Rancho Santa Margarita’s Reopening After COVID: City Council Candidates Discuss

October 16, 2020 Updated: October 18, 2020

How to reopen the local economy is a major concern of voters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, say six of nine candidates running for city council in November.

Incumbents Tony Beall and Carol Gamble are defending two at-large city council seats, both for four-year terms, from challengers Glenn Acosta, Wendy Braun, Beth Schwartz, John Christopoulos, Chris McLaughlin, Julia Bendis, and Andrea Machuca.

The Epoch Times discussed reopening with the candidates, except for Braun, Christopoulos, and Machuca, who could not be reached for comment.

Reopening the Economy

Councilman Tony Beall told The Epoch Times that the number of COVID-19 cases in Rancho Santa Margarita and Orange County in general “simply doesn’t justify these sorts of draconian state-mandated shutdown orders that we’ve been forced to endure. The cure is worse than the disease.”

He spoke of how he and the rest of the city council responded to COVID-19 in March: “Literally, we went door to door knocking on businesses to try and help them. … I’m happy that we were able to assist. That’s what we’re here to do.”

Epoch Times Photo
City Councilmember Tony Beall is defending his seat in the November 2020 election in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. (Courtesy of Tony Beall)

Gamble, a business owner, is also proud of the city council’s efforts to assist local companies during the crisis. She said owners are capable of creating a safe, sanitary environment to reopen and get the economy back on track. “I think we need to let them do that,” she told The Epoch Times.

“I believe that mask-wearing in public is a good idea,” she said. Those who fall into high-risk groups for COVID might not want to go to church or the grocery store, she said, but to continue to hold down the economy is “very destructive.”

If elected, Acosta, director of the Trabuco Canyon Water District, told The Epoch Times he would send a letter urging the county not to place undue hardships on businesses and “keep in mind their survival as they make decisions.”

Epoch Times Photo
Glenn Acosta is running for a city council seat in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., in the November 2020 election. (Courtesy of Glenn Acosta)
Epoch Times Photo
Julia Bendis is running for a city council seat in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., in the November 2020 election. (Courtesy of Julia Bendis)

Julia Bendis, who runs a matchmaking business, panned the Orange County Board of Supervisors, calling their decisions to reopen schools reckless. She said it felt as if they were “just throwing the kids out there as guinea pigs.”

“The decisions that were made were very irresponsible. We did open way too soon. We’re putting our kids in danger, and it is just going to be a matter of days before the school shut down again,” she told The Epoch Times. “Mark my words, it’s going to happen.”

Schwartz, a public health nurse for 22 years, has been on the front lines of the pandemic since it began, and it’s the reason she decided to run for a council seat.

Epoch Times Photo
Beth Schwartz is running for a city council seat in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., in the November 2020 election. (Courtesy of Beth Schwartz)

“I am a COVID-19 nurse, so my days have been very long and very full … and this pandemic has really reminded me of the importance of health care professionals being in local politics,” she told The Epoch Times.

She agrees the number of local COVID-19 cases has been relatively low, but she said some county responses could have been better. For example, she said the county is “having difficulty” figuring out its mask policy.

“If we’re going to continue to beat this pandemic, I really believe someone in the local government needs to be a public health worker, someone who understands it. I can contribute on so many different levels.”

Schwartz said she is all for schools and businesses reopening, but would like it done strategically, and with masks included in the plan. “Understanding and following the state and county guidelines and recommendations is really important to me so that we can beat this. So, I am for opening … but I’m for doing it the right way.”

Mclaughlin, a technical support supervisor who worked as a Hospital Corpsman in a Navy hospital for several years, supports the idea of schools and businesses reopening safely as long as people continue to wear masks and safety precautions are in place, such as testing and contact-tracing programs.

“It would be great if we could do it responsibly. I’m not for locking down the economy forever, and I’m not into waiting for a vaccine. I’m into wearing masks and finding out who has it and telling them to stay home,” he said.

The Budget

Overall, Beall said Rancho Santa Margarita is a well-run city with a balanced budget and more than a year’s budget funding in reserves.

“We finished last year with a surplus. So, even though COVID is impacting us, as well as all the other cities throughout the country, we’re not having to cut any of our services to our residents, because we plan through conservative fiscal planning and saved for a rainy day, and this is our rainy day,” he said.

“We were able to take $500,000 out of our rainy-day fund to make our budgets this year. As it turns out, the sales tax numbers are coming in a little better than we have projected, so we’re not projecting the half-million-dollar shortfall … We actually think we’re going to end up flat, which would be phenomenal,” Gamble said.

High-Density Development

Housing development is another hot issue being discussed as the candidates campaign, they said.

Gamble is frustrated over rumors the Dove Canyon Plaza shopping center could be redeveloped to create high-density housing, even though the developer’s proposal was “soundly rejected.”

“There is no community support for it. There has never been council support for it,” she said. “Every two years since 2012, candidates that wish to be elected to the city council seem to want to make an issue out of that development, and frankly scare the residents into thinking there is going to be some nefarious plan to redevelop it.

“It’s painful for me to watch because, of course, I know … there’s nothing going on there. The community simply can’t accommodate it. It’s just a ridiculous idea.”

“I really get pretty upset at people who wish to run for city council and tell the people in that community that the existing city council members—whether they’re up for re-election or not—are going to support high-density housing, or they’re in the developers’ pockets, or, I don’t know, whatever the story du jour is,” she said.

Beall has promised that he will continue to reject any application to rezone the Dove Canyon Plaza for high-density housing.

Acosta said he is opposed to high-density development in Dove Canyon because of fire risks. If elected, he said he would make a trip to Sacramento to meet with state legislators and committees involved in setting state housing policies.

He opposes Senate Bill 1385 (SB 1385), which he said would “make it easy for commercial properties to be converted over into high-density residential, or to low-income housing.”

Sen. Anna M. Caballero (D-Salinas) authored the bill, and she has said of it: “Every year, the nation witnesses the closure of brick and mortar retailers … because of the shift to shopping on the Internet. … SB 1385 helps the market to catch up with this real world reality by authorizing the adaptive reuse of these vacant parcels into desperately needed residential development.”

Housing policies, Acosta said, should be determined by local planning commissions and not the state, especially in high-risk wildfire areas, such as Rancho Santa Margarita, where some homeowners cannot get fire insurance on their properties.

Schwartz and Bendis both said they oppose high-density housing developments.