The article you’re about to read is from our reporters doing their important work — investigating, researching, and writing their stories. We want to provide informative and inspirational stories that connect you to the people, issues and opportunities within our community. Journalism requires lots of resources. Today, our business model has been interrupted by the pandemic; the vast majority of our advertisers’ businesses have been impacted. That’s why the SC Times is now turning to you for financial support. Learn more about our new Insider’s program here. Thank you.

Board director authorizes TCA staff to send materials from public records request to FPPC

By Eric Heinz

Officials with the administrators of The Toll Roads raised eyebrows at a campaign the city of San Clemente put together to oppose construction of toll roads through the city—something that the agency also does in favor of traffic alleviation in the area.

Prior to the announcement at the Feb. 8 meeting that a new toll road proposal would be added to what the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) are studying in South Orange County, officials with the pseudo-governmental faction presented documents it obtained from a records request through the city of San Clemente.

Without making an official accusation, the TCA presented a series of emails, slides and other documents that showed San Clemente approved to spend $100,000 for consulting services from Englander Knabe & Allen as well as at least $29,700 for a voter survey to gauge opinion on traffic mobility, which was viewed by some TCA board members as political in nature and therefore using public funds was not permissible.

“The survey presents negative and misleading information, and I found it incumbent to make the board aware,” said Alex Avetoom, the vice president of Venture Strategic public relations firm, which works with the TCA.

TCA did a similar survey in 2017 that questioned people living in San Clemente as well as other areas of the county. TCA plans to spend $828,000 on marketing and advertising in its FY 2018 budget to promote its own interests.

The TCA may not collect sales and property tax, but it does receive funding through development impact fees, and Caltrans—the state’s road transportation authority—maintains the roads, which are paid for by the public.

Over the summer, the TCA had planned to spend $5,000 on advertising at the San Clemente Ocean Festival, but following an outcry on social media and at City Council meetings calling for a boycott of the annual festival due to the advertisements, the city decided to refund the money to the TCA.

Mike Chesney, the chief strategy analyst, said the part of the research TCA does in its study of the toll road ideas is to ensure “accurate” information is disseminated to the public.

Money through TCA marketing was used for a direct mail series campaign, social campaign, digital and print ads, and community outreach meetings, according to the presentation.

Fallout from the presentation

Following the presentation, Ed Sachs, a Mission Viejo City Council member and the chairman of the Foothill/Eastern Corridor Agency, directed the TCA staff to send the materials to the California Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC), which enforces governmental proceedings. It wasn’t clear whether they would submit the materials as a complaint.

San Clemente City Council member Kathy Ward objected to the presentation.

“I resent the accusations that I think you’re trying to make that San Clemente is working internally with the public, that the public doesn’t have their own views and can’t figure out the same facts that we have figured out,” Ward said.

TCA staff presented a series of documents from a public records request as well as screenshots of social media pages dedicated to combating any toll roads through San Clemente at the Feb. 8 joint board meeting. Photo: Eric Heinz
TCA staff presented a series of documents from a public records request as well as screenshots of social media pages dedicated to combating any toll roads through San Clemente at the Feb. 8 joint board meeting. Photo: Eric Heinz

Steve Swartz, a San Clemente City Council member and the city’s representative on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency (SJHTCA), said the efforts San Clemente has put forth are similar to the TCA’s.

“It’s shocking that we should spend that kind of money (on consulting), yet what brought this to our attention and what brought this to a head was the money that the TCA has been spending with its consultants to put a spin on how San Clemente is creating a stop for the entire county as far as traffic flow, when all we are really trying to do is protect our kids, protect our canyons and protect the land that has been set aside already for development that is already there,” Swartz said. “I have no problem with a 241 connection down south, so long as it doesn’t tear through established and built communities, and this is what all these plans are doing that the agency has brought forth.
“My question is how can you say that the TCA and what it has been doing with its own consultants and spin-doctors is any different than what we have been doing in response to what the TCA has been doing to our city?” Swartz continued.

Avetoom said there was misinformation in the documents provided by the city.

“I believe that a full review of the exhibits would present incredibly important factors for this board and its mission to take into account,” Avetoom said. “The documents speak for themselves.”

Amid the fray, TCA officials also pointed to social media efforts from organizations such as “Not My Toll Road” that have targeted members of the TCA board and criticized the plans for a San Clemente toll road. Slides were presented from screenshots of the Facebook page.

When asked if the TCA was insinuating the city had paid these organizations, spokespeople from the TCA said they weren’t making that connection.

On the other side, members of the opposition have pointed to accounts of people they believe are in league with the TCA.

Additional opinions

Terry Francke, the general counsel of the open government foundation Californians Aware, said he didn’t see anything that could be illegal, but he did say the way the contract was forged could be called into question. The money was not used in a political campaign or election, and therefore what the city did may not be illegal.

San Clemente City Council put the item on its meeting agenda in July, but there was no discussion on it, and it was added as a revised item before the meeting. On consent calendars, the public can call for the City Council to discuss the item, but no one did.

“If (the expenditure) is not related to an issue on the ballot, then it’s just spending public funds to sway public opinion; however improper that may be political, it doesn’t, as far as I can see, violate any laws,” Frank said.

Click here to see the full video of the TCA presentation (Item VI.12, Time: 59 minutes, 22 seconds)

San Juan Mayor Pro Tem Brian Maryott, who is the city’s representative on the F/ETCA, questioned the reasoning and motive of the board in bringing the items from San Clemente to the floor.

“TCA can take someone’s home with the stroke of a pen, and we’re going to fault them for hiring a public relations firm?” Maryott asked. “On a broader basis, what are we doing? This makes no sense to be in this battle mode now and sunk to this level. Our motivation is to get regional transportation advanced, and their motivation is to protect their homes. I don’t begrudge them fighting their battle.”

Mike Kraman, CEO of the TCA, said because the TCA determined the information to be misleading, they decided to present it at a public meeting.

“We find it disappointing San Clemente City Council engaged in a campaign of misinformation and putting out a poll that tests the misinformation to see which is the most effective. We are not here to say right or wrong, but to merely inform you that our challenge is getting the right information out there, to finding a balance to our traffic problems and why it is important that we have a robust communication to get that information out there.”

Weighing in on the friction, Save San Onofre Coalition, which has traded barbs with City Council regarding a settlement and protective agreement with the TCA, released a statement within hours following the TCA presentation.

One of the excerpts from the TCA’s presentation noted the $28 million that is set aside in a trust for mitigation efforts. The money is only to be expended on items that have approval from all entities involved in the settlement, which had been ongoing in the courts for more than a decade.

“Today’s disclosure that the San Clemente City Council unanimously approved a taxpayer-funded, negative PR campaign against the environmental organizations and thousands of residents who fought to save San Onofre State Beach is deeply disturbing,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager of the Surfrider Foundation, in a statement. “Based on what we know to date, this misleading $100,000-plus PR campaign was designed to pit San Clemente neighbor against San Clemente neighbor. It represents a shocking waste of taxpayer money. San Clemente residents deserve better.”

FPPC officials at the media hotline said they were not authorized to speak on the record about the matter.

This is a developing story. More information will be provided when it becomes available. 

Article has been corrected to reflect that Save San Onofre Coalition sent the press release within hours, not minutes, since the end of the hearing. 

Trustworthy, accurate and reliable local news stories are more important now than ever. Support our newsroom by making a contribution and becoming a subscribing member today.

About The Author Staff

comments (10)

  • How come you did not write about this?
    At today’s TCA Board Meeting, it was officially revealed in Agenda Item 12 that TCA operatives from Venture Strategic have shifted tactics beyond the scope of “informing the public” to surveilling the public.
    VS’s Alex Avetoom, with Jeff Corless lingering behind him, admitted to surveilling this and other citizen FB pages and social media, apparently for the purpose in today’s TCA Agenda Item 12 of publicly attacking the veracity and legal/ethical nature of citizens and City of San Clemente. Avetoom and Corless never seemed to use their own identities to troll and surveil us, though several fake-user profiles have been discovered lurking on these pages. Avetoom reported openly that their surveillance uncovered several instances of private citizen-posted information TCA didn’t like (!), and also spawned multiple deeper opposition-research actions TCA and its agents have already executed against citizens and City of San Clemente. TCA Directors recently awarded a $1.8 Million contract to Avetoom’s group which has funded this surveillance. NOTE: TCA has long collected “Development Fee” taxes from citizen in South OC to help fund its operations.

    TCA’s agent Avetoom, under the pre-planned Agenda Item, then made several serious implications of wrongdoing against the City of San Clemente simply for engaging consultants in its need to respond to TCA’s threats to its citizenry. Clearly triggered in advance(?) or in the moment by Avetoom’s attempt to publicly besmirch San Clemente, Directors Shea, Beall, and Wong immediately and emotionally went on the record to make strong accusations of illegality, and to personally shame fellow directors who Shea admonished “should have known better!” At the point in time when Director Shea made her serious accusations and publicly rebuked her fellow director, it should be noted that Ms. Shea had presumably not yet actually READ the many pages of supporting materials handed to her by Avetoom.

    “WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING??” In response to Avetoom’s admission of opposition surveillance and Shea accusations and rebukes, Director Marryot stopped the meeting cold by loudly asking the TCA surveillers, accusers, and rebukers, “WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING?”. Clearly, for Director Marryot and most in the room, the acts of surveillance and spurious accusations were beneath the mission of TCA and beneath acceptable political behavior. Other Directors joined in to objection to TCA’s Agenda Item 12 tactics. A citizen presentation at the start of the meeting detailed a tangled web of political actors including TCA’s Venture Strategic that she found suggestive of corrupt behavior. Director Moreno referenced that citizen’s research in following Dir. Marryot’s great question, saying he recognized names of consultants and lobbyists on the citizen’s web from his city’s dealings, and that he could easily see them conducting nefarious acts against others.

    TCA and its agents like Venture Strategic have abandoned their stated mission of engaging and informing the public, and have in today’s meeting proven they have already shifted to surveilling and attacking citizens who dare to disagree. If there is a crime here, it’s that TCA’s agents are paid to do these things against us while our Development Fee taxes collected from us help fund TCA.

  • San Clemente has done nothing but stand up to the bullies who are trying to illegally shove a Toll Road through their town (where it is not needed) and those trying to gain financially from doing so (i.e. Surfrider, San Onofre Coalition, TCA, Venture Strategic, Lisa Bartlett, Christina Shea, Ed Sachs, etc.) Stefanie Sekich has sent harassing, demeaning and threatening emails to citizens of San Clemente who are opposed to the Toll Road extension through San Clemente and has been corrected for spreading misleading and blatant outright lies about the city of San Clemente and their lawsuit. She will stop at nothing to collect the $28 million promises to her by the TCA to spend on her pet projects if the 241 Toll Road is constructed to connect with the 5 freeway through San Clemente. Her knee jerk statement and the motivation behind it can be found very clearly in the sizable settlement agreement signed by the San Onofre Coalition. San Clemente has done nothing illegal and the TCA, San Onofre Coalition, Venture Strategic and all of the other slimey and greedy politicians involved in yesterday’s sad attempt to stop San Clemente citizens from rightfully fighting to save our town from an unnecessary Toll Road by our established communities, sports parks, schools and through our open space (home to endangered and protected species) are grasping at straws to try and censor the voice of our citizens. We will not be silenced. We will not stop our fight. The citizens of South Orange County deserve a voice in this process, despite the attempt of the TCA, San Onofre Coalition and the politicians financially benefiting from the TCA attempt to silence us. We WILL prevail.

  • I like what the two directors said:

    “My question is how can you say that the TCA and what it has been doing with its own consultants and spin-doctors is any different than what we have been doing in response to what the TCA has been doing to our city?” Swartz continued.

    San Juan Mayor Pro Tem Brian Maryott, who is the city’s representative on the F/ETCA, questioned the reasoning and motive of the board in bringing the items from San Clemente to the floor. “TCA can take someone’s home with the stroke of a pen, and we’re going to fault them for hiring a public relations firm?” Maryott asked. “On a broader basis, what are we doing? This makes no sense to be in this battle mode now and sunk to this level. Our motivation is to get regional transportation advanced, and their motivation is to protect their homes. I don’t begrudge them fighting their battle.”

    Secondly, the consultant DID put a spin on his report by saying that the only way the citizen Facebook page could have received the link to the draft survey was if someone from the Public Relations firm gave it to them. That is not a true or fully flushed out statement. You could google two names and get to that directory on the PR’s website containing that draft survey and other “internal” documents.

    Finally, that draft survey wasn’t any more misleading that calling a TOLL ROAD tearing through San Clemente a “Thorough Pass” as their survey did. Or calling TOLL ROADS Managed Lanes…

  • We are a family of four living in San Clemente. I’ve been surfing Trestles my whole life. Now I have two kids in High School. We all love SC AND Trestles and fought to stop the TOLL ROAD then and will fight to the bitter end to stop the destruction of our city by this CORPORATION that only exists to pay themselves for building toll roads. The undercurrent of awareness about this fight, in San Clemente, OC/SD and the surf community everywhere, is growing every day. When my 81 year old neighbor, who has lived in his home for 40 years, told me he’d go down with his shotgun before letting this town be forcefully attacked by the TCA, thats when I knew that passion and justice WILL WIN. The TCA racketeers have no idea how bad this will get.

  • What happened to SC was a purely contrived, poorly rehearsed ambush that did not go as planned. I presented to the Board in earnest earlier in the day regarding the TCA’s troubling tactics using social media to “follow” unsuspecting residents on Instagram – even before the VS guys admitted to “surveilling” residents of SC (I’m sorry, are we pretending to be the NSA?) having been one of the people who found How’s the Drive, the TCA sponsored account (the government…) as a follower just days after opening an account (and immediately blocking because this was creepy and unacceptable. Government is to act under authority and with restraint, This is outrageous.) Oddly enough, 2 days after my presentation, it appears that How’s the Drive has suspended its Instagram account. Good call TCA. Start paying attention. The only explanation is that this was a blatant impropriety, unsavory or unethical at best, unlawful at worst. I can’t imagine the conversation that happened behind closed doors. Months ago, I had Brian Lochrie of Communications Lab (TCA related, OC’s boy, according to PRA’A, he’s in charge of Roses and Radishes) somebody who ‘likes’ Brian Harringon’s FB page posts Citizens for Traffic Relief that regularly blasts San Clements residents as NIMBY’s somehow responsible for the housing crisis, likening us to North Korea or drunk and dramatic Bravo scripted OC Housewives- and let’s talk about Jennifer Fitzgerald and her employer Curt Pringle, the registered lobbyist who has an employee heading the SOCEC, recipient of TCA money since TCA wants to buy the benefits of Gold Chair status) removed from the closed Talega Topics Facebook page because there was no reasonable, good faith reason for him to be there- to be concerned about finding a plumber in our community or the drought resistant landscaping change to our HOA policy? Forget the scandal about Locrhie contacting SC residents via another FB page and the alert to TCA’a attorneys with the response that women are free to decline… thank you… that’s not the point. This is the troubling new cyber stalking of San Clemente employed by TCA, PR spinners and lobbyists, with a clear target manifesting itself in our community’s women. The poorly presented nonsense by Avetoom and Corless, who was also lurking behind me during an interview, just shows how unprofessional and flailing these guys are. I hope some of the members of the Board have a solid Come to Jesus with what this agency is doing, because it is unethical and fundamentally unAmerican. It’s gross. I watch these PR kids alienate San Clemente, the same voter base that they need when it comes time for supervisor and Congressional elections, and I shake my head in pity. Kids, you just stepped it in big time. And we don’t forget.

  • The story here is SPYGATE… the covert surveillance of private citizens personal and group social media by TCA operatives with a history of civil rights violations, when their mission is to “inform” the public – not use fake profiles and covert operatives to surveil them.

    Anytime a Director in a meeting is compelled to yell at Venture Strategic TCA staff: “What the HELL are we doing here??” and that sentiment is echoed by other Dorectors, then you know there’s been a disaster committed by TCA against citizen Moms and Dads and Families.

    When 3 other directors jump from Venture Strategic inuendo to wild accusations of illegality and public shaming of fellow Directors – having NEVER EVEN READ the supposed materials supporting the inuendo, then you know a disaster has been committed by TCA and you since premeditated collusion. This might be a bit less concerning had Director Shea – she of the hairtrigger accusations and public shaming – weren’t already a loser in recent Civil Rights litigation… to the time of hundreds of thousands of dollars. .

    THAT is the story of the day, and any who doubt that must watch the video, Agenda Item 12, on the video posted at the Toll to see for yourself.

    This is pseudo- government gone very bad.

    Reminds me of the TCA meeting where CEO Kraman accused Saddleback College Police of. Wing the June 5 Civil Rights VIOLATORS when in fact it was his own Venture Strategic henchmen who conducted unlawful search & seizure of private possessions and suppressed free speech AS A CONDITION of even joining a public meeting!!

    See a pattern???

  • The real STORY here is that TCA political operatives from Venture Strategic are admittedly surveilling private citizens in many social media platforms, and have apparently created and used fake profiles to do it. (Surveillance without using REAL profiles to LURK and spy) . The intent of Venture Strategic – TCA’s Paid Operator – was clear when Avetoom used their illicitly gathered “opposition” research to tee up serious inuendo, which Director’s SHEA, BEALL and HUANG immediately (pre-planned?) seized upon with serious ACCUSATIONS of illegality by San Clemente, and with less than civilized public rebukes of fellow Directors. SHEA had not yet actually READ the materials that Avetoom handed out yet, but was certain enough already that she was comfortable attacking her peers and TCA “constituents” whom she clearly attacks as “opposition”. (Or HAD she been made aware??) .
    How is TCA doing on claims of “transparent, open, and engaging public input”???
    Spying and attacking to discredit and steamroll over citizens who dare disagree.

    If ANY doubt the severity of TCA’s and Venture Strategic GUTTER politics, WATCH THE MEETING VIDEO YOURSELF at under Agenda Item 12… you’ll hear the outrageous SPYING tactics and more outrageous hair-trigger attacks by the oft-sued SHEA… AND you’ll hear fellow Directors stand up to such GUTTER POLITICAL hacking by asking TCA’s surveillors and attacking Directors: “What the HELL are we doing?”… and other Directors comment that these political operatives are known to be capable of “nefarious” tactics against opponents.

    Political incest connecting power to cash to spying on private citizens to crush opposing voices… WOW.

    THAT is the story.

  • Not One More Inch! My house is not your to take! And I’m not letting the TCA have it without a fight!!!

  • To set the record straight and prove that Alex Avetoom lied at the TCA meeting. I found the survey on a very public google website by typing in the name Lucy Dunn/TCA! It was not a private backed website like Alex would have liked the Board to believe! the survey on the top is labeled Orange County Voter Survey that I found:not San Clemente survey! Our City Council has not fed us misinformation is not trying to sway our opinion on these matters nor are they giving us information to share on our Facebook page. We have been doing our own research and sharing information pertinent to our fight to save our city against the toll road trying to come through it.while flattered that you think our work is that good that you think we are a hired PR firm like Venture Strategic or someone else making millions we are only homeowners trying to save our homes and protect our children from the TCA! Our city council also is only trying to help protect our city and the residents who live here! Thank you for allowing me to set the record straight!

  • The February 8th Transportation Corridor Agencies’ Board Meeting was very eye opening! Agenda Item #12 revealed that the TCA consultants from Venture Strategic (the marketing firm which has been awarded a $1.8 Million contract) have abandoned their mission of engaging and informing the public and are now “following”, trolling and surveilling private San Clemente citizens on Facebook and through their social media accounts. Was this tactic voted on/ approved in one of the previous board meeting?? Alex Avetoom, Vice President at Venture Strategic, presented information gathered during this “opposition” surveillance and tried to build a case against the San Clemente City Council, suggesting they are engaging in some illegal action to promote opposition against the TCA and 241 toll road extension. San Clemente has done nothing illegal and the RESIDENTS have every right to fight to protect their city and stop the TCA from forcing an unnecessary toll road though their neighborhoods and near schools and parks. The citizens of south Orange County deserve to have their voices heard and the low tactics of some of the TCA’s board members, Venture Strategic and other hired consultants will not stop residents from exercising their right to protect their town.


comments (10)

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>