The San Clemente Council will soon be down one member, as Councilmember Gene James intends to announce that he will resign from local office this week.
James, who has served as a local elected official since first winning his seat in a 2019 Special Election, said he’s stepping down from the dais because he’s leaving the city and moving to Wyoming, as first reported by the Orange County Register.
“Serving the taxpayers of San Clemente for nearly four years has been an honor of a lifetime, and an incredible privilege,” James told the Register on Tuesday, April 25. “Every day as a councilmember, I have endeavored to live up to the principles of servant leadership.”
According to the report, James will resign effective on Friday, April 28.
James did not respond to San Clemente Times’ request for comment on Tuesday morning.
James is more than two years into his current term, which expires in December 2024. As the top vote-getter with 18.7% of the vote, he was reelected to the council during the 2020 General Election that also saw Chris Duncan, currently serving as town mayor, win the second available seat.
Acknowledging that neither he nor the city manager had received a formal resignation or announcement from James, Duncan on Tuesday morning expressed gratitude for his colleague’s service on the San Clemente City Council and wished James and his wife, Emmanuelle, the best of luck in the future.
While holding public office, which includes stints as mayor pro tem in 2021 and then mayor in 2022, James has made supporting local businesses and paying down the city’s unfunded pension liability top priorities, while also being mired in professional and personal controversies.
During the pandemic, he was supportive of business-assistance efforts like the outdoor dining program, which helped local eateries that were suffering from the inability to have customers inside stay afloat.
James and former Councilmember Kathy Ward were instrumental in the city’s exit from the Transportation Corridor Agencies—a move that was viewed by city officials at the time as another roadblock to prevent a potential extension of the 241 Toll Road through town.
Though hopes of bringing a hospital with emergency room services back to San Clemente have proven to be difficult, James was on the council’s Hospital Subcommittee that worked with medical industry professionals to determine potential paths forward.
Since taking a seat on the dais, James has also remained staunchly against any proposal to develop a homeless shelter in San Clemente, publicly denouncing what’s referred to as a housing-first approach—a method supported by homeless advocates to provide the unhoused with permanent supportive housing so they can begin to improve their quality of life.
Some of his proposals have also been divisive, most notably his push to have San Clemente declared as a Second Amendment Sanctuary City. After much debate, that proposal later evolved into a council-approved, non-binding resolution that instead declared the town as a Second Amendment Freedom City.
James’ departure from the council will require his fellow elected officials to decide whether to call for a Special Election or appoint someone to fill the vacant seat. Should the council move to hold a Special Election, it will mark the third one in five years.
James was elected to fill the vacant seat that the late Mayor Steve Swartz held until his death in May 2019. In 2020, another Special Election was held in conjunction with the General Election to fill the remaining two years left on former Mayor Dan Bane’s term. Bane resigned from the council in April 2020 to take a new job out of the state.
Duncan said it would be inappropriate to discuss any action the council may take following James’ departure other than to note that he hopes to be able to make such a decision at the next council meeting.
Murmurs of James resigning from the council began to circulate around town earlier this month. With word quickly spreading of the anticipated announcement, SC Times contacted James to inquire about what was at the time only a rumor.
“Mind your (expletive) business, (expletive). Print that,” James said in a phone call on April 17.
When pressed for a less combative response, James repeated the terse statement.
Shortly after the abrupt exchange, James emailed SC Times management to claim that it’s been his “practice” not to respond to the newspaper’s inquiries over the phone and provided a more reserved written statement.
“Any comment I have regarding my future, I would make during a regularly scheduled City Council Meeting,” he said in the email. “I have a number of things I look forward to accomplishing as a Councilmember.”
James’ curt response is, in part, indicative of the legacy that he leaves behind. No stranger to controversy, James’ tenure in office has been at times tumultuous.
In the lead-up to the city’s 2019 Special Election to fill a vacant council seat, eyebrows were raised when campaign mailers that the Republican Party of Orange County sent out in support of James falsely stated the then-candidate had received the Legion of Merit award for his military service.
James, a U.S. Army veteran who served for 20 years from 1972 to 1992, has maintained he was not involved with the mailers, stating that he never gave the OCGOP permission to circulate the campaign materials that incorrectly claimed he had received the medal.
Months after winning that election, James faced a lawsuit by San Clemente resident Jim Bieber, a former political associate of James’, over allegedly defamatory claims the councilmember had made about the plaintiff in a series of text messages with constituents.
Bieber this past December filed a request for dismissal without prejudice.
The Orange County Superior Court last month filed a judgment in the case, noting that with Bieber’s voluntary dismissal, James “is the prevailing party” and, therefore, entitled to recoup his legal costs from the plaintiff in the amount of $15,028.08, the March 20 court filing stated.
James became the center of another controversy following a June 2021 traffic stop, in which he was recorded in a confrontational encounter with a deputy sheriff, whom James had also accused of ulterior motives by suggesting the deputy had been acting on behalf of the former police chief.
In the nearly 11-minute recording of the June 25, 2021 traffic stop, James, who campaigned on a pro law-enforcement stance, denied any wrongdoing, and was—as deputies described in subsequent written reports—“confrontational,” “visibly upset” and “defensive.”
Following the news of the recording, Councilmember Steve Knoblock issued a scathing rebuke of James and his treatment toward the deputy, and subsequently called on the rest of the council to strip James of his mayor pro tem title.
Knoblock’s Sept. 28, 2021 motion—which was later considered at the Oct. 5, 2021 meeting and rejected by a council majority—led the two councilmembers to verbally clash following the meeting and reportedly escalated enough to prompt Knoblock to file a police report.
Knoblock had alleged that James grabbed him by the arm during the heated exchange. James refuted Knoblock’s recounting of the incident, stating that while he had reached for Knoblock’s arm to gain his colleague’s attention, James insisted “it was not assault.”
Speaking with SC Times after that late-September 2021 meeting, James apologized for his behavior toward the deputy sheriff, and expressed regret for his actions during the stop.
“I wasn’t at my finest moment. If I could take it back, I really would like to take it back. The deputy didn’t deserve that,” James said, adding: “I apologize to the community, and I apologize to the deputy.”
James hinted at his resignation from the council late last week, when he shared to the private Facebook group Crime & Safety a message he had sent to Family Assistance Ministries CEO Elizabeth Andrade.
“Next week, my house will be sold, and I will no longer have a San Clemente address. In order to stay on City Council, starting next Friday, I will start using FAM as my address, and I am buying a derelict RV that I will park in various location (sic) through the city. Please hold my mail and advise me on what time is mail call. The City Attorney concurs this will fulfill my residency requirements,” he wrote to Andrade. “Thank you for ALL you do and for the help you will provide me as a homeless person. Looking forward to your free food.”
Over the years, James has been critical of the local nonprofit that works to help financially struggling families stay afloat and prevent them from becoming homeless. Andrade on Tuesday morning confirmed that she did receive the email from James.
The council is scheduled meet again on May 2.