Rallying to a cry of "local control," citizens in El Toro and Laguna Hills appeared to be declaring independence from Orange County government Tuesday in referendums to form the county's 30th and 31st cities.
"We were confident cityhood would win, but we never wanted to take anything for granted," Ellen Martin, chairwoman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, said as early returns showed cityhood winning overwhelming approval.
Newly elected City Councilwoman Helen Wilson of El Toro said she was equally confident the referendum would win voter approval in that community.
"We were greatly worried about 3 p.m. when we had a 7% turnout compared to the 22% in Laguna Hills," Wilson said. "But we really came on after that, and there was a good turnout. We are really pleased."
In a separate ballot measure in El Toro, voters said they preferred to call their new city Lake Forest, which barely edged out the older El Toro name. The third choice, Rancho Canada, was a distant third.
Council members for the new municipalities, who also were elected Tuesday, will take office Dec. 20, when incorporation takes effect.
The creation of the two cities continues a trend in rapidly growing South Orange County that began in 1987 when Mission Viejo, followed by Dana Point and Laguna Niguel, voted to incorporate.
After an almost four-year battle and previously failed cityhood referendums in both El Toro and Laguna Hills, residents decided that it was time to break away from county government, which had not been able to keep up with the growing demands of the expanding communities.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, who supported the right of citizens to vote on cityhood but refused to take a position on the referendums, dropped in on the cityhood celebrations to offer his congratulations.
"The results speak for themselves," he said in El Toro. "The people, by their vote tonight, have determined that they want self-determination."
In Laguna Hills, Vasquez promised the county's support through the transition period.
Voter turnout in El Toro was 31.4% and in Laguna Hills 40.3%.
By a 2-to-1 margin, El Toro voters approved Measure E, which called for the incorporation of a 15-square-mile area with a population of 58,000, located north of Mission Viejo and east of Interstate 5.
In Laguna Hills, the cityhood referendum, Measure H, received stronger support, leading by a 5 to 1 margin. The new city would include 23,000 residents and cover 5 square miles in an area west of Interstate 5 and north of Laguna Niguel.
Each city chose five council members to guide the new governments.
Out of a state of 11 candidates, El Toro winners were: Wilson, 40, a community volunteer who placed first in the City Council race in Saddleback Valley's failed cityhood election; Ann Van Haun, 56, a university administrative employee; Richard Thomas Dixon, 42, a businessman; Marcia Rudolph, 50, a teacher and community volunteer who was elected to the council in the unsuccessful Saddleback Valley bid for cityhood in 1988; and Tim Link, 35, a teacher and businessman.
Cityhood leaders and founders of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills led the balloting for the council seates there. The winners were: Melody Carruth, 38, founder and former co-chairwoman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills and previously elected to the City Council during a cityhood election that failed; Joel Lautenschleger, 46, executive vice president and principal owner of Mesa Verde Convalescent Hospital and past co-chairman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills; Craig Scott, 37, an attorney who was elected twice to city councils in failed cityhood elections; L. Allen Songstad Jr., 44, an attorney who was elected to the council during the last failed cityhood election and former co-chairman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills; and Randal J. Bressette, 37, a financial planner and former treasurer of the cityhood committee.
The final days of the campaign in El Toro were marked by charges and countercharges. Slow-growth proponents and some council candidates alleged that two South County developers were attempting to control the new city's politics by contributing to the cityhood campaign and to the election efforts of Dean, Dixon, Rudolph, Smith and Wilson.
The vote over the naming of El Toro followed a spirited debate between longtime residents of Saddleback Valley, who argued for El Toro, the name of the community since the mid-1800s, and Lake Forest advocates, who said their selection sounded more chic and would probably increase the city's property values. Few residents supported Rancho Canada, the original name on the Spanish land grant.
The pre-election rancor in Laguna Hills centered on a proposal by candidate William Simmons to rebate to residents the $3.3-million budget surplus that is projected in the city's first-year budget.
Front-running candidates labeled the plan fraudulent and an attempt by Simmons to lure voters to the polls.