See Update No. 2 on Page 2 with the Orange City Council again rejecting Capt. Michael Merino's reappointment to the Planning Commission and a disappointed councilman supporter's letter to his colleagues. Update No. 1 on the next page has Mayor Tita Smith proposing more help for military veterans and countering assertions by Merino.
ORIGINAL POST, NOV. 26, 10:59 A.M.: When Orange City Councilman Denis Bilodeau recommended his nominee to the city's Planning Commission be reinstated at the Nov. 12 City Council meeting, Mayor Tita Smith asked the others on the dais if they would go for that.
Only Bilodeau responded in the affirmative to what is usually a routine and blanket approval. Now the councilman, a county supervisor and military veterans are making this a huge issue because the nominee, Navy Capt. Michael Merino, had given up his seat for a year to serve a deployment to Guantanamo Bay.
Worse still, the Nov. 12 council meeting landed a day after Veteran's Day festivities in Orange. Merino, Bilodeau, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and active and veteran members of the military will be holding a press conference at 3:30 p.m. at Orange City Hall to demand the naval captain's reinstatement to the Commission. That's an hour before the regular council meeting begins in the council chambers.
"I have received an outpouring of support from not just Orange residents and veterans, but from people across our nation and internationally," Bilodeau says. "I am heartened that so many believe, like me, that our military service personnel should have their jobs and status restored upon their return from the call of duty."
"I wholeheartedly support Councilman Bilodeau's efforts," Spitzer adds in a statement.
Merino says he's reluctant to campaign for a spot on the commission.
"It's really not about me--it's about the larger issue'' of how veterans are treated when they return home, he told City News Service. While Merino hopes "the council will do the right thing," he understands "there've been some rumors about some character assassination, but I hope that's not the case. If that's the case then I will get up and defend my reputation."
There are, of course, laws to protect the stateside jobs of members of the military reserves meeting their annual service obligations or deployed during wartime. But one volunteers for a seat on a city commission. Orange council bylaws do not require one's reinstatement to city panels after extended military deployments, but they do give the mayor sole authority to make appointments.
Smith does not appreciate that Merino, Bilodeau and their supporters are playing the veteran card, saying the move against reinstatement has nothing to do with military service. She called Merino's five years on the commission "a nice run" but added it's time for new blood.
Bilodeau and Merino call that hypocritical, noting the mayor served on the commission for 13 years before joining the City Council.
An architect, Merino is struggling to make ends meet because the combination of his service and the slumping economy dried up his business. He has taken a job with the Veterans Administration in San Diego.
He was mobilized/recalled into active duty for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Operation Southern Watch in 1995, Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and twice for Operation Enduring Freedom, in 2009 and 2011.
Some are reminded of Merino's military service every day. His banner is displayed on a light post in front of the Antique Depot at 155 S. Glassell St., two blocks from City Hall.
Upon his deployment to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in support of the global war on terror in January 2012, Merino requested a leave of absence from the Orange Planning Commission. The City Council granted the request "without reservation," according to organizers of today's press conference.
"Really, this is about taking care of veterans when they come home," Merino says, "especially now from Afghanistan."
UPDATE NO. 1, NOV. 26, 2:37 P.M.: Orange Mayor Tita Smith contacted the Weekly this afternoon to clarify why she and other colleagues on the City Council did not reinstate Capt. Michael Merino to the Planning Commission.
She also attached a press release to an email indicating she will propose more help for military veterans at today's council meeting.
"There is no question that Captain Merino would have continued as an Orange Planning Commissioner had he returned from deployment while his term was still active," Smith said.
"Captain Merino's appointment expired over a year ago and neither I or the council were inclined to give him a new term. I am deeply troubled that it appears Councilman Bilodeau is opportunistically using an issue as sacred as veteran protections to secure an appointment for a political ally."
Smith said Merino "never asked for or was granted a leave of absence. That is simply untrue. The council, under our previous mayor, unanimously accepted his resignation in January 2012. His term expired in June 2012 and a new commissioner was seated."
The new ordinance Smith is proposing tonight is based on one from 2001 authored by Orange County supervisors Jim Silva and Todd Spitzer, who ironically is participating in a press conference this afternoon calling for Merino's reinstatement to the Planning Commission.
The ordinance, which went beyond the federal USERRA regulations, protected military personnel's employment status, made up the difference between military and county employment salaries, and ensured continuous health-care benefits for active-duty servicemen and women and their families, Smith noted.
Her proposal goes farther, calling for new protections for elected and appointed officials by:
- Waiving absenteeism rules of committees and elected office that currently do not allow the city's elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members to be absent for more than three meetings;
- Allowing for short-term replacements or special appointments to serve in place of the city's elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members while they are on active- military duty;
- Guaranteeing reinstatement of the city's elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members if they return while their elected or appointed term is still active.
"As the daughter of a World War II veteran and wife of a Vietnam War veteran, I feel strongly that we should do all we can for those called to or returning from military service," Smith says. "It is my hope that these measures will ensure that those returning know the depth of our commitment to them."
She added that the City of Orange has never wavered in its support of active duty military personnel.
"We have been on the forefront of guaranteeing protections for those called and those returning from military duty," Smith said, "and will continue to do so."
UPDATE NO. 2, NOV. 27, 10:03 A.M.: The Orange City Council Tuesday night rejected naval reservist Capt. Michael Merino's bid to re-join the Planning Commission.
"I lost my battle last night," Councilman Denis Bilodeau informs the Weekly in an email, "but I take comfort knowing that I stood up for this serviceman. I felt a moral obligation to do so."
Bilodeau also labeled "false" Mayor Tita Smith's assertion (in Update No. 1) that Merino never asked for a leave of absence from the commission before leaving for a year's deployment to Guantanamo Bay.
The councilman asked that we share his letter, stamped as received by the City Clerk on Jan. 17, 2012, that was attached to the City Council's packet last night, with the plea "let your readers know the facts:"
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In case that was difficult to read, it has Merino requesting from Bilodeau a leave of absence from the Planning Commission post.