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The suspicion leveled at the former sheriff from some in the town is intense. A provision in the riding-park purchase agreement allows for the operation of one new stable on the property; at council meetings, Lefner and Reardon charged the provision was inserted for the benefit of Gates’ stables-operating sister-in-law, who will soon see the lease on her property expire. Protecting the land from development helps the property values around it; doesn’t the fact that Gates lives in a home nearly adjacent to the riding park, they ask, constitute a conflict of interest?
But the questions remain only questions. Accusations and needling queries to the council during public comments have been met with assertions that the critics don’t have the facts to back up their claims, as well as assurances that final-decision-making power rests with the council and not the members of the Open Space Committee.
After the approval of an earlier, just-as-controversial open-space deal in January—which gives the council the option to spend $10 million to acquire 116 acres around a planned, yet-to-be-approved retirement community—Lefner filed a public-records request with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). She received pages and pages of e-mails that showed Gates had set up meetings between OCTA staffers, San Juan Capistrano city employees and the developer of the proposed retirement community to hash out an agreement on how to improve a railroad crossing near the area in question. Overhauling the crossing would be an essential component of developing the land—and allowing the public to use its open areas—but Gates hadn’t been directed by the council to do any of the legwork.
“I wanted to thank you again for your time yesterday,” Gates wrote in May to OCTA CEO Arthur Leahy. “It was nice to just sit and talk about old times and friendship. The citizens of SJC will appreciate your help in solving the issue of the crossing.”
Reading through the e-mails, one gets the impression Gates is a cordial, persistent deal-maker. “Time is of the essence,” he wrote in one message seeking to set up a meeting. In another, he mentioned to an OCTA staffer that he knew the staffer’s father. If Gates is working for someone other than the city, he hides it well. And if he’s not, he may just be the town’s most effective volunteer lobbyist.
“In a lot of ways, San Juan is a city in transition between the old-boys style of government that worked here for a long time and a new, modernized version,” says Jonathan Volzke, editor of the Capistrano Dispatch. “For a lot of people, Brad represents the old-boy style that they don’t understand or fear.”
Gates insists the time and energy he puts in on behalf of his hometown is done in the spirit of public service. “It’s been fun,” Gates says. “It’s taken a lot of time for all of us, but it’s fun because you’re accomplishing something in a positive way that’s going to be there for my grandkids and beyond.”
He knows that some people think he’s a menace. But he’s used to that.
“I’ve had those kinds of critics off and on through my entire career,” Gates says. “I’m sorry people look at things that way, but if they look at my track record over all my time in San Juan Capistrano, I don’t know what I’ve ever received out of this other than a lot of work.”
This article appeared in print as "Space Cowboy: Retired OC Sheriff Brad Gates’ open-space deals for San Juan Capistrano have some critics crying, 'Whoa!'"