Council Maverick Becomes a Team Leader : City government: Robert A. Curtis was once a lone dissenter and foe of Mission Viejo Co. As a potential mayor, he's talking change.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The biggest victor in the recent Mission Viejo City Council elections was not even on the ballot.

In fact, only a few months ago, Councilman Robert A. Curtis was battling for his political life when he faced a recall effort backed by nearly $500,000 in contributions from the Mission Viejo Co. and other real estate interests.

Curtis survived the February recall effort--it was defeated by more than a 2-to-1 margin--and two of his supporters, Sharon Cody and Robert Breton, went on to capture seats on the council. On Monday, when the new council takes office, Curtis will likely be elected mayor.

For Curtis, who has become accustomed to being on the losing end of council votes, the turnaround is equivalent to moving from court jester to king.

"It's a triumphant transition," Curtis said in an interview last week. "It's going to be much nicer to be known as the Honorable Bob Curtis than the recallable Bob Curtis."

But the prospect of a Curtis majority has raised numerous questions about the direction of the new council and the future of the city.

Already, Curtis has indicated that he will ask the new council to reconsider and possibly reverse several major decisions taken by the previous council. He also has made it known that it will "not be business as usual" for the Mission Viejo Co., which planned and built the community of 75,000. The events have left political observers wondering whether Curtis will use his position to make life difficult for the company, which openly used its personnel and money to try to oust him from the council.

"The situation in Mission Viejo is very much like a sumo wrestling match," said political consultant Harvey Englander of Newport Beach. "The two giant wrestlers--Mission Viejo Co. and Curtis--are circling and waiting for each other to make the first move."

Ironically, Curtis and his supporters owe part of their most recent success to the company. Not only was Curtis' anti-recall victory a stinging rejection of the company's role in the campaign, but it also bolstered his political standing and created a grass-roots political organization that was credited with the election of Cody and Breton.

After the recall effort was defeated, Curtis' supporters targeted three council members--Christian W. Keena, Victoria C. Jaffe and Norman P. Murray--in November. Keena and Jaffe did not file for reelection. Murray, the city's first mayor and considered Mission Viejo's elder statesman, finished eighth in a field of 14 candidates. The other new council member is Susan Withrow, who Curtis said has promised "to work together for the benefit of the city."

Cody, who led Curtis' counter-petition drive during the recall campaign, said the anti-recall organization helped generate the victories.

"Some of those same people who came forward to help against recall also helped us campaign and walk precincts during the election," Cody said. "The anti-recall sentiment sort of spilled over and continued on. The people feel that the developer should not take control of our government and they want someone who would be a tough negotiator with the company."

While many people are aware of the constant scuffles between Curtis and the company, few know about their recent rapprochement. Mere weeks after Curtis' anti-recall victory, both parties sought to mend fences when they met to discuss development on Naciente Ridge, a planned development of 700 houses on the city's eastern boundary.

After several sessions, the company agreed to reduce future citywide density by 26% and donate 7.2 acres of land along Crown Valley Parkway--valued at $5.5 million--for a city hall. In return, Curtis pledged his individual support on the council for the Naciente Ridge development.

"The Mission Viejo Co. is delighted that Bob Curtis' leadership is making it possible to return to the spirit of cooperation and mutual support that has been the history of our community relations," company President Jim Gilleran said in a release.

Added company spokeswoman Wendy Wetzel: "The recall is over, and we hope we are going to work together."

Earlier this year the council rejected the city hall deal, but Curtis said he plans to ask the new council to amend the developer's agreement to accept "this better growth-management approach which brings public benefits."

Curtis' critics charge that he has made an about-face in his dealings with the company. "As far as I am concerned, he's in bed with them," said Helen Monroe, who, as leader as the pro-recall Coalition to Recall Councilman Curtis, accepted nearly $300,000 in contributions from the company. "He wants us to accept their piece of ground. He and they are good buddies."

While Curtis declares that "the era of company rule is over," he is equally quick to point out that the new council is constrained because its predecessors forfeited the city's right to challenge the validity of the developer's agreement signed between the county and the company. The agreement was signed 13 days before Mission Viejo became a city and, among other things, included provisions on housing density and parkland.

Responding to criticisms by Monroe and others, Curtis said: "This is the time for the city to disregard petty politics of personality and concentrate on reducing residential density and obtaining other public benefits. . . . For first time, the City Council will be equal partners in meaningful negotiations, instead of being yes-men.

"We cannot harbor false expectations that this council is going to bring changes overnight," he continued. "We have forfeited our right to sue. If we want to change anything, we have to be tough negotiators."

Apart from asking the new council to amend the developer's agreement, Curtis and the new council are expected to deal with the question of a permanent site for a city hall. The city now rents office space on La Alameda for $400,000 a year.

A few months ago, the city purchased a building on Chrisanta Drive for $3.1 million and is planning to spend $1 million more in renovations.

"We cannot undo the purchase," said Curtis, who voted against the deal, "but I hope the new council will take a serious look for both interim and permanent facilities. With the company's offer of free land, we have an opportunity to build from the ground up to suit our own needs."

The city hall building is not the only decision of the previous council facing reversal. Curtis said the new council may ask the city attorney whether it can cancel a multimillion-dollar residential waste-hauling contract awarded without a competitive bid.

For many citizens, Curtis' most pressing challenge is whether he can return a sense of order and dignity to the council. The dogfights on the previous council sometimes became comical, with council members badgering one another during public sessions.

Curtis' potential opposition in the council was former Mayor William S. Craycraft, who supported the anti-recall campaign but broke with Curtis shortly after, apparently over their ambitions to run for a future state Assembly seat.

Curtis said he and Craycraft met Friday at a Mission Viejo restaurant and agreed to bury the hatchet. At that meeting, Curtis said he agreed to support Craycraft's offer to represent the council on the Foothill/Eastern Corridor Transportation Agency.

"Bill wants to be a team player," Curtis said. "Having served on the short end of a divided council for three years, I have pledged to protect minority views and ensure that every member of the council has an opportunity to shape public policy."

"We have no idea what's going to happen in 1992," he continued, referring to reapportionment. "If we all pull together and start achieving meaningful benefits for the city and people of Mission Viejo, we will have ample credit to go around. The rancor and scorn are things of the past. This is a new era."

Times correspondent Frank Messina contributed to this report.

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