San Juan Capistrano is a town with history, and if its residents ever forget it, there’s the yearly Swallows Festival to remind them.
At City Council meetings throughout festival season, members show up in wide-brimmed hats and bolo ties. The city attorney hikes up his jeans and buttons a plaid shirt up to his neck, and staffers field questions about water rates while in boots and rawhide vests. The Swallows Day Parade is a similar mashup of modernity and Wild West nostalgia. It prides itself on being “non-motorized,” so there are no floats. Instead, you get mariachis following marching bands and Rotary clubs in the same lineup as clans of hollerin,’ fake-gun-totin’ faux outlaws.
The day provides a chance to catch a glimpse of figures who have shaped the history of the 34,000-resident town. This past year, Bradley L. Gates, the former sheriff of Orange County, hoisted the Star-Spangled Banner from horseback down the parade route. He was leading the so-called “Portola Riders,” who mount up each year and head into the wilderness in homage to the Spanish explorers who first mapped what was to become Orange County. Elsewhere on Camino Capistrano was Anthony Moiso, the septuagenarian CEO of Rancho Mission Viejo—a firm known to many in South County as “the Ranch”—one of Orange County’s last remaining land barons and the host of the yearly Portola Ride.
Once upon a time, Gates was the county’s most powerful politician and Moiso was his private-sector wingman. During the past year or so, though, they’ve played the role of two retired buddies, sitting on opposite sides of a negotiating table to help strike a deal for the citizens of San Juan Capistrano. Last summer, Gates and his colleagues emerged with an agreement, later approved by the council, for San Juan Capistrano to buy a well-loved riding park from Rancho Mission Viejo to preserve as open space. The deal was hailed as historic. Dozens of local equestrians showed up to council meetings to rave about the property. In the Capistrano Dispatch, Councilman Tom Hribar called the purchase one of “the most significant and positive events” to happen in the city since its 1961 incorporation.
But other figures from the town’s past sprang up to raise questions. Roy Byrnes, one of San Juan Capistrano’s early mayors, railed against the deal as “a fiasco” and a waste of money. Jim Reardon, a businessman had helped with the headline-grabbing overthrow of the Capistrano Unified School District’s leadership a few years earlier (see Daffodil J. Altan’s “Hard Knocks,” Oct. 4, 2007), said the city’s open-space-preservation efforts came out of a “corrupt process.” And David Swerdlin, another former mayor, wondered in the pages of the Dispatch whether the riding-park purchase had been “aboveboard.”
“Brad Gates is a fine, upstanding person; he did a great job as sheriff, and he is a great resident of San Juan Capistrano,” Swerdlin says. “But there’s a perception problem because his background has very close ties with Tony Moiso and the Ranch. I really doubt anything bad is going on. But you’ve got an unelected group doing the negotiating. It’s almost like a shadow government.”
* * *
In some ways, Gates, 71, embodies a time nearly lost to the city—a time of ranches and farmhands, strong leaders and easy governing. Overlooking Interstate 5 is a mission-style office building that evokes that era. In the lobby of the Gates Professional Building, built by the lifelong San Juan Capistrano resident and his son Scott a few years ago, furniture from Gates’ childhood home sits as if part of a museum exhibit. In its windows, stained glass depicts the Boy Scout hut that was once the center of civic life in San Juan Capistrano.
The second floor of the building is home to Powermark, a marketing firm run by Colleen Edwards—a smiley, friendly volunteer publicist for and member of San Juan Capistrano’s Open Space Committee. Sitting with Edwards in Powermark’s conference room in December, Gates spoke fondly to the Weekly about the way business was run in San Juan Capistrano when he was a kid in the 1940s. “If there were problems that needed to be worked on by talking to the county, then someone would be elected to go up and get the road fixed or whatever it was,” Gates remembers, his voice that of a perennial mumbler who learned long ago how to enunciate. “So, you got pretty good consensus. When there was an issue, it was either 600 for it, or 575 for it and 25 against it or something. It was a pretty nice way to do government.”
From 1974 until 1999 (when a telegenic bailiff named Mike Carona took the reins), the lanky, redhaired Gates was Orange County’s top cop. With a portrait of John Wayne hanging in his office, he had a reputation for firm, laconic leadership.
“The aura of the Wild West clings to Gates like prairie dust to a cowpoke,” wrote The Orange County Register in 1999, after Gates retired from office. “That sound you hear is spurs jingling and a heart breaking.”
He stood next to George H.W. Bush as the president declared a war on drugs; he led the unsuccessful charge to defeat the legalization of medical marijuana at the polls. “I still get tears in my eyes when it comes to the cop and robber, the good guy and the bad guy, the outlaw and the sheriff,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I want the good guy to win.”
Despite playing the good guy, though, Gates often found himself on the wrong side of the rules. According to the Times, by the end of the 1980s, the county ended up paying nearly $1.3 million for settlements and jury verdicts stemming from a string of lawsuits against Gates, alleging he spied on enemies and violated civil rights—charges the former sheriff always maintained were bogus.
Throughout his tenure, Gates’ penchant for dealmaking—and his close relationship with developers—attracted scrutiny as well. A 1989 Register investigation revealed that Gates had used taxpayer money to make hundreds of toll calls for personal business between 1986 and 1988; the plurality of those calls went to Anthony Moiso’s Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita companies, at a time when both were heavily involved in development. The same article showed that Moiso-owned companies hadaloaned Gates at least $430,000. Another investigation found the sheriff had been spending many of his working hours in private meetings with political and business allies, including Moiso—who made headlines time and again for campaigning hard to get his friend Gates re-elected. In the late 1980s, the two men went into business together running a San Juan Capistrano stable; it was put up for sale in 1995 to avoid foreclosure.
For a period of the 1990s, Gates was doing more than simply running the sheriff’s department. The Times article that produced the cop-and-robber quote also had then-OC Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes saying that Gates had, in the wake of Orange County’s bankruptcy, become the county’s “de facto czar.” Filling a power vacuum left by the financial calamity, Gates spent his hours negotiating debt repayments, lobbying Sacramento legislators and overseeing the county’s budget. In those days, the Times wrote, you could always tell when Gates was in the county’s Hall of Administration: He would leave his county-owned Lincoln Town Car parked “beneath the building, leaving it askew by the elevator rather than pulling into a marked spot. . . . He is, after all, still the sheriff.”
Nowadays, Gates parks—usually between the designated white lines—his gleaming Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck in the tiny lot of San Juan Capistrano’s homely, low-slung city hall. Though he holds no elected office, Gates spends a good deal of time there. In the early part of this past decade, he served as the point person for a developer seeking approval to build on open tracts at the south end of the city. In 2005, though, Gates went from working with city hall to working forit, winning appointment to a committee that would look into how to preserve the town’s northwest open-space area. Within two years, the committee’s purview was widened to include allthe open space in the town. Among the members of the 14-member panel, Gates was appointed to hold an outsized role, as a member of the three-person Finance Subcommittee that would negotiate with private property owners.
San Juan Capistrano has long valued the idea of preserving open space. In the 1970s, the city won a legal challenge that prevented a housing development in what would become the city of Laguna Niguel from encroaching on the ridgelines overlooking the north end of the city. In the 1990s, the City Council spent part of a voter-approved $20 million bond to acquire one of the last remaining farms in South County. And Gates’ committee saw successes, too, acquiring 109 fallow acres for only $2 million in early 2008.
That same year, the committee and City Council backed two local ballot measures that would issue $30 million in bonds and prevent open space from being rezoned without voter approval. While campaigning for the measures, Gates wrote a column in the Capistrano Dispatch that drew on what he knew best: local history. “I was rummaging through an old trunk the other day, looking for a photograph,” he wrote. What he instead found was a yellowing newspaper article from 1975. In it, San Juan Capistrano citizens were interviewed about the need to preserve the town’s open space. “Again,” Gates wrote, “we, the citizens of San Juan Capistrano, have an opportunity to finish this 33-year-old debate on Nov. 4 by voting ‘yes.’”
The two initiatives passed with more than 70 percent voter approval. That number was shocking even to supporters, who weren’t sure whether residents would vote to raise their own taxes during a recession. “The community is our secret weapon,” Edwards says. “They rally themselves to support open space.”
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Despite the controversy it sparked, everyone seems to agree the riding park at the corner of Ortega Highway and La Pata Avenue is, at the very least, nice.
Leaving San Juan Capistrano heading east on Ortega, it’s on the right. Lemon trees sit as low green globes dotted with yellow, their waxy leaves rippling with the breeze. A wide field of grass stretches beyond. To the south, the land shoots up into a rambling slope bisected by power lines. Cutting the center of the 132-acre property is San Juan Creek, which turns turbulent after rain.
Rancho Mission Viejo has owned this land for more than 100 years, as part of the company’s 22,000 acres of land in unincorporated South County. Those holdings are what’s left of a privately owned empire that once included the wilderness that would become Camp Pendleton, as well as the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita and the communities of Ladera Ranch and Las Flores—all of which were planned and developed by the Ranch or its subsidiaries.
In January, the city of San Juan Capistrano annexed and closed escrow on the purchase of the riding park. The cost was $27.5 million of open-space bond proceeds—a small price, some said, for the preservation of a property at the town’s eastern entrance that had hosted Olympic horse-jumping trials, polo games, weekend soccer matches and an annual rodeo.
The Ranch had planned to develop the property into a retirement facility, a housing development and a community park—all as part of its “Ranch Plan,” approved by the county in 2004, that will eventually lead to the construction of 14,000 new homes dispersed throughout the remaining tracts of land. Now, though, that parcel is a part of the city of San Juan Capistrano, where it shall remain as “open space,” though not everyone agrees about what that means. City officials are only now looking into what it actually wants to do with the property and are hoping it will generate revenue.
For the members of the Open Space Committee, though, the hard part is over. With this purchase, they’ve established their legacy.
* * *
“It will unfold as any great park unfolds,” says Tom Lunnen, a real-estate developer who sits on the Finance Subcommittee. “It’s a 100-, 200-year vision, that park. A hundred years from now, people are going to remember who Brad Gates and [fellow subcommittee member] Dick Paulsen were.”
Lunnen does not quite speak for all the citizens of San Juan Capistrano. “This polo field has been sold to the people of San Juan as open space, which is a word of magic, meaning whatever you want it to mean when you say it,” says Byrnes, the 85-year-old ex-mayor. “And we’re holding the bag.”
The past year has seen San Juan Capistrano’s gadfly contingent coalesce around the cause, speaking out against the city’s recent open-space deals. The riding park’s price and purchase conditions were too onerous for the city, they say. Plus, the council signed away the right to ever annex any additional portion of Rancho Mission Viejo’s land, as well as ever say one word—much less file a lawsuit—if the town leadership doesn’t like the manner in which the Ranch executes its plan to build 14,000 homes near the city’s border. And a large portion of the park’s acreage is already protected from development—raising the question of why the city needed to buy it to keep it “open.”
What’s more, critics point out the city didn’t prevent the construction of new homes by buying the property; rather, it just made it so those homes will likely be built somewhere else in the unincorporated land nearby. “The polo grounds are going to be surrounded by Rancho Mission Viejo communities,” says San Juan Capistrano resident Kim Lefner, a persistent critic. “It will be a park for the Rancho Mission Viejo community, not for us.”
Even Londres Uso, the city’s mayor this year, has expressed doubts about the deal—though he voted for it. “It would not have taken much for me to have said, ‘no,’” Uso says. “I wanted to buy that property, but there were just so many restrictions.” He points out a provision of the agreement that allows the Ranch to retake the property if the city violates those restrictions—which include limits on water use and the amount of traffic that can be generated by events held at the park. “They can repossess the whole damn thing without paying us a penny. That’s scary to me.”
Supporters of the deal, though, brush off critics as mere squawkers. They point out that the city got the property for below its appraised price of $31.1 million—and certainly below what the land would have been worth in a stronger housing market.
“In every community, there are complainers, there are builders,” Edwards says with a sigh. “San Juan, naturally, has a set of complainers. We’re shocked they find something to complain about with open space . . . because who can be against open space?”
“Some folks have taken a position of, they think we should have gotten a better deal from the Ranch,” says Mark Nielsen, a councilman who was mayor when the deal was approved and who sits on the Open Space Committee. “My answer is: I agree. I would have liked to have gotten it for less money. I would have liked to have had different terms. But at the end of the day, in any negotiation, you have to make a decision.”
Critics say they they’d be less worried if those negotiations had been conducted through the normal channels of government. When approaching property owners, Gates and the other two subcommittee members were acting as private citizens, not as official representatives of San Juan Capistrano, says city attorney Omar Sandoval. When the draft of the deal they helped to pen with Rancho Mission Viejo went to the City Council, though, Gates, Lunnen and Paulsen became designated “real-property negotiators” and sat in on closed-session meetings. The purchase agreement that was ultimately approved by the council was, by all accounts, nearly identical to the one the subcommittee had brought to it.
Through spokeswoman Diane Gaynor, Rancho Mission Viejo officials—including Moiso—declined to be interviewed about the transaction and the specific reason they decided to sell. But Gates says he thinks the Ranch saw a chance to cement its historical ties with San Juan Capistrano.
Others think the motives were less noble. “I don’t think there’s any question that the principal beneficiary is Rancho Mission Viejo,” Jim Reardon says. “Follow the money: $27.5 million of public funds is going to end up in the hands of the Ranch.”
Gates says that despite his close relationship with Rancho Mission Viejo, he and the other open-space committee members worked to get the best deal from the Ranch for San Juan Capistrano—not the other way around. “We’ve been friends, very strong friends—I’d be very clear about that—for many, many, many years,” Gates says of Moiso. “Friendship may get you in the door to get the conversation started. But from that point on, it’s a business deal.”
For now, most city leaders appear to be taking him at his word. State law requires elected officials, staffers and appointees in decision-making positions to file conflict-of-interest forms detailing many of their financial holdings. But when the Open Space Committee was established in 2005, it was done with the understanding that the committee would only exist temporarily and its members wouldn’t have to disclose anything.
That fact has also led to criticism. If Gates were benefiting from the Ranch’s sale of the riding park—perhaps through holding a stake in seeing the Ranch have more cash—how would anyone know?
“All I can do is say, the City Council set it up this way, and as a volunteer, I came to the table based on that circumstance,” says Gates, who says he doesn’t have a business relationship with the Ranch. “I’ll just tell you straight out if they weren’t set up that way, I might not have stepped up and offered my help at all in this process. Why would I want to reveal everything I own in the world when I’m here volunteering my time to do a good job for the city of San Juan Capistrano?”
To hear open-space supporters tell it, Gates’ close ties to the Ranch have been an asset. “In business, I’ve negotiated deals where I’ve found a former executive of the company that we’re trying to do business with, and I get them to help me negotiate a deal because of the relationship they have,” Nielsen says. “Because they know the players, because there is a certain amount of trust that exists between that company and that former executive, it gives me a leg up in the negotiation.”
Reardon snorts at that argument.
“Governance of a public body is not the same as running a business,” he says. “I run a business; I hire people all the time with conflicts of interest, and I look for them as advantages. When you’re governing a town, we have laws in this state that are supposed to assure us there’s transparency in government.”
* * *
It’s rare to see Gates sitting in the audience at a City Council meeting. Instead, he stands. Often wearing a windbreaker from Point Center Financial (the investment firm owned by the husband of state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey), he leans against the chamber’s back wall, taking quick glances at the door whenever someone enters or leaves.
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.”
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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!'"