(This column appears in the December 20, 2012 Tustin News – ed.) The post-election lull is in full swing here in our town Tustin. Following a contentious battle for three seats on the city council, the new supermajority, led by our new Mayor Al Murray, will have to hit the new year running. If we had a wish list of issues this council will have to tackle, it would start with these three.
Tustin Unified Lawsuits – January rings in a new year and 28 days later the city goes to trial in the original lawsuit with Tustin Unified School District. Earlier this year, the city increased the schism between the two with another lawsuit against the school district for changing the use of the Heritage Elementary School. Originally built to service the residents on the MCAS property, the district decided to temporarily house continuation schools and administrative services there when they couldn’t find enough school age kids to open the school as originally planned. The city opposed the move with ill-contrived legal arguments that were laughed out of court. Even with a change of venue, the city could not get past poor legal arguments and lost the suit a few months in.
That leaves the original lawsuit brought by the school district which has been continued at least twice. And, even though there is still time to resolve this without a trial the city is likely to lose, there may not be a will. During a harsh campaign season, Mayor pro tem Chuck Puckett was largely non-committal and Councilman Allan Bernstein was beating the drum loudly against the school district, vowing stay the line on the lawsuits. We suggest now that campaign season is over, they put away the war bonnets and sit down one last time. It seems over two million dollars of taxpayer money could have been better spent elsewhere.
The Hole in the Budget – For the past few years, the city council has been relying on reserves to balance the budget rather than make hard decisions regarding finances. Although they touted several budget cutting measures this year, including the golden parachutes for 35 retiring employees, it remains to be seen what -if any- money will have been saved. Lawsuits with the school district have drained over a million dollars from city coffers and, if the city loses the lawsuit in January, they will likely be forced to pay out another million or so to the school district for their attorney fees.
A New City Council Supermajority – There was a lot of glad handing at the latest city council meeting when new councilmembers Puckett and Bernstein were installed and John Nielsen rejoined them for a second term. Councilmember Al Murray, now a veteran, was chosen to be the first African-American mayor of the city. And, in a move that surprised no one except Councilmember Beckie Gomez, newly installed Councilmember Chuck Puckett was given the Mayor pro tem position as a final slap in the face to what is left of the liberal base on the dais. Chief combatants, Jerry Amante and Deborah Gavello, are history leaving a supermajority of pro-business councilmen to tend the city.
Before they sell the city to the highest bidder, however, they might remember that only 400 votes separated the winners from the losers. The voters have little tolerance for the antics of the past few years and there is another election coming only two years from now. The redeeming quality of the council overall is the experience that all but one brings to the table. Puckett is not only a council retread, he has kept his hand in city politics as a planning commissioner and has stayed active in civic affairs. Not so for freshman councilman Allan Bernstein, an unknown who clawed his way to victory as an Amante-backed business advocate with no civic or political experience. To make his mark, he needs to tone down the rhetoric heard during his campaign and focus on learning the job.
The city council should take the time in the new year to reflect on a true vision for this city that will benefit the residents who live here. Finding a true fix to the budget and mending fences with the school district would be a good start.