Monthly Archives: September 2012

Where’s the Goodwill, Deborah?

Last month, the Planning Commission had an intersting public hearing on whether to allow an upscale version of a Goodwill thrift store to set up shop in Larwin Square. The store, known by the brand “Threads”, would be more like a posh shop featuring higher end merchandise that is not usually found in the run-of-the-mill thrift shop. Corrine Allen, representing Goodwill Industries, said she was excited to bring this concept to our community. Ninety percent of the goods sold at the store would be thrift shop items with another ten percent sold as new. As with other Goodwill stores, there would be a donation area in the rear.

When I first heard about this concept I thought, “What a great idea.” My family and I have occasionally shopped at Goodwill stores and have sometimes found some real treasures. With a store coming to Tustin, I felt we would be shopping there more often. Apparently, the Planning Commission felt the same way and unanimously approved the conditional use permit and location of the store.

There were a few objections, of course, mostly from other businesses. Two of the objections were pretty vague and did not state specific reasons other than the fact the First Street Specific Plan did not include thrift stores. However, it does include retail stores and the proposed use is really more like a boutique rather than what one usually thinks of as a thrift store. Larwin Square has been host to many dress shops, t-shirt shops and even a Joanne’s which sells fabric and arts & crafts items.

A third objection was made by Ian Carter, who owns the Wellington Plaza across from Larwin Square. He named the same issue that the store is not an approved type of business for the First Street Specific Plan and questioned why the need for another Goodwill store when there are four others within a 5 mile area. He went on to say the addition of a thrift store “downgrades the area which is primarily office buildings.”

Now, Carter must be a friend of Jerry and John because he  then says:

Wellington Plaza has had difficulty policing its office complex with undesirable individuals coming into the complex. Our building has been broken into on at least two separate occasions and computers and miscellaneous items stolen. The police are hard pressed to stop such incidents. The city can help by not allowing incompatible uses in this zoning area which will have the effect of bringing an element into the area surrounding our office spaces.

Let’s see, this is starting to sound like the argument used by the city council in the failed Heritage School lawsuit against TUSD where the city’s argument was that folks in Columbus Square were being forced to bus their kids to substandard, overcrowded schools that “primarily serve  minority students.”

Essentially, the objections are baseless. Goodwill has a stellar reputation over its 87 years in Orange County. They provide jobs to folks who would otherwise be written off and provide valuable services to the business community and local government where their clients are placed for work. None of it is make work and they are considered valued employees by the folks who are smart enough to hire them, including my own employer. We have used Goodwill employees for a lot longer than I have been around.

And, it is these stores that make it possible to do their work.

So, as I said, the Planning Commission read the objections, weighed the arguments and, with some minor modifications, approved the CUP. Goodwill was good to go with “Threads”. And then, the other shoe dropped.

Anyone can file an appeal to a Planning Commission recommendation. I was surprised to see Councilmember Deborah Gavello file this one. When I heard about it, I immediately emailed her. I first

Courtesy of the Liberal OC

received a return email saying that she could not talk about it. When I reminded her that the Brown Act did not apply and that I was only asking what she was objecting to, she gave me a rather cryptic answer and refused to discuss the issue further.

A few days later, the City Council agenda was published. Attached to the public hearing on the matter was a staff report that inlcuded Gavello’s appeal. Again, we were left with a cryptic answer as her appeal said only that it was based on “location”.  So, given all the benefits that opening “Threads” would bring to the community, we have to wonder what new argument she could bring to the table that would be so earth shattering it would cause the rest of the council to uphold the appeal.

For our part, we recommend the city council deny the appeal and uphold the Planning Commission’s findings. This store will be an asset to our community where we can use good businesses that will give folks another reason to stop and shop here. If the donation area in the rear of the store is the issue, Goodwill has readily agreed to all proposed modifications including a guarantee the area is kept free of donations during off hours and adding additional security cameras. In fact, they have gone above and beyond to accommodate nearly every request made without complaint. That tells me they have faith in this concept and look forward to being a bonafide member of the Tustin business community.

So, stop your griping, Deborah, and show a little goodwill.

The Grass is Greenah in…uh, Pasadena

Work with me here…

You probably know that I make a lot of requests for information from the city. And, under the California Public Records Act, they are obliged to give it to me whether they want to or not (mostly not). A lot of stuff I ask for, admittedly, is a fishing expedition that will hopefully turn up the dirt I am looking for. Sometimes you just have to connect enough dots to make sense of what our “transparent” city is trying to hide.

A reader of mine (and apparent staffer at City Hall) alerted me to the impending departure of Tustin Human Resources Director, Krisine Recchia. I smelled a story of pain, deceit and freedom but I don’t publish unverified information. So, I was looking for something that would indicate some truth to the story. While making another PRA request I decided to slip in a second request to “provide me with the resignation letter or other documentation on the resignation of HR Director Kristine Recchia. A half hour later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from the lady herself.

Kristine said she saw my PRA request for her letter of resignation and knew the city probably would decline to provide it to me due to personnel matters. So, she wanted to make sure I had the correct story about why she was leaving the city. Indeed, she had accepted a position with the city of Pasadena as Director of Human Resources. Kristine, who came to the city of Tustin from a Santa Fe Springs mid-level management position, has been with us for about six and a half years. Of her move to Pasadena, she said, “This is a fantastic opportunity for me. I will be moving into an expanded position with much more responsibility. The city of Pasadena is a full service city with over 800 employees. I am looking forward to the new challenges of a new job.”

When asked, Kristine was adamant that she loved Tustin. In fact, she lives here with her family and intends to remain here. She said the only motivation for her move was the new opportunities that would come with the position. I imagine the new salary will not hurt either. In comparing overall compensation between the two cities, Her base compensation could rise more than $30 thousand dollars a year.  There are other perks that go with a job that size as well. And, she won’t have to change retirement systems as both Tustin and Pasadena are in PERS.

In speaking with Dan Chmielewski of The Liberal OC, Dan said that Kristine is one of the few staff members whom he felt always tried to be as transparent as possible with him. “It’s unusual to find an HR director who will be as frank and professional as Kristine is”. The fact that Kristine wanted to get in front of her departure and make sure I had all the information I needed says volumes for her reputation.

Kristine officially leaves city employment for greener pastures on September 30th. Please join me in bidding her a fond farewell and good luck in her new position. One thing is for sure: Pasadena may be a much bigger city but they still have the hometown feel and lots of trees (and the world class Norton-Simon Museum of Art). So, Kristine should feel right at home. And, as we said before, she intends to continue to live here with her family so we will not lose her completely. Hmm. Perhaps we’ll see a new side of Kristine.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

You may not have heard but, John Nielsen held a Town Hall meeting a couple of weeks ago. You may not have heard because, as Councilmember Beckie Gomez pointed out at the last city council meeting, it was not very well advertised. In fact, it appeared to be pointed directly at Old Town residents rather than the community as a whole. John claimed notice went out to OTT residents, but I never saw anything myself… neither did anyone else I talked to. Maybe, Lindburgh and Michael got an email.

It was a rather mundane affair that turned out to be more of a campaign effort for the good Mayor than a vehicle for communication between the city and its residents. While Nielsen, who could not have spoken had it not been for the PowerPoint presentation, rambled on about how much the city has done to improve the Old Town Business District (there was some dissension about that), the friend I was with pointed out the glaring absence and then sudden appearance of certain members of the council and council candidates.

Now, it is my habit -borne from my years as a peace officer- to scan any room I enter for possible threats. Along with checking my rear view mirror (I’m thinking about changing cars weekly) much more frequently, that has become even more imperative since I began blogging in Our Town Tustin. When I entered the community meeting room at the library, I’m pretty sure I saw Councilmember Beckie Gomez among the several city staffers and local talent I recognized. I did not notice any of the others. Of course, I did not expect to see Deborah because of the date. However, I did notice that neither of John’s cronies were around. And, while I did see council candidates, David Waldram and Tracy Worley-Hagen, I did not see the other two candidates, Chuck Puckett and Allan Bernstein- that is, until a few minutes later.

As my friend pointed out, John spotted Waldram and Worley-Hagen in the audience and suddenly ran out of the room, cellphone in hand, into the hallway. Although I wasn’t privy to his phone call, it was just a few minutes later when his cronies showed up, en masse, to make the rounds. I’m sure the sudden phone call and subsequent appearance of “Team Tustin” and the Three Amigos could have been a coincidence.

And, John got free publicity out of the whole thing. After all, who do you think picked up the tab for the cookies and milk?

Ain’t No Sunshine in Tustin

We have been keeping a close eye on our neighbors to the West of us and how they will handle an ordinance proposed by the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD). As reported in the Voice of OC, SACReD sponsored an ordinance that would create a new level of transparency in government. Santa Ana politicos have long lamented the secretive world in which the Santa Ana City Council often conducts business. In past years, they have been accused of scores of Brown Act violations as well as running roughshod over small businesses and the resident artist community alike.

While much of what SACReD asked for in their proposed ordinance is the subject of state law already, we can see their issue with a city council that has declined to work interactively with the community at large. Also at issue is how willing the Orange County District Attorney has been willing to investigate and prosecute violations of the Brown Act and other regulatory laws, particularly when those being investigated claim Republican Party affiliation. However, one part of the proposal has to do with lobbyist registration which, along with the publishing of each councilmember’s calendar, would have opened up the secretive bed in which lobbyists and the politicians they attempt to influence to public scrutiny lie. Not a bad thing in anyone’s book, unless you are a lobbyist or an influenced politician.

If you have to ask why an ordinance like this is needed, it was summed up when Councilmember Carlos Bustamante asked SACReD organizer Ana Urzua what she would gain by knowing who the councilman is meeting with, she replied, “So we know we cant trust you.”

City staffers have been sent back to work on the ordinance including the changes the city council and SACReD agreed upon. That should happen in a couple of weeks. It is likely to be a watered down version of the original proposal, but it is a start.

By coincidence, or perhaps by karma, a proposal to shed more sunshine on the business of the Tustin City Council was also introduced on the same evening as Santa Ana’s proposal. In this case, the issue was raised by Councilmember Deborah Gavello, who asked her colleagues to consider agendizing discussion of a proposed policy or ordinance on lobbying. Gavello read a short piece on ethics in government to support her position for an anti-lobbying ordinance. She mentioned that the City of Irvine has a strong policy on ethics and lobbying.

In speaking with Gavello on this, she said that she is concerned about the lack of policy on ethical behavior and the possibility that some former councilmembers have -or could- come to a sitting councilmember and, because of their former position, immediately lobby for their interests. We agree this is an issue worthy of consideration by the city council and that it should also include lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmembers’ official calendars.

John Nielsen, in an apparent move to obscure the issue, mentioned that the strategic planning coming up in October had an ethics component. He was concerned that, by agendizing an item as Gavello wanted, they would be requiring the staff to cover ground twice and addressing the issue in bit and piece fashion would not be to the benefit of the city (we’ll spare you the cost-saving remarks our fiscally responsible mayor made).

Councilmember Beckie Gomez did a great job of bringing the two issues together:

I think the gist of what Deborah is trying to do, and I could be wrong but, is maybe to encompass that with the strategic plan, that we are considering that policy, that ordinance, I’m not sure what she brought forward. I agree with you that we should not be duplicating effort but, that it would be incorporated into what we’re doing.

Surprisingly, John agreed.

Gavello, saying that she doesn’t trust “us”, said she does not see the strategic plan coming back with an ordinance. Saying that the strategic plan does consider ethics, lobbying is not mentioned at all and that is why she felt it needed to be brought forward for consideration by the council. Of course, Jerry can’t pass up any opportunity to hear himself bash Deborah so Hizzoner goes on about how the two ways to get an item agendized is either to discuss it with the mayor and city manager or to make a motion and obtain a second for a vote.

Uh, didn’t she just do that?

Fortunately, Coucilmember Gomez came to Deborah’s rescue and seconded her motion, “for purposes of discussion.”

Jerry apparently did not have enough air time. So, he decided to go on the offensive and accuse Gavello of using the lobbying issue as a personal attack on him for taking a position with an influential lobbying firm that deals with public entities. Saying that she has never been concerned about the issue before, she is only concerned now because of his employment and the fear he will come back and lobby the city. Telling her to “calm down little lady”  [you know you heard it] because there are “state laws that govern who I can lobby.”

We’ll get back to that statement later.

Thanks to Gomez, the vote was not a complete wash. Unfortunately, the Three Amigos voted together and the city attorney, when questioned by Gavello as to the rules regarding having something agendized, backpedaled into the three on the right sputtering, “It is not against the Brown Act to vote to agendize an item.” That’s not what she asked, of course, but it was enough of a sidestep by David Kendig to keep him firmly entrenched with the boys.

So, there will be no sunshine in Tustin, at least as long as the Three Amigos are holding the ball. Does that mean that Tustin does not deserve a sunshine ordinance? Aside from what Hizzoner Amante ranted about, the state law is vague on local government lobbying. In fact, there is very little written about it and there is, unless local ordinance or policy specifically prohibits it, little to prevent a former councilmember or city staffer from immediately lobbying members of the council as well as the members of boards such as the Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange County Fire Authority or the Transportation Corridor Agencies on which they may have served. It doesn’t hurt that the Orange County District Attorney shies away from investigating political violations and the vagueness of current law is often used as an excuse not to investigate.

Sunshine laws, such as the one Santa Ana is considering and Councilmember Gavello asked to be agendized for consideration by the Tustin City Council, are effective in insuring that the citizens whom the city serves are kept informed and aware of issues affecting them. This goes much further than simply posting an agenda or the financial report on the city website. It goes further than having the public information officer post pictures of city events and contests for the kids on the city’s Facebook page. It has to do with, as Gavello says, ethical behavior by those who are supposed to serve the city. It goes to trust of a city council and staff who often have a difficult time treating citizens without disdain, let alone their colleagues on the board. And yes, Jerry, it has to do with you.

Ever hear the old kids taunt, “Liar Liar, pants on fire?” Well we are surprised Jerry Amante didn’t burst into flames for his apparent untruths on the dais. Jerry says:

Let me begin by addressing the misstatement by Councilwoman Gavello, so we clear the air. All the time you have been serving on the council, councilwoman, I have been practicing law, not lobbying. I joined FSB Core  Strategies July second. I don’t lobby in the county. I don’t lobby any of the agencies I belong to. I, uh, follow the rules just as they have been written in state law. So, you have no basis to make scurrilous remarks.

Uh-huh. Well, that’s not what we hear, even from the man himself. It seems that, even though good ol’ Jer has found legitimate employment (we hear working for a woman by the way), he wasn’t always dependent upon someone else for a paycheck. Amante, indeed, has or had a law firm that practiced law. Among other things, his website lists advocacy for a number of entities including business. In fact, one web page says plainly:

GOVERNMENT RELATIONS – The firm provides strategic consultaion [sic] to clients with matters pending before government bodies or regulatory agencies. It represents clients before local, regional, state and federal governments and agencies. It specializes in the negotiation and presentation of complex matters for its clients and it frequently consults with other firms to assist them in their strategic planning for their clients. It is dedicated to the success of client projects and in zealous advocacy for them. It has particular expertise in land development, financing, construction and the like.

I don’t think you could get a more precise definition of lobbying if you looked it up in Webster’s Dictionary. And, while I won’t go as far as to say he has lobbied other Tustin councilmembers on behalf of his clients, others seem to think he has.

Somehow, we think this issue is not dead. There is that so-called “strategic plan” coming up for discussion. And, there will be a changing of the guard in November. Worse comes to worse, when Tustinites actually do get fed up with the dismal track record of their elected officials, this is a prime candidate for a ballot measure.

In the meantime, thanks largely to the Three Amigos on the city council, Tustin will remain dark.

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