It didn’t take long for the newly seated city council to stir things up and create a little controversy while violating the Brown Act at the same time. Tuesday’s Tustin City Councill meeting demonstrated their ignorance when it comes to conducting city business. Of course, John Nielsen wasn’t there to guide them and it was left up to Mayor Murray to carry the ball. We did not expect much from Murray and that is what we got.
Chad Ortlieb, an Orange city planner and Old Town Tustin resident who previously spoke on the subject of the Wilcox Manor, showed up during public comments to complain about the apparent gross errors of the Fab 5 in handling the continuance of the Wilcox Manor CUP application last meeting. If you recall at last month’s meeting, Ortlieb appeared to question whether any type of event center was appropriate for the Old Town residential neighborhood. His discussion at that meeting generated a flurry of activity on the dais as councilmembers, looking like Keystone Cops, raced for the door saying they had to recuse themselves from any discussion. It also raised with us, at the time, the question of why the item would be continued for eight months. It was pretty obvious to us the reason the councilmembers were in such a hurry to exit the dais.
So, Ortlieb came back this month to ask the question we have wondered all along: Why an eight month delay? He also asked a few other questions concerning the validity of the application itself and whether city staff were playing footsie with the applicants to accommodate them. To their credit, this time the city council remained in their seats. From Ortlieb:
The rights of Tustin residents to have the council decide the continuance of the Wilcox Manor project were violated. At one point, in the meeting, councilmember Gomez asked the city attorney. ‘Does this item require action?’ The city attorney’s response was, ‘No. It’s already been agendized as continued’. Staff did not have the right to remove the continuance from the council’s consideration. The consideration is exclusively the council’s purview. If you want to take a look at Government Code section 94955, I think that’s a good starting point. But, to ask the question, can the city council continue something to a date, but have staff continue it for the council without any direction by the council? The answer is, no. Had the project been advertised differently, without staff saying it’s continued, a different public attendance and public participation could have resulted. The council had the right to deny the continuance request and even a right to make a decision on the project at that meeting. For the record, I don’t believe that a continuance to September is reasonable. Confusing matters is that, even though there was no quorum, the council, applicant representative and staff all conducted council business and spoke regarding the project. But, nobody else from the public was extended that opportunity. One of the attorneys present should have noticed the lack of a quorum. Also, just to pose the question, why did the applicant attorney show up if the matter was continued automatically by staff?
Ortlieb goes on to say the project should be re-noticed and advertised to the public with the city council subsequently deciding what, if any, extension will be allowed. He went on to say that the use [as a non-profit venue] was never allowed in the type of zoning the residence is in to begin with. He also stated that staff should never have considered the CUP as the type of venue is not allowed. “Staff should not be allowed to set land use policy of this magnitude even for a non-profit use.” Ortlieb further said the consideration by the city council was improper in the first case. Even though the original CUP went before the city planning commission, the applicants substantially changed the application request before it landed in front of the city council. That, according to Ortlieb, meant the application should have gone before the planning commission one more time.
Of course, we agree. As we had pointed out, Linburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the trustees and owners of the Wilcox Manor, have misled the city during this entire adventure. They originally told the planning commission they had set up off-site parking when, in fact, they had done nothing of the sort. They amassed huge support at the planning commission meeting last year by busing in representatives from non-profits that had used the facility. The trouble is, most of those non-profits were from outside of the city where parking, trash and crowds would have no impact on them. The fact that several councilmembers have directly benefited from the use of the facility for fundraising as well, was not lost on the many residents who reside near the Manor.
The primary issue at this point was whether the staff had the right to automatically continue a matter before the council, on behalf of the council. We don’t think they did. We never got a good look at the audience for last month’s meeting but it seems to us that, even if one person who wished to speak was there, they should have been given that opportunity before a continuance was granted. Eight months is a long time for a continuance and, quite frankly, it appears as though the city council majority (we won’t count Gomez in this) was hoping that the lapse in time would allow them to return a favorable vote for the owners without raising eyebrows. To that effect, the city attorney bumbled his way through some sad explanation that it would be right for the councilmembers to recuse themselves, thereby eliminating the ability to act on the matter, but that one of the conflicted could subsequently return to the dais after drawing straws. How could there not still be a conflict for that councilmember? Better to have required a new application.
Ortlieb was left standing at the podium as the good Mayor thanked him for speaking and sent him packing. It should be interesting how concerned citizens react when the CUP is brought before the city council in September. As we told you before, we aren’t going anywhere and we plan on reminding our readers when the issue comes up again. At the very least, the city council should take a hint and refuse to hear the highly-modified CUP application when it comes before them. What should really happen is the applicants should be directed to start from ground zero with the city planning commission. The planning commission, of course, should research the issue as we believe Orlieb is correct in his assertion that the type of events McPherson and Dmoratz have been holding, have been illegal all along.