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Our Thoughts on the San Juan Chamber’s Open Letter to the SJC City Council

The SJC Patch has published an open letter from the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce to the five members of the San Juan Capistrano City Council, attempting to broker a peace between the two warring Council factions.  The Patch article is here, and we’ve excerpted the text of the Chamber’s letter below:

Mayor John Taylor and Members of the Council:

On behalf of the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, I am writing to convey our organization’s hope to avoid the political divisiveness that is threatening our city’s ability to provide for the needs of the residents and businesses.

Recalls, litigation and investigations will be extremely costly and detrimental to the City Council’s ability to govern this community.  With those distractions looming, our leadership will be unable to properly address the issues that are important to the taxpaying residents and businesses.  As such, we would like to propose that a special meeting be held to consider the following proposals aimed at restoring civility and community-focused leadership for the city.

Our goal is not to assign blame or pass judgments but to promote simple, collaborative solutions for a number of issues so that our City Council and staff can resume their focus on working to enhance the community.

With that in mind, we respectfully propose the following:

  1. We ask that no sitting member of the council act as an attorney or otherwise provide legal advice or representation for any entity that is considering, pursuing or has filed legal action against the city. While the law may or may not allow this, we feel there is a conflict of interest and the needs of the community would be best served by establishing a clear line on this matter.
  2. We feel that any policies the city adopts regarding the distribution of newspapers, newsletters, etc. should be conducted in public with input received from the community. We suggest the city conduct a survey of other municipalities that have adopted similar ordinances and (if the law allows) find one that, with minimal alteration, can be appropriately implemented here.
  3. We urge all five members of the council to reconfirm their commitment to Brown Act compliance. The Brown Act protects the public’s need for government transparency and ensures that the council can appropriately work together when confidentiality is required. We recommend that all five members of the council participate in a Brown Act “training” of some kind by a professional in this field.
  4. We ask that supporters of efforts to recall Councilman Sam Allevato end that process. Further, we would request that each member of the Council consider voting to formally oppose the effort. A special election will cost taxpayers $100,000 and distract our council and staff from important city business.
  5. We suggest that the City Council consider overturning its recent decision to pay $25,000 for an investigation of the conduct of its members.  With the major issues that prompted this investigation being (hopefully) resolved by the above recommendations, there would be no need for this time consuming, costly endeavor.

We recognize that this won’t solve all of our differences on a variety of complicated community issues. However, it will save our taxpayers $125,000, promote more community-focused decision making and foster a culture where the needs of the city are put ahead of our political differences.

We sincerely appreciate your consideration and request your support for this approach.


Mark Bodenhamer 
Chief Executive Officer
San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce

We agree with the Chamber’s proposal on items 1, 4 and 5.

Item 3 is a useful suggestion, but frankly, we suspect all five Councilmembers are aware of their Brown Act requirements.  What’s more, the alleged Brown Act violations if true are no more than mere symptoms of a larger problem, not the cause of the dispute.  Compliance training is fine, but a functional City Council would be better.

Regarding item 2, there is no need to survey other municipalities.  Free speech is free speech, even when politically uncomfortable or inflammatory.  We propose that the City Council repeal its ban on newspapers at City Hall.  It seems cowardly and futile (and potentially unconstitutional) to ban all newspapers from a public, civic space, merely because (in our opinion) the Council seeks to avoid criticism.  As if in this age of ubiquitous information anyone can truly silence dissenting voices or avoid criticism.  Put on your big boy pants and realize that one of great things about this country is that everyone has a right to speak, even if you don’t like what they have to say.

7 comments to Our Thoughts on the San Juan Chamber’s Open Letter to the SJC City Council

  • Jim Reardon

    I respect that our Chamber of Commerce is entitled to have a viewpoint on political issues, but it is not the only viewpoint in our town. Their call for “collaborative solutions” may resonate with some, but the interest of their membership is woven into these proposals. It is not a good start.

    For example, suggestion #1 is based on the false premise that a conflict such as outlined has occurred in the case of Councilman Reeve. But there is no evidence of this. Instead, the proposal parrots the drum-talk of those who don’t agree with Reeve politically. Is a false premise helpful in framing a proposal?

    The actual events tell a different story. The City Council made a decision to consider a news rack ban outside of public view under the false guise of “threat of litigation”. They knew this to be false when their agenda was drafted, reviewed by the Mayor, reviewed by the City Manager, and the City Attorney (who really should have known better), and released as a lawful notice to the public. When the City Manager informed Councilman Reeve just minutes before the meeting that actual topic of discussion involved his client (who should have been identified in the published agenda), he recused himself. Now the Chamber of Commerce would have us believe all this occurred the other way around, that we should ignore the deceit of those involved. What is worse, they lay the blame on Councilman Reeve.

    Now they call for collaboration, which would obviously involve working with those who committed these acts. Rich.

    While we watch the spectacle of our City Council trying to wrestle with these “proposals” tonight, keep the actual role the Chamber of Commerce in mind. It’s an organization with the goal of maximizing the economic benefit for its members. When this involves a close relationship with government and political action, one may further define it as a group of classical “rent seekers” (defined: I won’t suggest that this is their sole motivation or reason to exist, but it is their principal motivation. These proposals are framed to support the political status quo in a politically fractured environment. No surprise.

    For this reason, I don’t expect to much to come of the meeting.

  • Don Juan Ortega

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Jim. It’s an honor to include you among our readers. Given that this blog opposes the newspaper ban in and of itself, there isn’t anything substantive in your comment with which we would disagree.

    However, we don’t have first hand knowledge of the “actual facts” as you present them and since we weren’t present at that meeting we are in no position to comment. It should be noted that if the newspaper ban was repealed, there would be no (real or perceived) threat of litigation, rendering the issue moot anyway.

  • MarkSJCChamber

    Jim –

    Just want to clarify a couple things:

    1 – I have literally no information about how that meeting with Derek went. If our letter came off as “blaming” Derek, it was not intended to at all. I don’t think any of the 5 councilman are willfully violating the Brown Act or otherwise acting against a code of ethics. With that said, his role as an attorney working on an issue adversarial to the City he represents is one (of many) issues that are/were feeding into this political mess.

    As with all of the issues in our letter, we weren’t trying to pass judgment or make legal interpretations. Our goal was tossing out the simplest solution that could help our Council move past the issues and get back to things that are important to the community.

    I think that you would agree that there is at the very least the perception of competing interests with him being on Council and providing legal services to an entity that is considering action against the City. Again, forget right/wrong/who’s at fault… we thought the quickest, most appropriate solution was simply asking him to stop doing that.

    Same thing with the News Rack issue. I’ve got no idea how that meeting/conversation went at City Hall. There are valid concerns about Free Speech. We can squabble over who said what OR we can find a quick solution (ie: steal another City’s policy), fix the problem and move on.

    2 – I think its totally fair to suggest this is self-serving, but you’re off on the “why.” We’re not interested in the political status quo; our interest is City Government that is stable and efficient. A distracted, warring Council is bad for business (and residents too).

    My feeble brain isn’t quite wrapped around the “rent seeker” concept but I think what you’re suggesting is we’re acting as isolationist protectors of the current members which is not the case. Some Chambers act that way (as is their right) but we’ve traditionally been supportive of growth and new business because we subscribe to the “rising tide lifts all boats” concept. Our effort to promote more civility at City Hall is actually more based on attracting new people/business that might invest in the community than the existing members. New opportunities may pass on SJC as a potential business location if they feel the City can’t be responsive.

    Jim, I do respect your thoughtful (though differing) viewpoints. I appreciate your sticking to the actual issues and hope that you can understand that we’re really just trying to move the town and our local economy forward.

  • Don Juan Ortega

    Thank you, Mark. It is likewise an honor to have the Chamber participating on our blog. We appreciate your thoughtful reply.

  • Jim Reardon

    Mark, Thank you for responding.

    Your item #1 comment is a necessary and welcome clarification of the Chamber’s position. I think you can understand the skepticism of many around town in light of all the issues confronting the city. There are differences of opinion on substantive matters like water, local traffic, the city’s debt, open space, the local influence of RMV, just to name a few. I hope you understand that “collaborating” on these issues is not a simple bilateral affair involving “us” vs. “them”. With political questions, there are complex and divergent views on every side. We have our political process by which to settle these questions.

    Often, politics isn’t pretty or neat. I understand who controversy can spill-over and threaten the business environment (or the status quo). Still, we can’t abandon democratic principals and lawful political process. These are fixed rules that serve as an essential relief valve for the pressure of differing views and attempts to defeat their function will result in serious discord and unrest. The news rack ban is, clearly, an attempt to silence lawful political speech. When something like this occurs, we all should challenge the motives of those involved within the fixed civil framework we rely on. Each citizen will approach this in their own way.

    I appreciate your clarifying comment on the news rack ban as well.

    My questioning of the motive of the Chamber of Commerce is a more subtle point. The difference between commercial activity and rent-seeking is not precise but subject to political judgement. In our town, the Chamber and the Open Space Foundation are viewed as positive contributors by many. However, for those opposed to downtown development, or big box store proposals, or abusive open space acquisition deals, the influence of these organizations in city political affairs can result in political resentment among people with differing views. To the extent that these groups exercise undue political influence over city actions to protect and enhance their exclusive concessions granted by the city, they may be viewed as rent-seekers. Each citizen will be the judge.

    If you accept this explanation, it should be easier to understand how some people, including me, find it incredible that our City Council would take a letter from the Chamber of Commerce and use it as the basis for formal decisions in a public meeting. The actual agenda of the meeting says nothing about formal action. No written mention of a proposal to request a legal opinion from the California Attorney General existed prior to the meeting. Instead, the idea was introduced verbally by the City Attorney during discussion of your letter. The council then took final action by formal vote. There was no opportunity for public discussion of the topic. The fixed rules we expect to be observed in our political process were broken again.

    To fully understand the importance of these fixed rules and their influence on public policy decisions, I recommend the work of James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986. In announcing its award, the Nobel committee wrote:

    “Buchanan’s foremost achievement is that he has consistently and tenaciously emphasized the significance of fundamental rules and applied the concept of the political system as an exchange process for the achievement of mutual advantages. He has used his method with great success in the analysis of many specific problems and issues. Long before large budget deficits arose, for example, he showed how debt financing dissolves the relation between expenditures and taxes in the decision-making process.”

    And more to the point, “…Buchanan has formulated a theory of the public sector and political decision-making based on the principle of unanimity. As a result, decisions concerning the dimensioning and financing of collective efforts may be regarded as the outcome of voluntary agreements among citizens. Every citizen would thus in theory receive a welfare gain if the value, to him, of collective measures exceeds what he must forego in the form of taxes.”

    Buchanan’s theoretical work sought to describe the underpinnings of civil life in political-economic terms. Applied to San Juan Capistrano, it is essential that the government respect the fixed rules (or “rule of law”) that are the foundation of our political and economic citizenship. In my opinion, this has been disregarded in our town for many years. The present sad condition of our political dialog is the result.

    Maintenance of a healthy and positive political environment is primarily the responsibility of those who govern. When they fail in this responsibility, citizens take what lawful actions are available to seek remedy.

  • MarkSJCChamber

    Jim -

    I recognize that the perception of influence exists and that it has the potential to feed into some resentment. I would counter with a couple thoughts, though:

    1. We’ve also had our opinions/policies discounted by some who say we’re a fringe organization with NO influence and no following.

    2: MOST of the positions/policies we’ve taken over the past couple years have been shot down by the Council — El Horno St., SDG&E project, Dinosaur, Wine & Beer in Los Rios, etc. So we’re not exactly “calling the shots” around SJC.

    My guess is that this time we just timed it right. We sent out a letter suggesting more community-focused dialogue/action at the same time that just about everyone in town realized that some effort was needed in that area. If your primary issue is the intricacies what was “agendized” or not, I really can’t add to that discussion. I don’t know or understand those laws and am quite happy to keep it that way.

    I totally agree with you regarding the complex & divergent views being an important part of resolving those (and other) issues. We’re just ONE of those viewpoints. I think its important for us to share ours on behalf of our members but I don’t begrudge those who have different opinions. In fact the funny thing is in this town I often find myself kind of agreeing with many of the talking points that are contrary to our policy.

    What I/the Chamber wants and what Ilse (for example) wants are often in conflict but I think Ilse’s got an extremely valuable goal in mind and raises good points. We’re just representing a different constituency and that’s the fun/good part of Democracy working. She says here part, I say mine and then its the Council’s job to balance those and make a decision.

    Regarding Tuesday I didn’t expect the Council to see our proposals as the ONLY way of solving those issues, nor do I think they handled them that way during the meeting. Frankly, any decisions that they made that were (a) unanimous and (b) reasonably described as “in the best interest of the community” would have made me as happy as any other outcome.

    Hey, good chat!

    - Mark

    ps: Don Juan Ortega – If having a couple guys like Jim and me comment on your blog really is an “honor,” you’ve got to get out more! :)

  • Don Juan Ortega

    “ps: Don Juan Ortega – If having a couple guys like Jim and me comment on your blog really is an “honor,” you’ve got to get out more! :)

    Don Juan is just happy that he hasn’t been sitting alone in his parents’ basement talking to himself for the past two years. Or maybe he has…until this week. Either way, thank you both for the constructive and thoughtful comments.