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City Rejects Developer's Petitions to Put Dealership Conversion to Shops on Ballot

The city manager takes Theory R to task for not publishing the notice to collect signatures in the Coto de Caza News.

City Rejects Developer's Petitions to Put Dealership Conversion to Shops on Ballot

Rancho Santa Margarita city officials have rejected a developer’s efforts to put his plans to convert a former car dealership into a shopping center to a public vote.

Both the  Planning Commission and the  City Council have passed on the project, a proposed retail center on a 4.75-acre once occupied by a Nissan dealership.

Developer Theory R Principal Joe Daichendt turned in last week what he said were thousands of signatures from residents who wanted to put the matter on the November ballot, to change the zoning to allow for non-auto-related shops.

The issue has caused a major clash in town, with groups forming to support their positions: Save RSM(opposed to the development) and Free RSM, backed by Theory R.

City Manager Jennifer Cervantez told Patch the city clerk notified the backers that the petition was rejected because they did not publish their notice to collect signatures in “an adjudicated newspaper of general circulation in the city.”

“The proponents did not publish in that paper as required by the elections code,” Cervantez said. An obvious example would be the Coto de Caza News.

But Daichendt said the notice was published in Orange County Register, and it was at the very direction of then-City Clerk Molly McLaughlin.

He published the email chain here in which McLaughlin sends Daichendt a link to the Register, saying, “Hi Joe – here you go. They are great and very helpful.”

Now, “Essentially, [Cervantez] is saying that you can’t trust her or her staff to speak honestly, and that is lesson I have learned hard way,” Daichendt said. “I think the public will be best served if she never finds a government job again once she is kicked out of Rancho Santa Margarita.”

Cervantez, however, said the onus is on the petitioner to follow city rules.

“The proponent’s legal counsel acknowledged and agreed, prior to publishing, that it is the proponent’s responsibility to comply with the elections code, and specifically, this section.  The proponent also had requested and received, prior to publishing, copies of previous initiative submittals, both of which published in the Cota de Caza News.

“The email where the former City Clerk responded with the OCR, followed by another email indicating also the Coto de Caza News, does not negate the proponent’s responsibility to correctly comply with the Elections Code,” she said.

Daichendt said he now has two options: Force the city to accept the petitions by taking the matter to court or starting over again. Either way, he is confident the matter will go before the voters in Rancho Santa Margarita.

However, with the timing off, he’ll get blamed for causing the city to spend money on a special election.

“The opposition thinks the public will blame me for the $250,000 additional cost of a special election and, combined with the lower voter turnout, they believe they could get achieve more votes,” he said. “Even in that scenario they will still lose but will spend additional taxpayer dollars.”

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