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Will We Get The Caltrans Treat(ment)?

I-5 generic signBusinesses along the corridor of Interstate 5 through Tustin and Irvine beware. Meetings are being held for so-called public input for the proposed widening of the I-5 corridor through our town Tustin. The meetings are important to you for a variety of reasons.

Although the Orange County Transportation Agency is touting the project as a needed measure to relieve traffic on one of the most heavily traveled freeways in Southern California, the project is about more than just traffic.

To the south of us, cities and residents are struggling with the same issue with the widening of the I-405. Although the recent opening of the carpool flyovers between the 405, 605 and 22 freeways has helped in transitioning traffic in a safer manner, it hasn’t done much to change the overall flow which sees nearly 400,000 vehicles a day through some areas.

Three options were initially proposed for the widening of the 405. The first two involved adding lanes and carpool lanes to the existing highway. The third, touted by former councilman Jerry Amante who was the Tustin representative to OCTA at the time, was the creation of toll lanes (and the demise of carpool lanes). When the pubic outcry made it clear that toll lanes were not an option, the OCTA Board of Directors (mostly) back pedaled and settled on increasing the number of carpool and general purpose lanes, all of which would be free.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. In 2014 Caltrans, which has final say over virtually any freeway project, announced that toll roads were the only method that would improve traffic on the 405 through the county in a manner sufficient to satisfy the Feds. Members of the OCTA Board that favored toll lanes were overjoyed. Those that did not, including virtually every city along the proposed expansion, were not. OCTA, which had earlier promoted then disenfranchised themselves from toll lanes, quickly jumped back on the HOT train. At this point, OCTA fully supports the toll lane alternative which, by the way, would include the existing flyovers from the 605 and 22 freeways.

So, how does this affect the I-5 through Tustin?

Obviously, the same thing could, and probably would, happen to the I-5. For some reason, Caltrans believes that money losing, under utilized toll roads are the way to increase traffic through high impact areas. You can bet the writing is already on the sound wall for high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. It stands to reason that, according to their logic, anything less would not serve the government public needs.

The push for HOT lanes is obvious. No matter how little income they generate, HOT lanes income goes directly to the government. In order to alleviate the concerns of the various city councils, OCTA will, no doubt, offer to share a sizeable chunk of the change generated with the affected cities. In Tustin, one only has to wave the carrot in front of a gullible city council to get their attention.

The real rub for many is the fact that we already paid for this expansion. M2 funding is supposed to pay for public highway improvements. Measure M funding paid for some of the first improvements with the Feds (read, your personal income taxes) making up the rest. The same is true for the I-405 proposed expansion as well as the I-5 proposal. During the I-405 discussions, it was clear taxpayers do not want to pay twice for the same road improvements.

Caltrans is interested in one thing and it has nothing to do with how you and I perceive traffic issues. Federal money is at stake in all of these projects. Most highway improvement projects rely on matching grants from the Feds. If Federal guidelines are not met, in this case regarding traffic flow, the state would find it difficult to fund major projects.

There is no doubt, though, that Caltrans sees the dollar signs as well. Toll roads seem like an attractive way of generating cash. After all, in the eastern and some midwestern states, toll roads are more common than free highways. But, easterners have grown up on toll roads. Californians have not been so “lucky”. In fact, toll roads were virtually non-existent until the 1990’s when State Route 91 implemented a public/private toll road system to charge for the privilege of travelling a 10 mile stretch of highway between Orange and Riverside Counties. That “partnership” has since devolved into a government function that has never made enough money to pay for the lanes it took over.

And that is the real issue that is coming before voters in Orange County. Caltrans, apparently with vested authority, will tell Orange County what to do with local taxpayer money by forming toll lanes on the I-405 – and the I-5 through Tustin. Public concerns be damned, you will pay twice to build a road most of you will never be able to use.

There is a possibility Caltrans could be thwarted in their efforts. It begins with us, however. By turning out in force at the upcoming meetings, residents of Orange County, particularly Tustin and Irvine, can tell the authorities that toll roads is not an alternative on a public highway. Yes, we need relief from the already overcrowded highway lanes traversing our city. But, those lanes should be paid for completely with Measure M funding that had already been approved for the projects, not with the “enhancement” of toll roads which will never pay for themselves but will certainly allow the elite of the county to travel unencumbered.

You can bet Al Murray, current Tustin representative to OCTA will be there. He needs to hear from Tustin and other Orange County residents how toll roads are not the answer. He needs to hear how he should be seeking the assistance of our state legislators to prevent or, at least provide oversight of, any proposed toll road  project. And Caltrans, which is sponsoring the meetings, needs to be told to keep their hands off our local tax money.

If this is a numbers game and numbers are the driving force, it should be obvious to everyone involved that toll roads are grossly underutilized, making zero real impact on traffic, existing or future. One only has to travel the 91 freeway during rush hour to see the negligent impact money-losing toll roads have on the morning commute. Toll roads benefit only one segment of population, the rich and famous who can afford it.

And, if anyone wants to look at the “success” of the 73/241/261 “private” toll road debacle, remember that the Transportation Corridor Agencies have refinanced bond measures multiple times to extend the payment schedule due to underutilization of those highways. So, why would it be different with the I-405 or I-5? If tolls are implemented, they are here to stay.

If there is a ray of hope. it is likely to be in the form of legislation, like then assemblyman Allen Mansoor’s in 2014 to block toll roads, at least on the I-405 and I-5. In order for that to happen, Orange County residents need to make it clear to their lawmakers (both local and at the state level) that toll roads are an unacceptable solution to the traffic problem. Again, that starts with attending the meetings and voicing a collective opinion.

There are two scheduled meetings for the I-5 project. The first was held January 26th in Irvine . The second meeting, on January 28th at 5pm is a bit closer at Tustin High School in the cafeteria, 1171 El Camino Real, Tustin. Judging from the locations, it seems OCTA, which is putting on the “informational” meetings, does not expect a huge crowd. They might be surprised, depending on the publicity these meetings receive.

Yes, this is the early stages of this project. Without early involvement by concerned citizens, however, OCTA may roll over again on the toll road issue. And, this time, they may have more ammunition in the form of the I-405 project.

Shades of Things to Come?

DullsvilleBarring emergencies, the Tustin City Council and Planning Commission will not meet again this year. In fact, the city has closed shop until after the new year. Hopefully, the police department will see a calm end of the year and we won’t see any firey crashes or folks too unhappy with their Christmas gifts.

Although the year passed quickly, we did have our fair share of problems. I don’t think the folks on Nisson Road will forget the sudden gathering of SWAT vehicles and cops looking for an armed suspect in a shooting near their apartment buildings.

In February, Tustin PD responded to a domestic violence call at apartments in the same area and were confronted by an armed suspect. The suspect was subsequently shot and killed, triggering protests both in the streets and in the city council chamber. Lawsuits have been filed and the DA is investigating. However, under their policy, the results of the investigation may never be known.

City fathers also had problems with the Orange County DA’s ill-conceived Sex Offender statute. After it failed to pass the smell test with the courts, various cities -including Tustin- quickly moved to repeal their ordinances that were mostly fashioned after the county’s. To date, nothing has taken it’s place. Oh, don’t worry. The state has laws the police can continue to enforce that will protect your children….and probably better than anything our used-car-salesman DA could come up with.

Our new Chief of Police, Charlie Cellano, may think he stepped into it. Fortunately, he is a veteran of the Tustin PD and (presumably) knew what he was getting into when he took over from Scott Jordan. The new chief was sworn in in February. You may not have noticed because, as he revealed to me in an interview, he has a rather unique style of management that encourages officers to work with residents. His “Coffee with a Cop” program has officers meeting and greeting at local coffee shops in an effort to make them look more approachable. Now, if we could just get the city council from showing up and trying to steal the show.

Police did make the city safer for us all when, sometime in October, they contained a rampaging Emu that had escaped it’s pen in Old Town Tustin. The police report claimed their was no threat or danger to public safety but, you know how those Emus are when they get riled. Rumor had it some officers were later asking for beak-proof vests but that hasn’t been substantiated.

And, of course, those of you who are into fantasy baseball, the new year continues to hold hope for the Angels moving to Tustin. Earlier in the year, team owner Arte Moreno broke off talks with Anaheim about renewal of their stadium lease. Moreno then made a big show of holding talks with other cities, including Tustin. The city council finally revealed they were in discussion with the owner about the move. Their attempt to laugh it off has been squelched by the continued Closed Session discussions with Moreno’s front corporation, Pacific Coast Investors.

I wouldn’t hold my breath. Moreno could be trying to put pressure on Anaheim. He has also spoken with Irvine, a more likely relocation of the team. If he is serious about making a move, he will most certainly demand a new tax-payer paid stadium out of the deal. That would put pressure on a city known better for its hometown neighborhoods than its entertainment prowess.

Old Town Tustin has also received renewed attention by the city. Normally, given the Community Develpment Department’s previous hatred of the area, I would tell you to be afraid, be very afraid. But, it seems our CDD Director, Elizabeth Binsack, has changed her stripes and is now looking to revitalize the area. A series of city sponsored outreach meetings have sparked interest by the residents and businesses of Old Town.

The ambitious plan includes making it easier to build on residential lots by changing the status of “granny flats” and apartments. As well, the city commissioned a study and a series of community meetings to engender support for an Old Town revitalization effort. The city has held two such meetings over the year and plans to hold at least one more.

Of course, part of this effort is due to cost. The effort is likely to cost the city a bundle of money, should proposals be realized. And, the likely increase in tax base from the sales will not dissuade Binsack from seeking further underwriting either through taxes or bond issues. Good luck with that.

So, although we had a few stumbles as we draw our city out of the depths of recession, things are looking brighter as we look ahead. It’s hard to believe our town now numbers over 78,000 residents. That’s an increase of 20,000 since I moved here in 1995. And we aren’t done yet. Since city manager Jeff Parker took back the reins of master developer of the Tustin Legacy, develpment of new tracts, homes and apartment buildings has taken off. Next year shows no signs of abatement.

While we’re at it, we’ll give kudos to Jeff Parker for his overall management of the city. While we can be (and are) harsh critics of individual issues that may come up, Parker and this city council led by Al Murray, have done a pretty good job of keeping the city on track through some pretty scary times. Let’s hope they keep it up.

And whichever way they go, we’ll be there putting their feet to the fire. Happy New Year.

Shades of Tammany Hall

smoking-460x307Yup, the smoke-filled backrooms behind bars have not faded into the distant past. At least, not here in Orange County.

Yesterday, the ever-declining-in-viable-news Orange County Register reported that shadow politics is alive and well here in the Real OC. If you’ve ever wondered how Tustin City Mayor Chuck Puckett arrives at his decision to deny appoint a fellow councilman a seat on a meaningful political committee or board (think OCTA), he has help.

Every year in November, representatives of the various city councils meet in conference to decide who will be added to what sitting boards. These boards and committees run everything from water and sewage, to transportation (think OCTA again), to even library boards. In fact, membership on almost any oversight board that is not directly elected by the good citizens of Orange County, is likely to be filled here, (now, try not to laugh) in the murky depths of the shadow government.

And, they’re in trouble.

Apparently, this super-secret cabal met November 13th at the Hilton to see who would sit where. And, it seems the Orange County Board of Supervisors is not happy about certain alleged Brown Act violations and they have called the cities out to rectify the situation. Specifically, the BoS is unhappy with the failure to give proper notification of the meeting, as required by law. The answer, of course, is to rescind all appointments and set a new, properly noticed meeting.

The “City Selection Committee” is actually the responsibility of the Clerk of the Orange County Board. So, one would think the whole thing would  be watched closely to make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. Unfortunately, as this political body is prone to do, they sluff off the tough jobs to others, providing little or no oversight, assuming it will run itself. And, when things fall apart or as in this case laws are violated, they do their best to blame others.

In this case, the other is the “League of California Cities” which had been coordinating the the meeting for years until Orange County left the LCC for the “more conservative” ACC-OC. You see, whenever the local government doesn’t like the way things are going, they just pick up their ball and go to another sandlot. They apparently don’t think the public cares enough about day-to-day politics to notice. After all, they’ve been getting away with it this long, haven’t they? And, in the case of starting the ACC-OC, they weren’t going to have the rest of California tell Orange County how to run their show.

The apologists at the Register tried to tone down the violations by saying that not everyone in the room was aware of the apparent transgressions. Then Tustin Mayor, Al Murray, reportedly asked if the meeting had been noticed and he received an affirmative answer. Technically speaking they were right. The meeting had been noticed – to the city council and other political bodies. It just hadn’t been notice to the general public, as required by the Brown Act. Methinks Al, being a retired cop and all, should have investigated further.

At stake here is hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipends and benefits. Oh, you didn’t think that just because you all voted stipends for the city council out of existence they still didn’t get perks, did you? Don’t be silly. Of course there is still money to be made – and lots of it. All paid by you and me, the taxpayers of this county.

For example:

  • Al Murray, OCTA Board of Directors – $5,900 (2013)
  • John Nielsen, OC Sanitation District – $4,921 (2013)
  • Chuck Puckett, Transporation Cooridor Agency – $4,829 (2013)

I’ve written about this in the past when the (of) late Jerry Amante (who also made a heck of a lot of money in stipends) was mayor.

Of course, there are plenty of non-compensated board positions to be had as well. Otherwise, where would the conservative bastion stick their liberal counterparts and enemies of the (Republican) state? Case in point: Beckie Gomez, who has a somewhat perennial seat on the library board and a few other non-prestigious and unpaid committees. Republicans like John Nielsen and Chuck Puckett are not about to go against the tide and nominate liberal members of the council to paying (and influential) positions. Never mind that Gomez refused to take benefits when offered by the city when Nielsen and his cronies continued to gobble them up.

Of course, this leads us to question our own backroom politics. Prior to attending the November meeting Murray, who was mayor then, had to have some guidance on choosing the right man….er, person… for each board assignment. He certainly didn’t do it in a vacuum. So, where on the list of meetings for the past year, is the one where committee assignments were discussed in public? Going back through the archives, there is no record of a “pre-assignment” meeting. You don’t think our own city council would have violated the Brown act (again), do you? Maybe we’ll put a call in to Chuck or Al and ask them.

As a result of the outing by the OCR, the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, Susan Novak, told the Register she would be taking over the duties as the committee’s recording secretary. She also said a new meeting would be set up after the holidays to re-appoint members to the various boards. Care to bet who will not be nominated to a paid board position? A hint: she’s a she.

Keeping the Status Quo

Dullsville-Snooze Alert-

It is going to be  a pretty boring election season in the city of Tustin this year. Either everyone in Tustin is too busy to worry about the political bent of the city council (they are all Republicans) or they are happy with the way things are going. Face it, it has been a slow two years around Our Town Tustin, ever since Boss Tweed Amante left. John Nielsen has settled down and become less interested in city politics. Our old friend Chuck Puckett has returned to the dais along with newbie Alan Bernstein whom we hope will learn eventually to look up from his notes once in awhile (wing it, Alan).

It is hard to believe that four years have gone by since Mayor Al Murray and Councilwoman Beckie Gomez were first elected. Both came to the dais under the ominous shadow of Jerry “Boss Tweed” Amante, who held a firm grip on the city, issuing edicts and offering regular rants against his detractors. The Liberal OC often referred to him as “Il Duce” both on and off the record. And, Amante never got it. He hated the residents of Tustin (where he resides), hated the women he was forced to share the dais with and loved his dogs. When Jerry was around, there was always something to write about. When he left…. well, things got a bit more boring.

That, of course, has been good for Tustin. After Amante’s departure, the city council was able to clear their collective head and get down to the mundane business of running the city. And, except for the occasional powerplay by City Manager Jeff Parker or Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack, the city has run pretty smoothly on their watch. About the only real issue over the past four years is the epitomal collapse of the old town area when a CUP was granted to the boys at Wilcox Manor to run a convention center wedding venue. That controversy (assisted by yours truly) outlined what is wrong when politicians who have a direct benefit from a business, help that same business to make money at the expense of others’ privacy and well-being.

All this leads us to the latest news from the city. As I said in the beginning, either no one cares or no one knows. Al Murray and Beckie are the only ones to file nomination papers for Tustin City Council. As such, they will run unopposed, meaning you can save yourself a trip to the polls unless the other issues we’ll bring up over the next few months matter to you.

Regardless of my criticism, I have always liked Al and Beckie. Al is a retired police captain from Irvine and his most pressing decision since he has been in office is where to have coffee (usually Keane’s, usualy with cops). That’s not to say he can’t make a decision. He just hasn’t had to since he has been in office. Originally an Amante yes man, Murray has a great quality of getting along with just about everyone, admirer and detractor alike. And, he is pretty darn good at calming a collective angry crowd. And when the stuff hit the fan, during one of the most infamous crime sprees to hit Orange County, he was the man every mayor wished they could be in time of crisis.

It has been my pleasure to know Beckie Gomez over the past few years. A closet Republican, she has shown a willingness to work with everyone on the council (including Jerry) even though the council has consistently refused to give her any of the cherished paid board or committee positions. Little did they know Gomez is quite happy with her Library Board appointment. Gomez has demonstrated that she is interested in the welfare of Tustin chiefly as a place to live and secondly as a place to do business. During Amante’s frequent rants, she proved to be a calming influence even when Nielsen and Palmer were also ganging up on their nemesis, Deborah Gavello. If she did not always back Gavello’s play, it was because she had a direction of her own to follow.

So, what will the future bring to Tustin? Perhaps, over the next two years, more mediocrity. Barring an infield play by Arte Moreno or the collapse of the pending cemetery deal at the Great Park, the MCAS property is all but disposed of. I am sure there will be controversy over the fate of the blimp hangars to jazz things up a bit. As the city is showing its age, perhaps it’s about time the city council took the Old Town Tustin bit out of Elizabeth Binsack’s mouth (before she finds a way to bulldoze it completely) and take a good hard look at revitalizing the downtown area. Both Fullerton and Old Town Orange have experienced a renaissance with myriad antique shops and second hand resellers replaced with chic restaurants and venues that draw a diverse crowd. Downtown Tustin’s time has come and, without the past controversy to impede them, this city council could make a lasting mark on the place we all love.

One rumor in the wind: Will John Nielsen, who has had his share of personal and public controversy while in office, choose to resign during his term as we have heard he may? That would open some interesting avenues, and some of those have the Amante smell.

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