By C. Jayden Smith
San Clemente Councilmember Kathy Ward, who’s nearing the end of her tenure as an elected official, is looking forward to spending more time with family and friends in the future, as well as enjoying time at the beach.
Sitting down with San Clemente Times this past week to talk about her career in local politics, which spans eight years, the outgoing councilmember described her experience on the council as positive and rewarding, despite the amount of work it required and the unexpected challenges she faced.
“I was just surprised about things that happened suddenly that we didn’t know were coming,” Ward said, referring to issues such as dealing with new sober living homes and the city’s drawn-out battle against the Transportation Corridor Agencies. “So, that’s been the extra challenge to the things I thought I was going to do.”
Ward, who opted not to seek a third term this November, expressed how honored she was that her colleagues chose her to serve as mayor of San Clemente twice, in 2017 and in 2021—with the most recent stint, she acknowledged, coming at a time when there wouldn’t be many public appearances at events.
Having first joined a council full of previous mayors in 2014, she was initially terrified of taking on the role. However, the honor she felt came from knowing her fellow councilmembers trusted her, Ward said.
“Last year, mainly what I tried to do was get the city (and the council) on a good footing and try to teach the new ones the procedures and how we do things,” she said.
Ward added that though some departments are not fully staffed—a goal she wanted to achieve—the city is actively working on filling positions.
With a tendency to encourage her colleagues to stick to how past City Councils have conducted businesses, her emphasis on such precedents comes from the belief that council meetings are supposed to be “high-level business meetings” of the city that avoid matters staff are capable of handling.
The council should stick to directing policy and approving budgets that allow staff to know their jobs ahead of time and perform, according to Ward.
Ward also spoke about topics that saw her receive additional public light in comparison to typical council business.
She played a critical role from 2015 onward in protecting San Clemente against the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which had proposed a series of routes, or alternatives, to connect the 241 Toll Road to Interstate 5.
Some of the proposed routes looked to have the 241, which presently ends at Oso Parkway, extend to the 5 Freeway by cutting through San Clemente, as well as parts of San Juan Capistrano,
After years of meetings, workshops, study sessions, and outcry from the San Clemente community, the Foothill/Eastern arm of the TCA, which oversees the 133, 241 and 261 Toll Roads, voted unanimously in March 2020 to pursue the extension of Los Patrones Parkway as an arterial, non-tolled and county-owned route.
Los Patrones, which begins where the 241 ends, is being planned to extend further south through the neighboring Rancho Mission Viejo and end at Avenida La Pata, stretching roughly 700 feet within the San Clemente city limits.
“There was just no choice in the matter at all; you had to fight it,” Ward said.
She added that in conversations with TCA officials, she insisted the TCA wouldn’t be able to build any extension to the 5 Freeway within San Clemente. Ward also credited the city staff, City Attorney Scott Smith, and the residents for their nonstop, determined battle against the proposed extensions.
The city’s official termination of its relationship with the TCA in 2021 came when the agencies’ organizational committees continued to bring up a potential extension, according to Ward.
A working group of Foothill/Eastern TCA board members drafted a proposed policy in April 2021 to provide future guidance on initiating studies related to further extensions of the 241, which both Ward and Mayor Gene James strongly opposed, as Ward claimed the policy was created “in secret.”
“They (didn’t) include us on what they’re doing, so that’s when we said, ‘We don’t believe in your mission anymore. And we don’t want to be a part of it,’ ” Ward said.
Ward’s tenure on the council wasn’t without controversy, either.
One dispute with a resident, Tony Rubolino, reached a boiling point in January 2019 when Ward filed a police report citing a March 2018 council meeting, where he spoke during public comments with a machete holstered to his hip as a prop—an action, he was told by the city’s then-police chief, was against the law.
In her report, filed 10 months later, she claimed she felt “uneasy” about Rubolino, who “frequents the City Council meetings,” and cited the March 6 meeting where he brought the machete. She said in the following months, Rubolino had mentioned her name on Facebook leading up to the 2018 election, but said the context had been strictly political.
“Kathleen said she had been thinking about the machete Anthony brought into the City Council meeting, and that she was getting a physical ‘reaction’ from it,” the police report stated.
The report was made public in May 2019 after Rubolino called on the City Council to remove Ward from her committee assignments. He also explained that he had used the weapon as a prop to represent the behaviors transient people arriving in San Clemente at the time were engaging in.
“This is an elected official going after a private citizen,” Rubolino said then. “By filing the police report, Kathy attempted to intimidate me into not speaking at City Council—that is my belief.”
The police report noted that Rubolino had never spoken to Ward personally, and that Ward admitted the two had zero contact outside of City Council meetings or social media forums.
Another incident that garnered media attention occurred in June 2019, when Ward walked out of a June meeting involving a pending police services contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
She told SC Times that she felt the newspaper’s initial story on the matter, entitled “Ward Walks Out, City Left Without Police Contract,” painted her as in opposition to the contract, when instead she opposed Councilmember Laura Ferguson’s motion to cut 5% from other areas of the city’s fiscal year budget.
Before the council reconvened at a special meeting later that month to approve the contract, OCSD Sheriff Don Barnes wrote a letter to the city about his disappointment regarding the contract’s status left in limbo.
“For the past 26 years, we have served the residents of San Clemente with exceptional law enforcement services, and I have continued to do so through personnel reductions while, during the same time period, the city’s population has increased significantly,” Barnes’ letter read.
The sheriff added that his department would be privileged to continue to serve the city.
Given the budget had previously been approved, Ward said it was unusual and disrespectful to bring up the motion that would have resulted in cutting staff. Then-Councilmember Chris Hamm had already left the meeting and Ward wanted the full council to be present for such a decision.
With both Ward and Ferguson stepping away from the council this month, at least two new members will be seated following November’s Municipal Election. As of press time, Victor Cabral and Mark Enmeier remained as the top two vote-getters, projected to win the seats.
Councilmember Steven Knoblock, the incumbent, appeared set to hold on to his seat, maintaining a narrow lead over Donna Vidrine.
Offering advice to the incoming councilmembers, Ward said they should conduct themselves with respect to their office, the city, and San Clemente.
She added that conversations among councilmembers at the dais should never involve personal attacks, and councilmembers should ensure their colleagues are able to do their jobs effectively by setting up items ahead of time.
The previous councils in Ward’s first four years achieved more than councils in the past four years, she said.
“That was really by respecting all the boundaries and the policies and staff and doing the right procedures,” said Ward. “I think we made better long-term decisions where we got to really good steps for the future, where right now I don’t feel like we’re working on long-term.”
New councilmembers should also respect the city manager, who oversees the city’s operations, and should actively avoid the current dysfunction of the meeting process.
Ward’s plans going forward are to get back to her life before entering public service—when she was first appointed to the Planning Commission. During her days on both the commission and the council, she said, she would research until the early morning.
“The one thing I’m really happy that I did is … that every decision I made, I made it in mind with what was the best interests of the residents and the city,” she said. “I don’t think I made one bad vote. That was my goal … never to make a bad vote that I couldn’t live with, and I did it … I don’t regret any of them.”
Editor’s Note: Outgoing Councilmember Laura Ferguson declined a request to be interviewed for her own story ahead of her departure from public office.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.