Your Tax Dollars at Work

Fairbanks Home Old Town TustinAfter all was said and done with the city’s mishandling of the Fairbanks issue, I decided to do a public records request regarding the entire fiasco. Apparently, the City thought this was important enough to have the City Attorney’s office, Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart, handle the request. I will tell you right now, there are no real smoking guns. After an expected request for extension and what I perceived to be a mild threat (Kane Thuyen, the responding attorney, assures me he did not intend it that way), I got the information I requested. And, although the gun doesn’t smoke, it sure smells like it’s been fired.

The most interesting information was sent to me by email and it was the most important of the half-dozen items I requested. I was told that I could have the bulk of the items copied and sent to me (for a fee). Being the cheapskate I am, I elected to inspect the items at the City Clerks office. So, camera and computer in hand, I made my way down at the appointed time.  The receptionist was incredibly nice when I explained who I was. I assumed from the tone of the attorney’s email that there would be several boxes of items for me to inspect. In fact, I expected to have to make multiple appointments to complete the inspection. Instead, I was surprised to receive one thick file of documents which the clerk plopped down on the counter. I was told I could sit in the corner of the City Clerk’s waiting room and inspect my documents. I assumed I was not supposed to bother any visitors who might come in. So, I set up shop on three chairs and a corner table and went to work. My apologies if you came in that day and had to stand. Blame it on the City Clerk whom I had requested space to work.

As I said, the really important things were in the emailed letter I received from the attorney’s office. For all the work they completed on the Fairbanks issue, the Tustin City Attorney’s office charged an astounding $67,657.56. On top of that, the offices of Jones & Mayer billed the city $16,169.00 for providing the hearing officer for the five months of hearings. The city declined to provide me with any specifics regarding billing, claiming attorney-client privilege.

The city, probably realizing their 20 minute inspection of the property was inadequate, also hired a structural engineer and an architect of their own for another $2,090.30. Unsurprisingly, the city did not track any time spent by city employees specifically for Fairbanks. But, in going through the files, I would surmise that several hundred hours were spent by planning department and building officials, mostly in meetings with the Fairbanks. At 50 or 60 bucks an hour plus benefits, well, you do the math.

None of this would have been necessary without our then dear Mayor, Boss Tweed Amante filing an appeal, in December 2010, of the Planning Commission’s decision to allow the buildings as non-conforming structures, as long as certain rehabilitation was completed. In that letter, Hizzoner states he is appealing the decision because, “…it appears to me that the alleged non-conforming uses are not legal uses or permitted buildings and/or structures.” He goes on to expound, “There is, in my view, a need for a discussion to clarify that the Tustin City Code requires nonconforming buildings, structures, and uses to be legally established at some point and to clarify the legal intent of prior and current definitions of nonconforming buildings, structures and uses and the appropriate application of the code.” So, at this point, Jerry the Architect decided he knew more than the Building Department and Planning Commission (I still remember Hizzoner standing on the dais, waving documents of sewage connection fees as a flag of vindication).

Of course we have, for some time, suspected that city staff, AKA Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack, had the real heartache with Fairbanks. Since she could not, in her capacity as a city employee, appeal the Planning Commission decision, she might have asked Hizzoner to do her dirty work for her. We’ll never know as the only email in the request response of note from Elizabeth is one from August, 2011, stating that the whole issue was taking a lot of time. Elizabeth was apparently oblivious to the fact that it was her department that was the cause of the delay.

While combing through the documents, I did find letters from the Fairbank’s structural engineer stating that the apartments were safe for continued occupancy during the rehabilitation. In fact, everyone, except the city staff, who inspected the property said the same thing. With letters stating such from qualified individuals on both sides, one has to wonder why it came down to the City’s decision to red tag the apartments (to show you how thorough the city was in responding to my request, they even provided me with photocopies of the red tags….in black and white, of course).

And then there is the letter from the Fairbanks attorney, Deborah Rosenthal. The letter, dated January 15, 2012 was a scathing attack on the underhanded way in which the City was attempting to undermine the decision handed down by the hearing officer, Greg Palmer. The City attempted to convince Palmer to modify his proposed findings to align more with what city staffers originally intended (if anyone could figure that out by now). Rosenthal did not mince words when she said:

We were disappointed by both the timing [the city's letter was sent just before the Christmas holidays-ed.] and tone of the letter, which continues to reargue positions found to be factually unsupportable in the Advisory Decision. While we are confident you will recognize the City’s letter as a thinly-veiled request for reconsideration, the property owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bret Fairbanks, would also like to respond to the City’s major points.

The draft Advisory Decision declared flatly that the delay in obtaining permits and beginning construction was clearly the fault of the city. It also did not require removal of existing items (although the Fairbanks did remove the offending carport) or require indemnifying the City as they requested in their letter.

She goes on to state:

As the Fairbanks have reluctantly concluded, it is apparent that City staff is not willing to comply with the letter or spirit of the advisory decision. For this reason, the Fairbanks do not object to inclusion in the recommended Findings of the specific actions required to bring the property into compliance.

In other words, the City finally wore them down.

That is, of course, what Jerry and Elizabeth probably intended from the beginning. Unfortunately, they used taxpayer money, your money, to chase windmills. over $80,000 was spent on Jerry’s Folly. And, to what end? As we said in a previous post, the City got little more than they would have gotten by working with the Fairbanks rather than try to impose the will of Jerry and Elizabeth. They would not have increased the animosity of the residents in Old Town (you have no idea the emails I have received) to the level it has. In fact, everyone would have been satisfied. But, as I have said before, Elizabeth and Jerry appear to hate Old Town and would like nothing more than a general razing of the area to suit their “vision” of the city. Thankfully, we have hometown folks who have enough fortitude and intelligence to realize this issue goes far beyond their property line.

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