Lance MacLean and the Slums of Mission Viejo
*This article was revised on March 30, 2009.
Proponents of the recall campaign against Mayor Pro Tem Lance MacLean say he’s trying to make the city . . . different
Apartments stacked upon apartments. Clotheslines with shirts and pants hanging from windows. A parking lot choked with cars and pedestrians. Looming over it all: The logo of Mission Viejo—a stylized tree—plastered on the roof in a gaudy decorative strip.
“That’s what they want to do right here,” says Connie Lee, holding a flier depicting all of the above, to a woman outside the Trader Joe’s off Marguerite Parkway.
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“Oh, my God,” the woman gasps. “That’ll turn this into a ghetto!”
Lee nods. “They want to change our city.”
That settles it. The woman grabs a pen off of the plastic table. Another supporter in the effort to recall Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Lance MacLean.
It’s March 20, the first day of signature-gathering to qualify the proposed recall [see “Go for the Throat!” March 6] for a citywide vote. Lee and fellow activist Barbara Anderson only set up their picnic table and banner 45 minutes ago; already, they’ve garnered more than 25 signatures. By Aug. 26, Lee and her friends will need to have turned in at least 9,393 signatures from verified Mission Viejo voters to get the recall on the ballot.
The flier with all the cars and apartments was inspired by a study commissioned by the city council in 2007. The council voted to spend $30,000 to have the Urban Land Institute (ULI) study ways to revitalize the Trader Joe’s shopping center. When the ULI suggested putting housing units above retail shops, members of the public protested. And the council did nothing. As in: They didn’t implement the recommendations of the ULI’s study. MacLean and other council members have since said they don’t favor city action to support a proposal to put residential units above existing retail developments.
And yet, on the recall group’s flier is a cartoon of a congested urban jungle above the words “Stop overcrowding NOW! Recall Lance MacLean.”
“They’re the camp of ‘If you tell a lie often enough, it becomes truth,’” MacLean says. Recall proponents insist that all their allegations against MacLean are based on indisputable public record. The truth is that the recall campaign advances an interpretation of that record. For example, MacLean is accused of allowing expenditures to exceed revenues in 2008 by more than $11 million. That’s true—but it’s also true city surpluses since 2004 offset that deficit, according to Assistant City Manager Irwin Bornstein.
MacLean is also accused of calling citizens “racist,” a reference to a 2004 Los Angeles Times article. The article said that MacLean had walked out of a planning-commission meeting in disgust after a group of residents protested an apartment-building plan because they feared that the proposed low-and-moderate-income housing would bring graffiti, gangs and drive-by shootings. A flier was circulated, featuring what "looked like" Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green housing projects and the words “Stop the Nightmare Before It Starts.” MacLean’s exact quote: “Apparently, Mission Viejo was too busy developing its master plan in 1965 and missed the civil-rights movement. . . . I’m embarrassed and disappointed that so many people in the community would engage in such exclusionary politics that border on bigotry and racism.”
While their computer-printout signs and suburban-leisure attire suggest grassroots gadflies rather than seasoned politicians, Lee and her friends know what they’re doing. Many of the recall activists have been outspoken in Mission Viejo politics for more than a decade. And in January, they turned in nearly 11,000 signatures to change land-use laws in Mission Viejo; on March 6, the Registrar of Voters announced that more than 8,000 of those signatures checked out as valid, which means the initiative could eventually reach the ballot.
The initiative, like many of the anti-MacLean allegations, is based on a simple mistrust of the city council. In 2007, the owners of Casta Del Sol golf course in Mission Viejo proposed a plan to build a retirement community on the golf course. After public outcry, the council voted to put a moratorium on any potential zone changes that would have allowed that to happen. But even with the moratorium and the golf-course owners dropping their plan in August 2008, some members of the community didn’t believe the city council could be trusted to protect Casta Del Sol. So they came up with the “right to vote” initiative, which would require any major zoning changes in the city to first be approved by voters.
Taking lessons from that campaign, the recall activists have grouped into five teams, each with a different function. Some will solicit signatures door-to-door; others will sit at storefronts. Lee says they’ve also got a guy who will spread the recall message to early-morning joggers around Lake Mission Viejo.
The organizational effort even applies to the message that activists spread daily. Before her first few hours of signature gathering, Lee jotted down three talking points: “anger,” “expenses” and “doesn’t represent us.” An altercation with a co-worker in 2007, a 100 percent pay raise for council members in 2008 and numerous costly decisions made over public opposition—these things will sell the recall, Lee says. But there’s a common theme to many of the conversations she has with passersby: Mission Viejo is becoming too crowded, too urban and too . . . different.
It’s rarely mentioned that no housing has been built in Mission Viejo since the late 1990s—years before MacLean was elected in 2002. It is true that he has voted to rezone some parcels of land for residential use, but those decisions were made—in part, at least—in order to bring Mission Viejo into compliance with state housing laws (the city was sued for noncompliance in 2006).
“The rules of this stuff are set against you as a public official,” MacLean said in February. “I can’t sue for slander; I can’t sue for defamation of character. They can say anything to anybody walking into the store: ‘Lance clubs baby seals; we want to recall him.’”
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