Tiffany Ackley didn’t expect to go into politics. After receiving her law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law, she decided to become an environmental attorney. Since then, she has advocated for stronger environmental standards on behalf of Orange County Cities and Water Districts.
Nine years ago, she decided to move with her family to Aliso Viejo. It didn’t take long for her to gain a position on her respective Homeowner Association (HOA) board. She has served as both treasurer and president. This platform has provided her with an opportunity to hear firsthand about the issues of greatest concern for residents in the city of Aliso Viejo.
Following the 2016 election, Ackley noticed increased political polarization at all levels of government. As a result of this shift in the political arena, the actions taken by the city council of Aliso Viejo typically reflect partisan preoccupations at the expense of the city’s constituents. Having recognized this troubling trend, Tiffany Ackley decided to run for city council.
On the campaign trail, she has made it a point to emphasize her commitment to serving the needs of the community as opposed to engaging in political squabbles. Also, she believes there needs to be a woman’s voice on a city council whose membership consists of all men. Notably, she received an endorsement from the Orange County Young Democrats.
Prior to her electoral victory, I sat down with her to discuss her candidacy. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
JN: When did you realize you wanted to run for city council? Specifically, what was it that inspired you to do so?
TA: Well in November 2016, I think a lot of people felt a shift in the political arena. I felt that. But also, a few days later after Donald Trump was elected, I found out that I had a brain tumor. And I had to drive my kids out to my in-laws’ house. They were then 3 and 6 months. And say goodbye to them for the last time. Not knowing whether I was going to live through the brain surgery. When I did, when I got out and I was healthy I thought never again would I ever be in a situation where I was saying goodbye to my children without feeling like I had tried to make something better of this world for them.
Shortly thereafter, we all drove up to LA to go to the Women’s March and it was sort of that congregation of women and this fire inside of me and things were changing so rapidly that I just decided I had to do something. So that was it. In January of 2017.
JN: Prior to making that decision, growing up, did you have an interest in politics?
TA: I don’t know if it was necessarily an interest in politics. It was more an interest in fundamental fairness and what was right or wrong. So you know I usually was the student body president or when I was in college I was the environmental chair. It’s separate from politics. It was more just making sure that things were being handled in what I thought was the appropriate fashion.
JN: Turning to the local level, having spoken with several residents, what do you believe are the biggest issues of concern in the city? And how would you address them?
TA: A lot of people aren’t really aware of issues that are happening in the city. However, they are more aware of issues at the county level. For example, homelessness, sanctuary state issues. Here in AV, some people are attuned to the Aliso Viejo Community Association (AVCA) which is the master HOA. AV is essentially run by this master HOA. So the city only runs two parks and AVCA runs the other parks. That causes some residents concern because they feel the city should be running parks. It causes other residents to feel more secure because they don’t trust that the current city council could actually run those parks and the community events in an effective and efficient way that AVCA does. But generally, in Aliso Viejo, we are what I call a sleepy city. People aren’t paying attention to the micro-local level issues.
JN: Staying on the subject of AVCA, how do you plan to foster greater cooperation between the city and AVCA? That seems to be an issue of a lot of concern for residents.
TA: It is. I spent ten years being a litigator so I was in court and I was paid to disagree professionally with people who were paid to have a different position than I was. And so you develop a skill of identifying the interest of the other person and appealing to those interests in a way that appeals to both parties. That’s a skill that is not currently present on the council. Somebody needs to come in there with a level head and say, Look, you want this and they want this and there is a middle road. Let’s find the middle road. You just have to basically act like a mediator. Nobody is doing that at this point.
JN: From an environmental perspective, are there any initiatives run by other cities that you would like to see implemented in AV?
TA: Just to clarify I did ten years of working for cities when they were sued. And then I started to get into the environmental law and then I switched full-time into environmental law. Some of the ideas that I would have would require the cooperation of AVCA. For example, if you look at Palm Desert: they had this tax incentive where if people put solar panels on their roofs or insulated windows to help maintain energy costs, they were given a tax break. I think that was a really great idea. I think its something that AV should look into doing. But you would have to work cooperatively with AVCA because they are the master HOA. But things like that where you are sort of introducing environmentally-friendly policies and getting people interested in participating in that.
JN: Given that AV has been a historically conservative city, how do you plan to tailor your message and your agenda to not only potential voters, but also the city council?
TA: So we are traditionally a red city. We have been a red stronghold for decades. That changed in 2016 where our city voted blue for Hillary. I think that part of the problem, on both of sides, is that everybody has become so polarized. The politicians are either one extreme take Donald Trump for example. Or Nancy Pelosi. They are so extreme that people no longer identify with them. Even at local politics, we have seen local politicians go to those polar extremes. I am not like that. I am very much sort of a moderate. I consider all sides before making my decision. And that’s been an appealing message that most people have responded to. My agenda is very tailored to the current city council and city issues. When I’m elected, my goal is to work for the city and all of its residents, including Soka University residents.
JN: So let’s turn to the activities of the city council itself. You have pointed out that the city council has canceled 30 percent of its meetings. Taxpayers then have to foot the bill. If elected to city council, what specific accountability measures, if any, would you like to introduce or see implemented?
TA: My biggest issue in terms of accountability for the city council is having a comprehensive code of conduct. We don’t have one. They voted 4-1 not to consider adopting one. The reason why is three out of five of the councilmen have violated federal laws. The problem is there is no repercussion at the city council level because they vote to not take action against that certain councilman. A comprehensive code of conduct wouldn’t leave that decision to the councilmen. It would say look if you violate a federal law or if you miss this amount of meetings then this is what happens as a result. It’s a basic ethical standard that we don’t have. We need to have more accountability of our councilmen.
JN: Something you have brought up on the campaign trail repeatedly is the need for campaign finance reform. You have highlighted the influence of the Koch Brothers on this city’s elections. Specifically, you said one in ten political ads were sponsored by the Koch Brothers in 2014. What types of contribution limits would you like to see in future election cycles in this city? And more importantly, what will you personally do to ensure citizens have their voices heard?
TA: Right now, AV doesn’t have a contribution limit which means that any of the corporations or the people anywhere can donate any amount they want to a councilmembers re-election fund. In the case of a city contractor, for example, the trash company could give the councilmember a check for $10,000. When that contractor’s contract comes up for renewal, they don’t recuse themselves from the voting to renew it. Essentially they are buying the vote.
We are one of the only cities in OC that doesn’t have contribution limits. I think that if you look at Irvine, it’s $490. If you look at Anaheim, it’s $2000. There’s got to be some happy medium where you say look if you give $1000, you can’t give anymore. So that way votes aren’t for sale. People can’t give $10,000 to one particular person and expect that person to vote a certain way.
The bigger question is how do we prevent politics from becoming a game just for the rich? Right. So if a candidate is allowed to put as much money as she wants to into her campaign because it’s a freedom of speech issue. And you have contribution limits. How is a poor person expected to get into politics? They can’t sell fund. They will have a hard time raising money. A rich person will be able to give as much money as she has and/or go to all of her friends and say you and your spouse and your children all give me the maximum. I have struggled with whether or not there should be a limitation on how much you can spend on a campaign. That might help. But I haven’t fully analyzed the issue.
JN: How will you personally ensure there is a platform for all citizens to voice their concerns?
TA: Last Wednesday we had a meeting where the mayor tried to make it so that a member of the public couldn’t speak at the city council meeting. He had to be corrected first by the city manager. Then by the city clerk. Finally, by the city attorney. All three of them said no that man has a right to speak the mayor just didn’t want to let him speak. That’s a problem. It’s a problem when you’ve got a mayor who says you are not allowed to speak in these council meetings because then you are depriving the public of a voice.
It’s a problem when you are canceling 30% of the meetings because then you are not allowing the public to voice their opinions. I would make sure everybody is fully and completely aware of all the rules as it relates to public speaking. I admire Ross Chun and the fact that he does those coffee chats. I do something very similar as a candidate. They are called Breakfast with Tiffany. It’s just over at Panera. When I’m elected, its something I will keep doing. It will be once a month. I will just be over at Panera for an hour or two. My next one will be on October 27th, at 9:00 am.
If you’ve got an issue, come and talk with me because a lot of people find it intimidating to go into a council meeting. To stand up in front of a microphone. To be televised. Providing access to a councilmember in an informal setting where you can talk one-on-one is a really nice way of giving most people a platform to speak.
JN: Lastly, as a voter who is on the fence, why should I vote for you?
TA: Well, I think that there is a distinct lack of a voice of reason on our city council. And when you look at the composition of it, it’s clear to see why. They are gentlemen who have political aspirations for higher office- almost all of them. I am not like that. I have two kids, a full-time job that I absolutely love, a husband. I am doing this merely because I don’t think they are acting in an ethical fashion and in a way that best represents all of the people in the city. And so when you vote for me, you are not voting for a Democrat or a Republican or somebody who is going to run for sheriff. Or somebody who is going to run for assembly. You are voting for someone who is truly just interested in AV.