Councilman's Softened Attitude Riles His Backers

Times Staff Writer

Master-planned Mission Viejo is known by longtime residents simply as "the paradise" -- an idyllic place where reserving a boat on the lake and shuttling the kids to Little League and soccer are among the biggest concerns.

But lately, trouble has been brewing in paradise.

Just months after sweeping into office on a wave of discontent with the old council majority, first-term Councilman Lance MacLean is being threatened with recall by the very people who helped orchestrate his landslide victory -- the Committee for Integrity in Government.

The self-styled watchdog group has championed everything from taking elected officials' names off public facilities to firing virtually the entire top rung of City Hall management.

The group had hoped MacLean, a committee member, would team with newly elected Trish Kelley and incumbents John Paul Ledesma and Gail Reavis to form a solid new majority and reverse many of the actions taken by their predecessors.

But so far, MacLean has been his own man -- sitting out a vote on the highly symbolic issue of removing names of current and former council members from a park and conference center, helping to save the job of City Manager Dan Joseph, who was targeted by the committee, and even sparring with committee members.

Kelley, the top vote-getter, who was strongly backed by the committee, has also taken a few hits from the group, but is largely unscathed.

MacLean came into office riding high. He finished a close second to Kelley, easily outdistancing longtime members Sherri M. Butterfield and Susan Withrow, but his honeymoon lasted barely a month.

"I started getting recall threats from committee members and even a council member," MacLean said. "It's disappointing, especially when you consider three months ago that these were my most ardent supporters."

MacLean said he never told supporters he would be their lap dog.

"Some members of the committee campaigned very hard for me," he said. "They stood on street corners, donated money and hosted coffee chats. Clearly, they contributed to getting me elected. But I am not beholden to anyone.

"I have to wake up and look at myself in the mirror. I'm trying to be diligent, deliberate, and I'm trying to do what's in the best interest of the community, not what's in the best interest of the committee."

The committee was formed in 1996, partly in response to the city's decision to bring a minor league baseball team to town. The team ceased operations two years later and left the city holding the bill. The group began with two or three gadflies, but now claims 30 core members and a mailing list of 1,500.

Since its birth, the committee has railed against the part-time politicians for spending too much money on big-ticket items, such as a $14-million City Hall.

The committee has called the council arrogant, out of touch with the public's concerns and overly secretive.

Critics of the committee say it is just as mysterious.

"Nobody knows where their meetings are and nobody knows what kind of group they are," said citizen activist Hamid Bahadori.

Brad Morton, an attorney who heads the committee, said his group has nothing to hide.

"We are a watchdog group with a cross-section of the community," he said. "And our meetings are open to everyone." Morton said the meetings are still open to MacLean but that his group has been betrayed by one of its own.

"Nobody expected Lance to be an automatic ally of John Paul and Gail, but he was supposed to follow the philosophies he laid out in the campaign," said Morton, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1996. "Those who supported Lance feel like he's run off and left them behind."

Nothing has irked the committee more than MacLean's decision a month ago to abstain from a vote that stripped the names of two members of the previous majority, Councilman William S. Craycraft and Butterfield, from a city park and conference center.

MacLean campaigned against the practice of political leaders naming things after themselves, but he thought the process for erasing the past wasn't inclusive enough. He wanted the citizens' renaming committee to seek more public comment and be given the option of keeping the old names.

"They had one one-hour meeting and about four people showed up," MacLean said. "It was all the usual suspects, Committee for Integrity members. So instead of an open process, you had one that was political, expedient and extremely vindictive."

Ultimately, the committee advised the council to return the facilities to their previous names, the Youth Athletic Park and the Community Room. The council agreed, voting 3-1, with Craycraft dissenting and Mac-Lean abstaining.

"The [legal] process was completely followed," Morton said. "But Lance was looking for an escape ... This pseudo-intellectual journey that he's on is turning people off. They are seeing him as aloof and not in sync with them."

Not everyone is turned off by MacLean's actions. In fact, some of his biggest detractors during the campaign are now giving him high marks.

"What I like is that he seems to be asking questions independently, rather than getting all his information from the committee," said Butterfield. "That's commendable."

Bahadori, who supported Butterfield and Withrow, said he has been pleasantly surprised by MacLean.

"He is proving that he is his own person and is representing the city as a whole," Bahadori said. "Lance is not representing only 30 members of a particular group, but the 14,000 people that voted for him. It's a shame he is being threatened with recall. The poor guy has barely had a chance to do anything."

The recall talk is just talk, Morton said.

"It represents the level of frustration people are feeling, but I don't think it's something that's going to happen," he said. "It becomes rhetoric when people get real mad at an elected official. I think it's more symbolic than anything."

In another symbolic move, MacLean said he will be parting ways with the committee.

"They've effected change, but where will they stop?" he said. "To listen to them, you'd think we live in troubled community with huge problems. But clearly, that's not the case."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 134 words Type of Material: Correction Mission Viejo citizens group -- A March 18 article in the California section about recall threats against a Mission Viejo City Council member said that Councilman Lance MacLean is being threatened with recall by the Committee for Integrity in Government. While the story accurately reported that individual members of the committee supported MacLean's election and later threatened to recall him, the committee took no official position in either case. The group, which describes itself as a disinterested advocate of good government, also did not propose firing top city officials, as the article reported, though some of its members urged this step before the election last fall. Finally, the article incorrectly reported that MacLean abstained on a vote to rename a conference center. At issue was the name of the community room in a library.
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