Woman on a Mission
Mission Viejo Councilwoman Cathy Schlicht tries to deliver on campaign promises, but is running into an opposing majority
Mission Viejo Mayor Frank Ury has this look—you’ve seen it on both John McCain and The Office’s Jim Halpert—that signals he’s a little amused, but mostly annoyed. It’s almost a smile, or the beginning of an exhale. Cheeks puff out, chin elevates, lips purse, eyebrows raise. It appears to mean, “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with what you’re saying. I wish you would stop talking.”
It’s a look he flashes a few times at the Jan. 19 Mission Viejo City Council meeting, mainly in response to the sharper points of Councilwoman Cathy Schlicht’s proposal to rescind a 100 percent pay raise the council gave itself last October.
“When we pulled our papers to run for office, we knew how much the job paid, and for those who were re-elected, you were aware of the demands of the job,” Schlicht says, reading from an agenda item she proposed. “Our public-service positions should not be our primary source of income.”
There’s the look from Ury. Even though he’s silent, it’s easy to guess why he disagrees with Schlicht. She’s talking about a $500 raise for each council member, a raise that Ury supported. California law allows city councils to increase their salaries by 5 percent every year. Since Mission Viejo council-member stipends haven’t changed since the city’s incorporation in 1988, Ury voted for a plan to make up for lost time: Five percent multiplied by 20 years is 100 percent. That’s just $1,000 total per month, which, considering inflation since ’88, Ury might tell you, makes a fair stipend for the part-time council members.
Ury doesn’t actually say much of anything, though, after Schlicht speaks; he acknowledges a public speaker, and then asks if any council members want to further discuss the topic. They don’t. Councilman John Paul Ledesma rescinds his second of Schlicht’s motion. The proposal to roll back the raise dies without a vote.
Schlicht, a 55-year-old businesswoman who has lived in Mission Viejo for more than 25 years, is trying to deliver on her campaign promises but is running into the tough reality of parliamentary procedure and a council majority that has already decided upon most of the issues she wants to bring up. After criticizing the council during public-comment sessions for years, Schlicht ran for office in 2008 with citizen donations and door-to-door canvassing, defeating a field of candidates that included well-funded, well-connected planning commissioner Rich Atkinson and Judy Rackauckas, sister-in-law of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Among Schlicht’s campaign pledges were the rescinding of both the council’s pay raise and lifetime benefits for council members who served three terms. So far, her attempts at both have failed.
“There’s a difference between complaining and leading,” Ury says in a phone interview after the Jan. 19 meeting. “The other four council members are leading, coming up with ideas and visions and goals, and I think Cathy’s still on the other side of the speaker’s podium.”
Ury’s name may sound familiar to anyone who has followed local politics for a while. In 1994, he helped start the Tustin-based Education Alliance, a conservative group that opposes teachers’ unions and has played a major role in school-board elections throughout the county. He served a term on the Saddleback Valley Unified School Board, is active in the local Republican Party, and won election to the Mission Viejo City Council in 2004 (he was re-elected this November). He was appointed mayor at the same Dec. 1 council meeting at which Schlicht was sworn in. Since then, he has smoothly and matter-of-factly shut down a number of Schlicht’s proposals merely by enforcing council rules about motions and agendas.
“The way he’s conducting meetings is sanitized democracy,” Schlicht says. “He’s filtering it. It takes away any opportunity for discussion.”
Proposals Schlicht have gotten voted on by the six-person council have rarely fared well: Ury and council members Trish Kelly and Lance MacLean consistently vote as a bloc—usually in opposition to Schlicht. Perhaps coincidentally, those three are the only council members who could ever qualify for the lifetime health benefits, which Ury successfully pushed to rescind in May, and then reinstated in November citing concerns about being sued by a former council member.
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The back-and-forth on the benefits plan is hard to follow, but it’s not hard to see why Schlicht, who campaigned for open government and fiscal responsibility, would keep bringing the matter up. Coupled with the pay raise, a controversial $360,000 Rose Parade float for Mission Viejo and a recent reduction in city staff raises because of the worsening economy, the council’s spending choices, she says, serve as an “insult” to the community. Ury explains away concerns about all of the above by highlighting the fact that the council’s management has kept the city’s budget in the black even during California’s statewide money crisis. He says Schlicht’s complaints so far have been “symbolism over substance.”
Schlicht says she doesn’t expect the council to see things her way until the 2010 elections—or if a so-far-hypothetical recall effort against MacLean comes to fruition.
“Cathy is sincere and honest and enthusiastic,” says Ledesma, who is serving his third term on the council. “I think certain people have been rather rude to her, and she’s not one to just take it.”