tumbling down,” MacLean says of the recall supporters. “They’ve committed fraud, perjury and outright lies. I knew it was happening, and all I needed was someone to come forward and tell the truth.”
It all started with an e-mail written by Lake Forest resident Dave Barron in December. In a message sent to all five council members, Barron recounted how recall organizer Connie Lee had recruited him on Craigslist to gather signatures, offering to pay him $1 per signature gathered. Within 10 days on the job, though, Barron and the recall parted ways. According to TheOrange County Register, Barron says he quit, while Lee says he was fired. Barron says he witnessed improprieties; Lee denies that, but did admit to paying him under the table for a few days. And regardless of those controversies, one fact stands out: State law says that the people gathering signatures for a recall have to live in the same jurisdiction as the person being recalled. That jurisdiction, in this case, is Mission Viejo. Barron, as do a number of other workers listed on the recall committee’s campaign filings, lives elsewhere.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department opened an investigation into the signature-gathering process but quickly passed it on to the district attorney’s office. DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder says it would be “stupid” to reveal any details of an ongoing investigation, but an e-mail circulating among Mission Viejo activists said Field was looking to speak with any voters who felt they had been duped into signing the recall petition.
The recall may also find itself facing fines from the state’s Fair Politicial Practices Commission. In December, City Clerk Karen Hamman notified the agency that the recall committee had filed its quarterly financial statement—which had been due on Oct. 31—nearly two months late. E-mail correspondence between Hamman and recall-committee treasurer Dale Tyler shows that Tyler, who is also running to replace MacLean if he’s removed from office, was simply unaware of the deadline and hadn’t been keeping clear-enough records to quickly fix the problem when notified of it.
The legal problems have ratcheted up tension in the city and provided ammunition for the foes of the recall. During the Jan. 4 council meeting’s public-comment section, Sharon Cody—who was mayor of the city in the early 1990s—said she wanted the council to sue Lee and Tyler to recover the $270,000 in city money being spent on running the recall. Compatriot Susan Sellers echoed Cody’s comments at the podium; when returning to her seat in the audience, she stopped and confronted recall supporter Joe Holtzman. Sellers accused Holtzman, who had been flipping through a fly-fishing catalog, of saying, “Screw you” as Sellers walked past. Holtzman denies saying anything. After a few seconds, both of them left the room with a sheriff’s deputy.
Campaign statements filed in December show MacLean’s election committee had raised $22,696 compared to the recall committee’s $19,170. The recall, documents show, has been largely funded by more than $12,000 in loans from Lee. MacLean’s campaign committee—which ostensibly is for his 2010 reelecton—is largely self-financed as well (more than $14,000, according to records). But MacLean has also won large donations from three separate trash-hauling firms and a coalition of developers.
Most significant, perhaps, is support from the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, who handed $1,500 to MacLean’s campaign last year. The union has also peppered Mission Viejo households with e-mails, slick mailings and cable-TV commercials calling the recall a “Trojan horse” effort to weaken law enforcement in the city—a charge recall activists loudly contest.
Neither Lee nor Tyler responded to the Weekly’s requests to speak for this article. But recall proponent Larry Gilbert—who has chronicled his view of the happenings in Mission Viejo at OrangeJuiceBlog.com—says he’s not too worried about the recall’s legal problems. He and other recall supporters point to a 2008 court case that invalidated the residency requirements for circulators of petitions supporting ballot measures. The principle behind that decision, Gilbert says, means the law that Lee may have broken by hiring Barron may be unconstitutional to begin with (MacLean dismisses that argument as “spin”). And while the involvement from the police union is a bit worrisome, Gilbert is hopeful about what will happen on Feb. 2. “In spite of everything that’s being spent, I think the recall will prevail,” Gilbert says.
MacLean, though, says he’s feeling better than ever about his political prospects. “I’m getting more confident every day,” he says. “[The recall supporters] have spent a year and a half pounding away at my reputation and character. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. But I will be vindicated by winning this recall and exposing them for the lies.”