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Unity Day Strikes Note of Discord

Politics: A Sept. 11 memorial widens rift among Mission Viejo City Council members. But sponsors say it wasn't intentional.

September 04, 2002|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a city beset by bitter political divisions, even the best of intentions can spark a conflagration. Such is the case in Mission Viejo, where a planned "day of unity" commemorating Sept. 11 has resulted in anything but.

The rhetoric and conspiracy theories started spreading soon after residents began receiving fliers in the mail announcing the interfaith "day of unity and prayer," including a candlelight vigil, to be held Monday at a local Islamic mosque.

The problem is that not every City Council member's name was listed on the announcement as supporting the event.

"It's incomprehensible," Councilwoman Gail Reavis said. "It's unity day, come on--wouldn't you want to show people that you are a unified City Council?"

Reavis is one of the two council members whose names didn't appear under the portion of the flier indicating that the event was to be "presented by" the city of Mission Viejo and listing the names of Mayor Susan Withrow, Mayor Pro-Tem Sherri M. Butterfield and former Mayor William S. Craycraft. They make up the council's voting majority on most issues.

Also absent was the name of Councilman John Paul Ledesma, who usually joins Reavis in opposing the majority bloc. Ledesma, in fact, is running for reelection--along with Withrow and Butterfield--on Nov. 5. He could not be reached for comment.

"I never got an invitation," Reavis said. "We have a bitterly divided City Council with 64 days before the election. We also have a very large Muslim community here with a mosque whose members got fliers saying that this event is sponsored by the city but listing only three council members.

"The implication is that we don't support the mosque or the Muslim community," she said.

She doesn't blame the mosque, Reavis said, but the council majority, which "operates on a need-to-know basis--they don't like telling us things. We were just never told."

Withrow denies withholding information on the vigil.

"All I know is that I got an e-mail inviting me to attend," she said, "and I agreed. I've been invited to lots of these events. I have no idea who else was or wasn't invited and I have no control over that."

She said that the city isn't sponsoring the event, despite what the flier says.

"That's wrong," Withrow said. "My guess is that it was just an innocent mistake. They probably think that because city officials are attending they can say it's a city function."

But Mohannad Malas, a spokesman for the Orange County Islamic Foundation--which sent out the invitations and fliers and runs the Mission Viejo Masjid where the vigil is to be held--said no mistake was made.

The event was described as "presented by" the city, he said, because it will open with a welcome from Withrow. She and Butterfield were invited, he said, as the city's mayor and mayor pro-tem. And Craycraft's name was added to the list, Malas said, because he was the city's mayor on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Many of our people were under extreme pressure at that time," Malas said, "and we worked with him during a very tough period. We have invited representatives from several other cities as well, but only the mayors and mayors pro-tem."

On Tuesday, though, Malas and his foundation colleagues were working to mend fences.

"This is a day of showing unity and remembrance for the victims of Sept. 11," he said. "We're not excluding anybody."

To drive that point home, he said, mosque representatives attended Tuesday night's Mission Viejo City Council meeting and handed the two overlooked council members written invitations to next week's commemoration.

"We're trying to do what we can to appease," Malas said. "We want to create a day of unity, not a day of bad feelings."

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