I've become a fan of the weekly World Poker Tour on TV, paying close attention to how people with so-so hands convert them into big pots. Last week's tournament originated from the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, but none of the players at the final table played any better than a guy at another high-stakes game going on about the same time at Mission Viejo City Hall.
There, City Manager Dan Joseph walked away the big winner. Knowing for much of the last year that he was running low on chips because of a new council majority that apparently wanted him out, Joseph played his final hand beautifully. When he pushed away from the table for the final time last week, Joseph was counting hundreds of thousands of dollars that the council had thrown into the family bank account.
In one fateful moment, Joseph went from beleaguered city official to a guy who doesn't have to work for a while.
Talk about your sucker plays.
Over the months, the council had sent ambiguous signals it wouldn't retain Joseph when his contract expired next June. Joseph says that uncertainty, coupled with personal innuendoes directed at him, made things unpleasant.
My guess is the council was hoping he'd fold his hand.
He didn't. Instead, he raised.
Joseph informed the council that his wife, Ivy, longtime Mission Viejo city clerk, would have to be included in any severance offer for him. "If you want me, she has to go, too," Joseph said he told the council. No poker expert could have played it better.
So, after thinking it had only to resolve its problem with Dan Joseph, the council belatedly had to factor in Ivy, who never had been a target of its dislike.
Even then, Joseph had one more play left. Last week, he filed claims against the city over the way the council had handled his situation. His wife also filed a claim, making many of the same allegations. The Josephs' claims were seen as possible precursors to lawsuits.
The end came quickly.
The council couldn't afford to call the bluffs. "I don't necessarily feel it was money well spent," Councilman Lance Mac- Lean said of the settlements, "but it was money we had to spend." The possibility of the city losing a lawsuit and paying a larger settlement, he said, forced his hand.
I asked MacLean, who supported Joseph, if he thought Joseph was bluffing about suing the city. "I don't think he was."
As for the council majority that swept into office last year on a platform of fiscal integrity, it'll now have to explain to residents how it played its hand. It'll have to convince them that it cut a good deal with Joseph: that it's smart to pay Joseph and his wife nearly $300,000 in salary over the next 14 months for not working. And that it is smart to pay them an additional $80,000 in workers' compensation for alleged stress stemming from its actions.
On top of that are whatever raises the council gives the Josephs' in-house replacements who have assumed their duties. And, of course, there's always the possibility the council could hire full-time replacements, which means they'd be paying both the Josephs and their replacements full salaries for the same jobs. Then there's whatever a hiring search would cost.
I congratulated Joseph on his strategy, but he declined to gloat. "I'm saddened to be leaving, because I'm leaving behind a lot of people I've grown to count as my friends over the last 14 years," he said. When it became clear the council would ax him, he said, his wife "just felt she couldn't continue."
Joseph said he'll take at least a couple of months off. I'm thinking he ought to join the poker tour.
I had to ask him. Was he bluffing about filing suit?
"Nope," he said. "It would have happened."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.