That's the Flap of Dirty Linen in Squeaky Clean Mission Viejo

Times Staff Writer

As divorces go, this was a particularly messy one. The yearlong buildup to the split between the City Council and its city manager had all the elements of a trashy dime novel -- character assassination, intrigue, scandal and even a little sex. Played out before thousands in council chambers, local papers and cable television, the drama showed the ugly side of small-town politics.

Who would have guessed this could happen in freshly scrubbed Mission Viejo, known as "paradise" by its residents? City coffers have healthy reserves, parks are beautifully landscaped, the recreation programs are among the state's best and the neighborhoods are some of the safest in the country.

That's what makes the spat between long-time City Manager Dan Joseph and the City Council all the more embarrassing for many longtime residents.

"What's been going on here is despicable," said 83-year-old Jane Melford, who moved to Mission Viejo 21 years ago. "When I came here, this was a nice little community. It's still a delightful place to live. But if you read the local papers and the letters to the editor, you'd never know it. There's been so much name-calling and mean-spiritedness over this whole thing with the city manager, it's sad."

Exposing the public to the turmoil could have been avoided but ultimately was inevitable, said Councilwoman Gail Reavis, a retiree who, along with Mayor John Paul Ledesma, a computer peripherals salesman, led the charge to oust the city manager.

"It looks like a place that shouldn't have any problems, but we have $100 million in bonded indebtedness," Reavis said, referring to $56 million in city debt plus interest payments through 2031. "It's a beautiful place to live, but we need to watch our pennies."

Some of those pennies will be spent paying for the premature departure of Joseph, whose contract was to run through June, and his wife, Ivy, who had been the city clerk since the city was incorporated 15 years ago. Ivy Joseph said she no longer wanted to work at City Hall, despite her popularity among council members.

Based on last week's settlement, Joseph, who is paid about $152,000 a year, and his wife, who earns about $101,000 a year, agreed to quit now in exchange for 14 months' salary and $40,000 in workers' compensation for emotional and physical stress. Joseph agreed not to sue the city on grounds that his character had been besmirched.

Joseph, who had been the city's top administrator for nine years, lodged a claim against Mission Viejo on the eve of his contract settlement. His claim alleged, among other things, libel, slander, breach of contract and failure to evaluate his job performance. Ivy Joseph alleged many of the same things.

So what led to the hostile parting of ways between Joseph and the city? Many who follow Mission Viejo politics believe the drive to remove Joseph from his job didn't begin in November with the election of a new council majority, but in 1996 with the formation of a self-styled watchdog group, the Committee for Integrity in Government.

The committee was created partly in response to the city's decision to bring a minor league baseball team to town. The team ceased operations two years later, stiffing the city for $135,000 in back rent. The group, formed by a few City Hall critics, now claims 30 core members and a mailing list of 1,500.

Since its inception, the group has railed against the part-time politicians for spending too much on big-ticket items, such as the construction of a $14-million City Hall and parking structures at a shopping mall. The committee called the previous council arrogant, out of touch with the public's concerns and overly secretive. In December, the group's newsletter called for the ouster of Joseph and several other city staffers.

Retiree Larry Gilbert, one of the committee's core members, said Joseph became too heady for the master-planned city of 100,000 residents.

"He had an attitude of, 'This is my city, I can do what I please,' " Gilbert said. "He also had a habit of cutting corners. After a while, we had questions of trusting the man and his judgment."

Gilbert, though, denied that his group was directly involved in Joseph's firing.

"We have access to these [council] people," he said. "But we really don't control their vote."

But some residents are starting to wonder how much influence the committee has over the City Council.

"Whether it's by design or accident, CIG seems to have a mission to decapitate our city's administrators," said Vince Caiozzo, a longtime Mission Viejo resident and an associate professor of medicine at UC Irvine. "I'm concerned about their role and what effect it could have on our city."

Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine who specializes in American politics, said strong citizens' groups and city hall purges are not uncommon for small and medium-sized cities.

Some city hall purges are harmless, Petracca said, but others can create turmoil.

"There's no substitute for expertise, vision and senior leadership," he said. "When you start having a lot of professional city staffers leave, you're really inviting the meltdown of the council-city manager form of government. The people you've elected, they're not there full-time."

Reavis said Mission Viejo's purge didn't have to be so public and so painful.

"We could have gotten out of this for $75,000," Reavis said. "But [councilman] Lance Mac- Lean wouldn't vote for it."

That possibility occurred in January when a review of Joseph's position first appeared on the council agenda. But Mac- Lean and Patricia Kelley, two council newcomers who were expected to help form a new council majority, didn't side with Ledesma and Reavis, who wanted Joseph out because he was aligned with previous council members who had been characterized as free-spending.

MacLean said he didn't realize Joseph was such a big target until he met local attorney Phil Greer in January. According to MacLean, Greer offered his services in the event the council might be trying to rid itself of the city manager.

"He basically handed me a how-to manual on how to fire the city manager," said MacLean, who said he dispersed the handout to the rest of the council at Greer's request.

Greer could not be reached for comment.

In March, Greer was also one of several attorneys who sought to conduct an independent audit of Joseph's office. At last week's City Council meeting, Greer spoke as an attorney representing Reavis, named by Joseph in his claim against the city.

Joseph charged that Reavis "engaged in a long-continuing barrage of unprivileged personal attacks" and that she "repeatedly published false, nonprivileged and damaging statements" about Joseph, including that he was having an affair with a member of his staff.

Joseph said the efforts by the two council members to win colleagues' support to dismiss him caused unpleasantness at City Hall and took a toll on staff morale.

"I firmly believe that a council majority has a firm right to pick who it wants to be its CEO," Joseph said. "How they carried it out is what I objected to. When Trish and Lance made the decision for the right reasons to defer judgment on me, that gave the other side a period of time to discredit me.

"Any time you have a divorce, it's not going to be pleasant. But it didn't need to be played out the way it was played out. It could have been done professionally without all this rancor."

Kelley, who held out for 10 months before becoming the deciding vote in Joseph's dismissal, acknowledged that the saga did not help the city's reputation.

"I had a good experience working with Dan, but it was time for a change," said Kelley, who denies her decision was influenced by the CIG. "There's a value in changing leadership. It brings new energy, new talent. It's done with sports teams all the time, even if there are no problems."

Now that the divorce is final, all parties concerned agree it's time to move on.

"The reputation of the council as being contentious is out there," MacLean said.

"We need to work on our image, not with just the residents, but with the outside community. If we're going to be taken seriously, we've got to get out of these petty personal attacks and get on with the business of running the city."

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