21 Aug 2014
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Commissioners Call Out Whittingham For Getting Political

Planning Commissioners Jim Eakin and Brad McGirr think Peter Whittingham should stick to business and not politics. Eakin says commissioners owe the residents "a higher standard."

It's a rare occasion when someone on the Planning Commission calls out another commissioner, but it happened twice when the five-man group met on Wednesday at City Hall.

The last 13 minutes of the 52-minute meeting turned out to be quite stirring as Jim Eakin, sitting to commission chair Peter Whittingham's right, and Brad McGirr, sitting to Whittingham's left, were diplomatically critical of Whittingham.

In particular, they were bothered that Whittingham—who sits in an appointed position by current Mayor Pro Tempore Steve Baric—had attached himself to the so-called Voters' Bill of Rights petition that is afoot and alleges that the city has a poor business environment.

"I don't appreciate the comments that are inconsistent with the intent of this commission, the good faith goals of this commission, and I would certainly hope they would not go on," McGirr said. "I don't think it's appropriate."

McGirr opened his comments by saying that he knew what time of year it was, a reference to the political posturing that will accompany election campaigns.

Whittingham and the other person most active in the movement, Dove Canyon Courtyard owner Kenney Hrabik, have taken possession of Form 501 from the city clerk; filling it out is the first step toward launching a campaign for city council.

McGirr, Whittingham and Hrabik were all finalists for Gary Thompson's vacated council seat that was appointed to Carol Gamble. Eakin applied but was not one of the top six.

The Bill of Rights, in its current form, is a petition to put term limits for city councilmembers and the elimination of their health benefits on the ballot in the November general election. It has not yet been certified, Whittingham said Wednesday.

However, earlier this year when trying to raise awareness for the Voters' Bill of Rights, which originally included six items, none of which actually had anything to do with the city's business environment, it was done so with a written introduction—circulated via e-mail as well as in-person—that blamed the city's poor business climate for the need for change:

"Rancho Santa Margarita is a great place to grow up. An awesome hometown. Unfortunately, according to national sources, El Centro, Bakersfield, Philadelphia and even New Orleans are more job friendly. New Orleans! ... With some quick changes, our Council can make our government reflect our neighborhoods—conservative, job-friendly, and welcoming to small businesses."

The Milken Institute was the national source eventually cited, however it did not use statistics from Rancho Santa Margarita but instead used figures from Orange County (Anaheim, Irvine, Santa Ana).

A second item referenced by Eakin claimed that funds earmarked for councilmember benefits could instead go toward "protecting our kids from predators and fixing the traffic that adds hours to our commute every month."

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Neither Eakin, nor McGirr, were aware of traffic congestion issues in RSM, coincidentally on a night in which the council voted 5-0 to take on more oversight of traffic issues in the city.

"We have a $1.2 million surplus, $19 million in reserves, we've been voted the safest city, we have In-N-Out, Cinepolis, BJ's, Crown Books ... I want it known that as a commission, that we have a pro business climate," Eakin said. "I don't know what the economies of Philadelphia and New Orleans are, but I think we're doing great in Rancho Santa Margarita."

Actually, there are several other businesses that have opened in RSM since this council was seated, including Sears Appliance Showroom, ACT Learning Labs, Marque Urgent Care, and Embarcadero restaurant. Additionally, other businesses that have declared their intent to open in RSM—but not mentioned by Eakin—include restaurants Bruxie and Mi Casa and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Grocery.

Cinepolis Luxury Theaters has committed $7 million to renovate the old Edwards 6 Theater; it hopes to open by the end of summer.

Eakin was also critical, and cited flaws, of a letter dated March 16 that he quoted thusly: "It was time to close the loopholes and spend our tax dollars on protecting our kids from predators and fixing the traffic that adds hours to our commutes every month."

So, too, was McGirr.

"I must say that in the last few months I am somewhat frustrated and frankly somewhat offended by some of the things that I have seen that have gone out in the press and have been published and are now in the public record across the hall...," he said. "I challenge anyone to cite one occasion where we've turned down a business that has come to this city, come to this commission, seeking a Conditional Use Permit. ... We've actually modified the conditions to expand the opportunities for businesses."

Whittingham did not respond from the dais, other than to say thank you to each commissioner.

"I'm not going to respond to that," Whittingham told Patch afterward. "It's not the appropriate forum."

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