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By Shawn Raymundo

City council candidates participated in the San Clemente Historical Society’s virtual Q&A on Sunday, Sept. 20, touching on a myriad of issues, including the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a proposed homeless shelter in the open space, and ongoing efforts to revive the shuttered hospital.

To accommodate the crowded field of 18 candidates—10 for the General Election and eight for the Special Election—the Historical Society split the forum between the two groups, holding back-to-back sessions via Zoom.

Of the 10 candidates vying for the two four-year seats on the council, eight joined the forum: Chris Duncan, Bill Hart, Gene James (the incumbent), Thor Johnson, Patrick Minnehan, Charlie Smith, Aaron Washington and Jeff Wellman.

Six of the council hopefuls running for the two-year term—Tyler Boden, Jim Dahl, George Gregory, Laron Rush, Donna Vidrine and Zhen Wu—signed on to the Q&A.

Joseph Kenney and Jeff Provance Jr., who are running in the General Election, and Special Election candidates Steven Knoblock and Jerry Quinlan did not participate Sunday.

Historical Society President Larry Culbertson moderated the forum, giving each of the candidates one minute apiece for opening and closing remarks, as well as one-minute responses to every question.

Reacting to COVID-19

Culbertson led the forum by asking candidates to weigh in on how the city responded to the ongoing public health crisis. The consensus among the General Election candidates was the city did an adequate job, but felt certain closures—specifically, the beaches—were unnecessary.

“I don’t think we should have closed the beaches because getting out and exercising is important,” said Duncan, a former Homeland Security prosecutor. “One of the things that I think the city did well was supporting businesses by being flexible and allowing them to have a larger footprint, particularly on (Avenida) Del Mar.”

Duncan also said the city could have done more.

“We all needed to take extraordinarily, seriously the public safety dangers of the coronavirus, so that means all councilmembers and staff should support mask wearing and those kinds of precautionary measures.”

Smith, a corporate banker, echoed Duncan’s thoughts on the closures, noting that in the early stages it was difficult for government officials to determine what needed to be done and that quarantines were the right way to go.

“But as soon as we figured out what it was, I think the balance should have been the governing dynamic,” Smith said. “I don’t think our beaches should have been closed, I don’t think our parks should have been closed, and I think that our skatepark shouldn’t have been closed. I think we realized that if you were outdoors and socially distanced, that should be appropriate and keep us away from getting sick.”

Stating that the “pandemic has certainly tested the mettle of the city leadership, both elected leadership and city management,” Councilmember James noted that the state and counties had pushed certain policies on the cities.

“It was unfair that Walmart, Target and Lowe’s remained open and we closed Del Mar; that was a result of the state and the county,” James said. “The entire council fought against that, and I really am proud of what we did.”

Hart, a software sales director, reiterated James’ sentiments on the state’s mandates the city had to implement locally. He added that he also thought the city had a “mixed track record” when it came to responding to the virus.

“I think the city came down a little heavy-handed at first but quickly learned to back off … I think some the state mandates were not correct; for instance, closing the beaches, closing down the beach trail was heavy-handed,” he said. “I lean toward individual reasonability, along with individual freedom.”

Special Election candidates expressed similar feelings on the response, believing that the city did a good job given the circumstances and the regulations that were imposed at the state and federal levels.

“I do respect everything the city has done to protect us. They did follow county and state guidelines, and I think they did very well in that,” said Vidrine, a nurse and business owner. “We are reopening business and schools responsibly. I really applaud the city and what they’ve done. And I think they need to continue to be vigilant. COVID-19 is not over.”

Dahl, a retired fire captain and former San Clemente councilmember, said federal, state and local regulations weren’t always on the same page, and had caused confusion in how to adequately respond.

As a former firefighter, Dahl stressed his support for wearing masks before also expressing criticism of the city’s former interim city manager for implementing policies without the council’s consent or direction.

“The city council should set the policy, and the city manager should carry it out,” he said.

Wu, an architect and land planner who sits on the city’s planning commission, said the city has done a good job handling the pandemic locally, while acknowledging there were some inconsistencies and adjustments that needed to be made.

“But it’s a crisis so you can’t expect everything to be perfect,” Wu said, before going on to praise the city for naming an economic development officer to be a liaison between the city and business community, and for doing “quite a lot to help our businesses get back to our feet.”

For Gregory, a local contractor and businessman, the key to getting businesses reopened and running again is for everyone to wear masks. He also admonished young people he’s seen walking around without wearing masks.

“Please cover up; it’s a fairly simple process,” he said.

Nonprofit’s Homeless Shelter Plans

This past winter, Emergency Shelter Coalition acquired a pair of parcels, comprising 10 acres within the city’s open space, from the Rancho San Clemente Business Park to build a shelter for the homeless.

The sale of that land has since been challenged by tenants of the business park, while the city has also initiated an eminent domain process to acquire the land from ESC to complete a roughly 300-acre conservation easement meant to block a previously proposed 241 Toll Road extension.

Culbertson asked candidates whether they supported the city’s decision to condemn the land or let ESC build the shelter.

James, who has staunchly opposed the construction of a shelter in San Clemente, touted his vote to condemn the property, stating that he still supports that decision. He added that he has recently proposed the three cities of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano form a joint powers authority (JPA) and find county-owned property off Ortega Highway to develop a shelter, partnering with organizations such as Solutions for Change “to find solutions.”

Referencing his background in litigation, Duncan said the city is involved in too much litigation, particularly in cases where the city has “little chance in prevailing”—the eminent domain case being no different.

Duncan followed up to agree with James, stating that any development of a homeless shelter should be done as a regional approach. He added that a regional facility would satisfy the Martin v. City of Boise ruling that requires jurisdictions to offer shelter beds to enforce anti-camping laws.

“That’s what you need, to have law enforcement have authority to act, and enforce our anti-camping ordinances,” he said. “And so I’ve worked with law enforcement my whole life; what sheriff’s deputies don’t want is lack of clarity in what to do. Let’s give them that clarity.”

Smith, Johnson, a small business owner, and Wellman, a director in health care sales, all commended the council for voting to condemn the land and believed the homelessness crisis should be resolved regionally.

Smith said he’s “100% opposed to a homeless shelter here San Clemente” because “it creates an incentive to come into the area, which I think is inappropriate.”

Johnson said it was a great idea for the city “to try to take the property out of the hands of this nonprofit, which would have a homeless shelter” before echoing Smith’s comment on a local facility.

“I think it’s a great idea that we’re going to help these people who are having troubles in their lives, and they’re homeless, but we just can’t simply have it here in San Clemente,” Johnson said. “San Clemente is a beautiful town, and the nuisance that will be associated with the homeless shelter—a hippie village, whatever you want to call it—is just unacceptable here in San Clemente.”

“My solution,” he continued, “is shape up and ship them out, and it’s all about love, giving them all the resources they need, working with our regional partners, both publicly and privately in the county, giving them the resources that they need to get them going on their way, is the way to go.”

Wellman expressed support for James’ idea of a JPA, stating that homelessness should be a county and state issue and that a shelter facility should be located more centrally within the county.

“Centralized services to the homeless population need to be central to the county that it serves. I think a homeless shelter facility, as you will, needs to be centralized to the county,” Wellman said, adding: “San Clemente does not fall central into Orange County; it’s in the southernmost point.”

Except for Vidrine, all of the Special Election candidates supported the city’s decision and believed that the property should remain as open space.

“I think the city is wrong in trying to take that as eminent domain,” Vidrine said. “I think they’re involving us in a very costly lawsuit, and I disagree with that approach totally.”

Defunding the Police

The death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody this past May has since ignited a social justice movement across the nation, which has seen massive Black Lives Matter protests supporting racial equality.

Demonstrators have increased calls for law enforcement reforms while pushing for lawmakers and city officials to rethink spending on police departments by reallocating funds toward other services such as health care and education—a rallying cry largely referred to as “defund the police.”

Culbertson on Sunday asked the candidates what their thoughts were on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), the city’s contractor for police services, and whether its services have been satisfactory.

Hart started off by stating “nobody wants to see excessive force on the part of our police” before noting that such an institutional problem isn’t being seen among officers with OCSD. He added, however, that there needs to be improvement in the city’s relationship with OCSD.

“I’ve spoken with Sheriff (Don) Barnes about this, and I believe there is ample opportunity right now to hire a city manager who knows how to work as a team with our outside agency,” Hart said, adding: “The city council has to insist that we bring OCSD in, closer into our organization, as part of the team.”

Johnson said while he’s not for defunding the city’s contract with OCSD, he said the city should establish a set of programs meant to support community building and trust between citizens and the deputies.

The first program he proposed would encourage local citizens, born and raised in San Clemente, to become deputies with OCSD. The second proposal is to offer deputies not living in town a tax credit to move to San Clemente.

“What I would propose is for deputies that do not live here in San Clemente—I think that they should live and love the city that they serve . . . so a policy that I would propose is a property tax credit for these deputies,” he explained.

Citing conversations with Lt. Edward Manhart, San Clemente’s police chief, Washington said the deputies in San Clemente are “doing the best they can with the manning we give them.” Washington, a local businessman and retired Navy commander, said funding for adequate OCSD staffing should be protected.

“Manning is an issue. One of the things the city needs to do is get a minimum-manning written into law to protect their funding to provide the money that they need to keep our city safe, minimally,” he said, later reiterating: “I fully support them and I’m behind them.”

Responses from the Special Election candidates were mixed, with many supporting OCSD but agreeing things could be better, while others weren’t satisfied or believed San Clemente should revive its own police department.

Both Wu and Boden said they support the police services contract, but believed there was room for improvement.

For Wu, that improvement comes down to the city council and how collaborative members are with the department.

“I think the recent strain on the relationship is mostly the responsibility of the city. We do not have a collaborative city council,” he said, later concluding: “Once we get a new council here, the issue will go away.”

Boden, a local business owner, said the city should explore ways to accentuate the duties of the deputies and support their efforts on various issues, including homelessness. He further explained that would involve more collaboration with city services such as code compliance, homeless outreach and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

Dahl made similar comments to Wu’s, noting that there has been friction, but not necessarily with the council, but rather with city management. He said the solution will be to find a city manager who can help facilitate and improve communication between the two entities.

Gregory flatly said, “I think the department itself is doing a fairly poor job,” but he acknowledged that he admires the sheriff deputies themselves.

He added that the city consistently sees deputies rotate out of San Clemente and, therefore, aren’t building relationships with community members. He also proposed looking into establishing a regional police department with the neighboring towns.

Rush, a musician and businessman, said he believes OCSD “has been doing OK,” but supported plans to bring back a San Clemente Police Department.

The reason, he said, is because response times are too slow, and the deputies oftentimes don’t act quickly enough in San Clemente. Like Gregory, Rush said a local police force would increase face-to-face interaction between the community and officers.

“I believe we just need our own department so we know who the people are and get familiar with them, and they’d be around the community a lot, instead of having difference faces,” Rush said.

Reopening the Hospital

San Clemente has been without a hospital since 2016, when MemorialCare closed its medical campus on Camino de los Mares. Citing a lack of patients, MemorialCare looked to turn the facility into an urgent care location.

However, residents and the city council at that time rejected such a notion, advocating instead for an emergency room and hospital facilities. The city that year rezoned the parcel for emergency services, prompting litigation, as the medical provider claimed the “spot zoning” was unfair and made it difficult financially to support the hospital.

The city and MemoricalCare settled the lawsuit last year, providing both parties “broad latitude” to explore “a mutually acceptable solution for use of the property,” as well as “discussions with third parties or regulatory agencies relating to the current or future use” of the property.

The council last December voted to initiate a request for proposals process, seeking medical providers interested in taking over and operating the shuttered hospital. Only one group—Palomar Health—submitted an official proposal to get the hospital reopened.

Palomar, a San Diego County-based medical system, is proposing the issuance of a general obligation bond, which would be funded through local property taxes in order to pay for the relaunch of the hospital—a plan that would require a ballot initiative and two-thirds support from voters.

The council last month voted to fund a community survey to gauge the resident’s thoughts on the proposal.

The candidates discussed their thoughts on whether the city’s efforts have been worth the fight.

Minnehan, a chief information officer who’s had 34 years in health care experience, said, “No, it’s not worth the fight.” He further noted that MemorialCare was struggling to keep the doors open as revenues were down, and that he didn’t support a hospital.

Instead of a hospital, he continued, the city should support an “enhanced type of outpatient center, urgent care.”

“The reality is, I haven’t personally been in a hospital for care in over 16 years, but that doesn’t mean that my mother or grandmother doesn’t need to be in a hospital,” Minnehan said. “However, you have specialists up at Mission (Hospital); we can get them there.”

Washington agreed that the fight hasn’t been worth it, but that the city does need a medical facility nearby, as transporting patients to the nearest hospital, in Mission Viejo, has resulted in lost lives.

“It doesn’t hurt to have something there, but we have to make sure that we really look at it and get our bang for our buck,” Washington said.

San Clemente residents, Hart speculated, are unlikely to support a new property tax to get the hospital reopened. Hart, who was part of the group of citizens who waved signs trying to save the hospital from closing, acknowledged that the “free market is speaking very loudly” on the feasibility of a local hospital.

“We have gone through an RFP process twice in attempting to recruit partners for a hospital, and right now the free market is speaking very loudly, and it’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Touching on Hart’s point about a new tax, Smith said he wouldn’t want to support a hospital with tax dollars. Rather, he suggested putting out a new RFP, believing that the minimal responses the city received was perhaps a result of the current pandemic.

Wellman also said he wasn’t for raising taxes or accepting Palomar’s proposal “about us funding it for them so they can make a profit from it off our taxpayers’ backs.” He added that he would support other options for specialty care services.

“We need to make it hospitable for an organization to come in and take over our hospital or make it some type of outpatient surgery center or acute center that’s a specialty place,” he said.

Vidrine said she would like to see the city move forward with the RFP process, as well as supports invoking eminent domain to acquire the property and working with Palomar or any other interested medical operator to get the hospital running again.

Wu noted that for those living in the south side of town or on the edges, such as Talega, a trip to Mission Hospital is about nine miles, or roughly 20 minutes, putting certain patients in those areas at a lower risk for survival.

He said he would like to see the results of the survey and wonders whether a 67% majority of residents support Palomar’s proposal for establishing a health care district in San Clemente.

“If the survey comes back to be close to that 67% threshold, I will support to put it on the ballot, let the people decide,” Wu said. “If the survey is off, then I will not waste our money and time to go forward, and in that case, the only way going forward is to reverse the zoning and let the hospital do what it wanted.”

Boden echoed those comments, stating the city should find a balance between what the residents want and the proposals of the operators.

“If it needs to go to a vote of the city in order to move this thing forward, we can see what the residents truly want,” Boden said. “But we really just need to get moving on this project so that facility can get operating.”

Candidates also responded to questions on campaign endorsements and the city’s laws on business permits, among other topics. Click here to watch the full video of the Historical Society’s forum.

The candidates are slated to participate in another set of forums the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce is hosting early next month.

A forum for the Special Election candidates is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 1, at 6 p.m. A second forum, on Thursday, Oct. 8, will feature the General Election candidates.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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