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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Council Will Fill a Vacancy Tonight

Seventeen people are vying for an appointment tonight to an open seat on the City Council to fill the unexpired term of Councilman Lawrence F. Buchheim.

The rush of candidates to replace Buchheim, who has resigned because of ill health, portends a more spirited local political climate, political observers say.

“What that tells you is that there will be a wide open race next November,” said Mike Eggers, mayor of neighboring Dana Point and an aide to U.S. Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad).

City Councilman Jeff Vasquez, the leading vote-getter of 14 candidates in the council race last November, agrees.

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“We had a lot of candidates last time, and I think you’ll see more than 17 run next year,” Vasquez said.

But Eggers, Vasquez and others add that the widespread interest is also indicative of a political power shift in the mission city.

For more than a decade, the City Council more closely resembled a private club, open only to the all-male council’s five members: Buchheim, Gary L. Hausdorfer, Kenneth E. Friess, Phillip R. Schwartze and Anthony L. Bland.

The first break in that circle occurred last November when two of the five, Schwartze and Bland, chose not to run for reelection, creating openings for Vasquez and Gil Jones. Now, with Buchheim’s resignation and Mayor Friess’ decision not to seek reelection next year, council hopefuls have flocked to sign up.

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Hausdorfer, a councilman since 1978, said he is not surprised at the turnout, given San Juan Capistrano’s history of “strong citizen involvement.” As for changes in council rule, Hausdorfer sees that as “good for the city.”

“We happened to be fortunate to have been elected at a time when voters were content with what was going on,” he said. “But time goes on. . . . None of us expected to stay forever; none of us wanted to stay forever.”

Friess, a councilman since 1976, agreed with Hausdorfer’s assessment.

“There comes a time when it is valuable for the process to get new ideas, new philosophies and new energies,” he said.

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Critics of the current council majority, however, see tonight’s appointment as a perfunctory measure and possibly another extension of the current administration. Instead of opening the council seat to a popular vote, the council will appoint one of their own, critics say.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt the council has decided the easiest way to achieve a self-perpetuating oligarchy is make these appointments,” said Dr. Roy Byrnes, a longtime local physician and former mayor. “They have done it this way since 1978 . . . I’m appalled. I see it as a continuation of a pattern and I obviously disapprove.”

Whoever is appointed tonight will get a head start on the council race next November. Two of tonight’s front-runners, Jerry Harris and Collene Campbell, were among the unsuccessful council candidates last November and both are expected to run next year.

But a head start is no guarantee for next November, Hausdorfer cautioned. Whoever is chosen for the council will have to prove his or her worth and incumbency could be used against the candidate, he said.

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“Local politics are very volatile, with a lot of different issues on the table,” Hausdorfer added. “It may be the most challenging of any level of government. It is the only level in which you are looking into the eyes of your constituency every day on every issue.”


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