The first meeting of the year for the Tustin City Council proved my prophesy that new blood will create new stories for Our Town Tustin. After a benign but professional presentation of the American Flag by Tustin American Legion Post 227, the new city council wasted no time in showing their true colors. Things got so busy on the dais, I think councilmember Beckie Gomez expected to see a Shriner car full of clowns driving around.
It started with the Oral Communications portion of the agenda when Tustin resident Chad Ortley asked the city council whether there was some new policy to allow “a party type facility in residential neighborhoods. My contention is the code only allows those types of uses in a commercial zoning district. But, some members of the public are not sure whether there’s been an exception to allow non-profits and, if so, how many persons would be able to attend that event and how often. So, I think it would be beneficial to receive clarification on that for staff purposes and, if that is the case, something the city wishes to allow, at least some members of the public would appreciate clarification…”
At that point, Councilman Chuck Puckett interrupted the speaker to say that he would have to recuse himself from the discussion. Although Ortley said he was speaking only in generalities and not to a particular situation, Puckett quickly surmised the topic was specifically about the Wilcox Manor and the efforts of the owners to turn it into a for-profit events center. What happened next, though, was comical to watch.
The city attorney was asked for his opinion. Surprisingly, he did not bring up the FPPC ruling and told the Puckett he should actually recuse himself, “given how related the two are, I’d probably advise you to recuse yourself.” Faster than a clown puts on greasepaint, councilmen John Nielsen and Allan Bernstein both yelled out, “I need to do that as well!” They then scrambled to see who could leave council chambers the quickest.
Of course, this left the dais without a quorum and city attorney Kendig was quick to state that it presented a “new issue” in that there was no longer enough councilmembers to carry on business. In order for any discussion to take place, the three members who recused themselves would have to draw straws to see which one would come back to the dais. The attorney left to fetch the three while Ortley finished his comment on the subject. The question arises as to what the three councilmembers who recused themselves discussed outside the council chambers. After all, they did have a quorum. (it also begs the question of how drawing straws would eliminate a conflict of interest if it would bring one of the conflicted back for the discussion).
A few minutes later, the two of the Three Amigos returned and took their seats. Not for long, however. When Kendig returned to council chambers, he observed that, since Ortley had finished his commentary, it was appropriate for the councilmen to return to the dais and that straws need not be drawn after all. The podiatrist councilman must have made a pit stop as it took him a little longer to get to his seat, necessitating the good mayor leaving the dais to retrieve him. Perhaps he got lost in the mens room.
So, Bernstein finally shows up with a bewildered look on his face and Murray takes up where he left off at Public Hearing Item No. 1… the Conditional Use Permit for Wilcox Manor. Believe it or not (you can believe it, you read it here), that engendered an entirely new round of who had to leave and who had to draw straws to see who got to stay. In the end, Kendig decided they did not need to draw straws unless further action needed to be taken. However, everyone would have to leave the the dais. Al Murray, who I am sure was right at home amidst this Keystone Cops scene, put it succinctly when he said, “It’s almost like musical chairs, ladies and gentlemen.”
So, why did all of this take place? Probably for the same reason -the real reason- the owners of the Wilcox Manor asked for a continuance on the hearing in the first place. A little bird whispered in their ear.
During the past year, Puckett, Bernstein and Nielsen have all held fundraisers at the Wilcox Manor. These fundraisers were held gratis, unless one looks at it (as we have) that the use of the facility was a contribution in kind. Although no money passed hands (except for Nielsen, who received money from the Wilcox Trust), it was obvious from the beginning that Lindburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the owners, intended the use of their facility as a pay-for-play in order to obtain a favorable ruling from the city council on their CUP application. McPherson and Demoratz rallied the troops during an October Planning Commission meeting. The commissioners, looking for a way out, set up conditions that one might say were designed to protect the neighborhood but, when it came down to it, were designed really to discourage the boys from pursuing their plan. It very nearly did when it was discovered that McPherson and Demoratz had not exactly told the truth in their application concerning the parking issues. They were also less than thrilled with the conditions placed on them by the planning commission. In an effort to quash nearly all the conditions, they appealed to the city council, a group that had a somewhat vested interest in the operations of the manor as an events center.
When the issue first came up before the city council in November, 2012, the boys abruptly asked for a continuance, leaving their supporters, most of who had come from outside the city, flat. They also published a letter trashing some of the city’s notable residents. In one missive, they accuse Linda Jennings, president of the Preservation Conservancy, of allegedly making up commercial web pages promoting the Wilcox Manor as an “events venue”. Jennings has denied having anything to do with the websites and claims her opposition to the events center is personal, not as a member of the Conservancy which, she says, has taken a neutral stand on the issue.
It is interesting to note that Nielsen first recognized this as an issue when he attempted to recuse himself during the November meeting. Nielsen’s stated reason for recusal was that his wife, Erin, was the director of the Tustin Community Foundation, which holds fundraisers at the manor. However, as we mentioned, there were other issues as well. David Hunt esq., the same lawyer that currently represents McPherson and Demoratz, told him then that the purpose for postponing the vote was so that Nielsen would not have to, “face multiple issues you are faced with.” That would be like that money he took from the Wilcox Trust.
Councilmember Gomez, for her part, only wanted to finish the matter. She said that she had been speaking with a number of the neighbors of the Wilcox Manor who were concerned that, if the issue was not resolved, they would continue to hold events as they had been doing in the past. She was concerned that this had been going on for a year without resolution. The boys weren’t there but their mouthpiece, once again, showed up to muddy the waters.
David Hunt esq. effectively side-stepped the question by saying, “My clients don’t have any intention of doing anything that’s inconsistent with the current zoning between now and whenever the hearing is, ultimately, on the conditional use permit.” He went on to say how the regretted asking for a continuance but “they don’t have any intention of doing anything inconsistent with their current zoning and use.” You might take those words at face value but, he is a lawyer after all. And, lawyers are paid to muddy the water as much as possible. Just ask Kendig. Elizabeth Binsack, spoke plainly and said that, as long as they keep it non-commercial (we would claim that any organized business use, even a non-profit business, is commercial) and under 500 attendees, they could pretty much do as they pleased. So, what Hunt was really saying was that the boys will not hold events with 500 people but they still plan to hold events for non-profits. Good news for all those folks that showed up for the hearing to support the boys, even if they came for nothing.
So, why September 17, 2013? Is that a year from the last time Nielsen, Puckett or Bernstein held a fundraiser there? Is that the date of the check from the Wilcox Trust to the “Vote for John” campaign? That would certainly make more sense than the “personal and business issues” the Wilcox boys contend are the reason. Of course, there is also the issue of adequate parking. When the previous alleged parking arrangements were allegedly quashed by that concerned citizen, it became obvious that Lindburgh and Michael were not exactly being truthful, even with Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack. Rumor has it they have been all over town, attempting to work a deal. The latest story has them approaching the chamber of commerce looking for a spare parking lot.
Although many of us had hoped to see a workable resolution to the Wilcox problem, it appears we will have to entertain ourselves for another 8 months or so before we see what happens. Lest Nielsen, Puckett and Bernstein think the citizens of Old Town Tustin will forget, they can be sure we will be there to remind all of the relationship between Wilcox and the Three Amigos.