How Transparent is Orange City Government?

Bilodeau/Merino, Orange City Hall

Bilodeau/Merino, Orange City Hall

While the big news last Tuesday night was the Irvine City Council meeting on the future of the Great Park, in Orange, a press conference in front of Orange City Hall designed as a last ditch effort to pressure the city council and Mayor Tita Smith into placing former Planning Commissioner Michael Merino back on the Planning Commission.

Councilmember Dennis Bilodeau and Michael Merino took Mayor Smith’s proposed changes to city policy in regards to deployed veterans being able to return to city jobs easier as a positive sign for Merino who told those assembled he’d accept the will of the city council and the mayor on their decision as he attempted to lobby the council for the job at their meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Smith’s proposal, released in advance of the press conference Tuesday, called for a strengthening of the City’s current employment protections for those called, or volunteering, to active military duty at tonight’s Orange City Council meeting.

From the press release:  The new ordinance Mayor Smith will propose this evening is based on that authored by Orange County Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Jim Silva in 2001.  That ordinance went beyond the federal USERRA regulations, which simply protect military personnel’s employment status, and added a financial safety net that made up the difference between military salary and County employment salary.  It also ensured continuous health care benefits for active duty servicemen and women and their families.

“The City of Orange has never waivered in its support of active duty military personnel,” said Mayor Smith. “We have been on the forefront of guaranteeing protections for those called and those returning from military duty and will continue to do so.” 

In a first of its kind benefit, Mayor Smith will go a step further by calling for new protections for elected and appointed officials.  

The enhancements Mayor Smith will ask for include: 

  • Waive absenteeism rules of committees and elected office that currently do not allow the city’s elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members to be absent for more than three (3) meetings; 
  • Allow for short-term replacements, or special appointments to serve in place of the city’s elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members while they are on active military duty; 
  • Guarantee reinstatement of the city’s elected officials, appointed commissioners or board members if they return while their elected or appointed term is still active.

Bilodeau embraced the Mayor’s new plan as his press conference offered what he called “a compromise” that he proposed to allow Merino as a planning commissioner until shortly before Bilodeau’s term expired on the council in about a year.  Bilodeau told TheLiberalOC that “I hoped (the compromise) would end this unfortunate situation on a positive note for all concerned.”

Additionally, Bilodeau announced that he was introducing an ordinance that evening that he had been working on with Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a no show at the press conference, “so this incident would never happen again.”

Bilodeau continued to insist that Merino did not resign and instead asked for a leave of absence and provided us with a photocopy of an email sent by Merino to Bilodeau from Guantanamo Bay in early January 2012. And the photocopy was in the package sent to the Mayor and the rest of the council earlier this month when the first attempt to restore Merino was tried.  The email is sent to Bilodeau’s Gmail address, not his city council email. Bilodeau forwarded to the city clerk who stamped it nearly two weeks after it was sent and there’s no evidence of a letter or email from Bilodeau back to Merino acknowledging receipt of the request and there was nothing shared with the rest of the city council and Mayor to communicate that Merino did indeed seek a leave of absence.

Bilodeau's email from Merino

Bilodeau’s email from Merino

In the minutes of the January 24 City Council meeting, there’s a line item that references the council’s acceptance of Merino’s resignation from the planning commission.  It was voted on by the entire council, including Bilodeau, who made no reference to a requested leave of absence which Bilodeau knew about a week earlier by forwarding the email to the city clerk.  The early February planning commission meeting also references a Merino “resignation” with no mention of a leave of absence.  Resigning a position and requesting a leave of absence are two distinct things.

The Mayor has the authority to appoint commissioners in Orange but it is done with the approval of the city council.  Bilodeau continues to insist the authority lies solely with the Mayor but she doesn’t make these appointments in a vacuum.  Merino’s appointment died for the lack of a second more than two weeks ago, and the city council instead re-appointed Bill Cathcart to the post.  A majority of Orange City Council members felt Cathcart was politically pressured by Bilodeau to resign the post. Cathcart is also a military veteran, so to use the guise of restoring a veteran by displacing a veteran rings hollow.

Bilodeau said there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” between Merino and Cathcart regarding the position that Cathcart would step down from the position upon Merino’s return from service.  There was no provision for this in city law and this strikes us as a backroom deal conducted out of the public’s eye.  As Bilodeau continues to use this agreement as his proof point for what amounts to city policy, it makes us wonder how transparent other actions in Orange City Government is.

“It makes sense to me now if there was a gentleman’s agreement because I certainly wasn’t aware of anything other than Mr. Merino’s resignation on January 2012,” said Smith.

Council member Fred Whitaker also attended  the news conference and spoke up at the very end to tell us he would not cast a vote to restore Merino to the planning commission and doubted his colleagues would either.  He asked him about the January 2012 meeting in which Merino’s resignation was covered.

“We thought it was a resignation,” he said.  “I do remember the email in our board packet from a couple of weeks ago, but I never saw that email before then.  I think my vote on accepting a resignation would have been different if it had been presented to me that it was a leave of absence which isn’t provided for in any code.”

The City Council on Tuesday restored Cathcart to the Planning Commission instead of Merino.  Whitaker explained,” We felt Mr. Cathcart was pressured by Mr. Bilodeau into resigning and the rest of the council didn’t think it was appropriate for him to resign which is why we restored him.”

We asked Whitaker about the “gentlemen’s agreement,” and he responded with “No, I don’t think a gentlemen’s agreement plays into good governance.”

While this drama has played itself out, Merino’s campaign did have a positive effect in that Orange now has taken new steps to protect returning veterans to positions of employment and service to their cities when their service as ended.  Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker and Villa Park council member Deborah Pauly also attended the event in support of Bilodeau and Merino

Deborah Pauly

Deborah Pauly


Bruce Whitaker

Bruce Whitaker

There is speculation that Bilodeau’s efforts to return Merino to the planning commission would serve as a spring board for another campaign by Merino to run for Orange City Council.  Merino denied that at the press conference stating he simply cannot afford another run for public office.