I am so glad the city is kind enough to videotape and publish the city council meetings so I can sit in the comfort of my own home to wade through the thicket of self-congratulatory muck. Besides, since the departure of Boss Tweed Amante and Deborah Gavello, the meetings have been decidedly dull. Nonetheless, as we recover from our accident, I felt obliged to report on Tuesday night’s meeting.
First things first. The meeting was attended by our newly crowned Miss Tustin, Shea Marie Frates, and part of her court. Mayor Al Murray presented them with a congratulatory certificate and the few in attendance gave them a round of applause. Good Luck, ladies, you may need it. Now, I admit, even the thought of Miss Tustin receiving a certificate would not get me to come to the meeting in person. But, then, neither would the rest of the meeting which was pretty run-of-the-mill.
I was glad to see Item #6, Approval of Agreement with Municipal Auditing Services, pulled. The main question I had which, apparently did not bother anyone on the council, was why this contract, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not put out to bid. It seems the firm was found the usual way by a bunch of finance people discussing it at a finance officer association meeting (I can see that conversation). The contract, which is open-ended and has no renewal date, calls for MAS to get a 40% cut of profits from scofflaw business owners who do not pay their license fees on time. Claiming this was a standard fee, supposedly justifies not going out to bid.
And your city council does not seem to care about the potential for abuse of our business community by a bunch of cut-throat collection agents. Doing a bit of due diligence, it was not hard to come up with those who are not so satisfied with MAS’ collection techniques. Even Councilmember Gomez, who pulled the item for discussion, wasn’t concerned about abuse and, instead, asked simply about how far back a business would be penalized for not obtaining a license (5 years plus 3 years penalties, in case you are wondering).
None of the other Consent Calendar items I suggested to be pulled for discussion were but Councilmember John Nielsen asked that Item 8, concerning a resolution to accept dedication of property in Tustin Legacy for streets, be discussed. Could it be he is planning or has already purchased his new home? We heard that, sometime after the election, he finally stopped cohabitating with his estranged wife and was living down by the Legacy. In any case, Nielsen asked the item to be pulled due to a potential conflict. That at least adds credibility to his residency here in the city, something that more than a few of my readers have questioned.
The 5 Year Strategic Plan was next up for discussion. The city contracted with Management Partners last year to develop a 5 year strategic plan that would guide the city in all aspects of governemt. I don’t recall the cost for this report but the result was, decidedly, non-specific to Tustin. The plan is a generic document that, save for inserting the name Tustin in appropriate places, could have been purchased or plagiarized from multiple sources on the net. The glad handing and pats on the back from the councilmembers was pretty interesting to watch. Councilmember Beckie Gomez was the only one to give credit where it was due: with the executives and staff that actually helped put the report together.
Now, regardless of the resulting report, I will give then Mayor John Nielsen credit for coming up with a laudible idea for a strategic plan. Although not a new one, it was refreshing for the city of Tustin, which has been wracked by bureaucrats intent on imposing their idea of what the city should be on Tustin residents, to now add what amounts to driving instructions to the mix. Although the plan is generic in structure, it is a start. My main concern, that Mayor Al Murray brought up in his remarks, is how the city will now define the term “transparency”. To date, the city believes all they have to do to remain transparent is post a page of financial information on their website. Will they now take the word to heart or will they continue to conduct business behind the smoke and mirrors effects that have become the hallmark of city government? Time will tell whether they actually use this document as a benchmark or toss it in the trashcan when it become too difficult to follow.
An interesting presentation was made by City Attorney David Kendig during discussion of Item 12, Removal of Commissioners from Office Upon Running for City Council. It seems, we are the only ones who require the resignation of a commissioner who files papers for city council office. Kendig pointed out that, although there has been a rule regarding this and commissioner term limits since 1972, the latest rule has only been in effect since 2007.
Although Kendig outlined a variety of actions the city council could take on the matter, including one we favor that would allow a commissioner to continue serving until and if he or she is elected to the city council, his report focused on a staff recommendation that would make no changes to the current policy but provide a specific method and timeline for selecting a replacement. After a twenty minute discussion which included Councilmember Gomez complaining that the policy addresses only the Planning Commission and not other city commissions, and John Nielsen not seeing the point of removing commissioners at all, the Podiatrist Councilman was called upon to comment and utterly failed to comprehend the issue.
Then the real issue arose. Councilmember Gomez asked the question of why, since the city council no longer receives stipends, the city commissiners continue to recveive compensation. Nielsen’s lame excuse that the city council received benefits as well, so the issue is “apples and oranges”, didn’t really fly. According to him, it was a “transparency” issue and referred to the financial statements candidates are required to file as proof there are no conflicts.
Now Al Murray, who hasn’t had an original thought since he joined the city council, agreed with Nielsen regarding the financial statements and went even further to say that it was incumbent on all of them as public officials to state any conflicts of interests. Sure….except, that did not prevent any of the Three Amigos from receiving financial assistance from the Orange County Business Council or its other entities trying to pass themselves off as concerned citizens during the boys most recent bid for city council.
Gomez gained an ally after the Podiatrist Councilman woke up and figured out what everyone was talking about. But, even though he agreed that commission stipends needed a second look, his comments regarding integrity were laughable. Let’s not forget this is the guy who, during his bid for city council, posted a Facebook photo showing him on the city council dais underneath the city logo looking, for all intents and purposes, like he was a sitting councilman. Likewise, he was seen running around last year’s Chili Cookoff sporting a campaign button with the city logo on it and, underneath in small letters the disclaimer, “candidate”. In any case, he needs to go back to reading his notes so he can complete a sentence.
In the end, the vote was 4-1, with Councilmember Gomez dissenting, on a motion made by Nielsen to change the ordinance to allow commissioners continue to sit until such a time as they are actually elected to the city council.
We had hoped for some interesting stuff during the councilmember comments but were, instead, treated to a drudging monologue about the Podiatrist Councilman’s trip to various water and sewage treatment plants (At least he went back to reading off his notes rather than trying to wing it). I only got through part of it before moving on to Councilmember Gomez who is much more interesting to listen to.
It’s nice to know somebody reads my blog once in awhile. While watching Tuesday’s Tustin City Council meeting, I learned that our City Manager, Jeff Parker, has enough time on his hands to at least occasionally peruse my stuff. How do I know this? Hmmm…. it was probably the comment he made as he addressed the city council about an item on the agenda.
Item 8, on the consent calendar, had to do with amending the city’s classification and compensation plans to incorporate some class name changes and the addition of a few new classifications. Now, you have to understand, I am still running on Amantetime. So, it was natural for me to question the validity of this and what the city manager was up to. I mean, I had already discovered he could hire (and we presume fire) a deputy city manager without permission. When I had asked the human resources about their procedures, I found out there really weren’t any and City Manager Jeff Parker could pretty much do what he wanted. There was one little slip in the fact that the position, Deputy City Manager, did not exist at the time (yeah, there was an Assistant City Manager but that’s not the same as I later found out). The hire date of just before the end of the year seemed peculiar since, when asked, I was assured there was no difference in compensation. I still think there was a reason, but I have yet to figure it out.
With this item on classification though, I just knew I had them. And when Parker said he pulled the item for discussion because, “recently, there’s been some articles about the item,” (that would be here) I knew I was on to something. That feeling was reinforced as Parker went on to say how all of this was in line with addressing budget issues. He spoke about how, overall, these actions would save the city an immediate $450,000, give or take. After appropriate questions by Councilmember Gomez, the matter was voted in and Parker had another pat on the back.
I wasn’t buying it. I was sure I would dig up some cronyism or nepotism or some other type of ism somewhere. So, I decided to go straight to the horse and hear him try to squirm out of it. Emailing Jeff Parker myself, I asked him several questions regarding the changes. Sure, he might be encompassing an overall savings but at what price? Were the new classifications receiving more as individuals? Would there be a spate of employees who formerly worked for the good CM at another city coming to roost in Tustin? It is a fact that, when the news is potentially embarassing from the city, it takes ten days to get the information; when it is good news, I get a phone call or email the same day.
So, I got an email from Parker a few hours after I sent the request assuring me there was no subterfuge. In fact, the change from Assistant City Manager to Deputy City Manager netted a savings of $41,000 with an additional downgrade of responsibility Jeff told me, “The DCM serves like a Department head as opposed to being the number 2 in the organization.”
Likewise, he related, changing the communications manager to a management analyst would result in a $34,000 cut and downgrading the HR position to a manager from a director add another $35k in savings. The only upswing were the two Deputy Public Works positions that now top out several thousand dollars above the abolished positions. Oh well. The tradeoff was two new positions for four old ones.
Overall, Jeff assured me the savings to the city would be $370,000 with an additional savings in benefits of $80,000. Not bad for a day’s work.
It is not often we get to pat someone from the city on the back. In this case, Al Murray’s “Good job” was well deserved. Although we still have our doubts about the PARS retirement package, we do appreciate when the city manager discharges his duties in a responsible manner. More and more he is showing us that he is capable of running the city in spite of the city council’s efforts to the contrary.
Although it was Election Day, about 50 people managed to show up for the Tustin City Council meeting last week to cheer on Lindburgh and Silent Mike. As usual, most of these “supporters” were representing non-profits from outside of the city. They were all set to cheer and speak on the Conditional Use Permit scheduled to be heard before the city council to turn the Wilcox Manor into a three ri…. a money making events center. Unfortunately, they all showed up for naught as the item was continued until January.
It was interesting that Linburgh and Silent Mike decided to get their mouthpiece to speak for them. You know they are serious about obtaining the CUP when they have to get a lawyer. Such a neighborly thing to do. When it came time for the Public Input section of the meeting, Lawyer David Hunt esq., who claimed to represent the boys in this matter, was first up. As he was about to speak, Nielsen interrupted him to say that he would be recusing himself from the proceedings due to a conflict of interest. Hunt replied that he was about to ask for a continuance so that John wouldn’t have to face “multiple issues you are faced with”, as he put it. The holidays and all… He then asked the meeting be continued to the second city council meeting in January to give him an opportunity to evaluate the comment letter received from the attorneys for the opposition. John still did the right thing by recusing himself for the vote. Somehow, I think he knew this was going to happen.
If I was truly amazed that Gomez actually voted with the boys on the continuance, I was even more amazed at what seemed genuine discussion between Amante, Gavello and Gomez on the issue of whether to move the item up on the agenda. Murray, who took time to stop playing with his iPad to actually preside over the meeting in John’s absence, thanked the assembly over the massive sound of hooves beating toward the door to make a quick exit.
So, why the bid for continuance? Apparently, there were several reasons not the least of which is the apparent conflict of interest that was raised by Tustinites who oppose the CUP. As we have pointed out before, John Nielsen’s wife Erin is the Executive Director of Tustin Community Foundation. TCF receives and manages quite a bit of funding received from the city to dole out to various community services and groups each year. Although the city and TCF have both tried to distance themselves from this issue, they haven’t done a very good job of it. And now, it has come back to bite Nielsen in the backside.
We also wrote of the appearance of a conflict of interest caused by Nielsen accepting donations from the boys as well as the Wilcox Trust, which the boys manage. Coupled with the in-kind donation of the events center for campaign fundraising, we have to wonder how much that would be in FPPC dollars. Is the city attorney concerned about that as well? Of course, we have seen that City Attorney David Kendig likes his job enough to go to bat for the right side of the dais even when the subject matter is questionable.
In fact, we heard from the fly on the wall that Nielsen spent the better part of an hour in the Mayor’s office, pacing back and forth while on the phone. While no conversations were heard, we can surmise that calls were made to Lindburgh and Silent Mike, as well as the city attorney and anyone else he could think of to allow him to get out of the predicament he found himself in, while allowing the purveyors of his favorite fundraising venue to go forth and destroy Old Town Tustin. Then too, we also heard the city attorney wavering on the subject (careful, Dave, or you’ll be shown the door). As luck would have it, no one had to embarrass themselves that evening. OK, everyone except Amante, who is just a plain embarrassment when he shows up.
The move, as it turns out, was a smart one. Lindburgh and Silent Mike did not have anything to lose, really. I mean, the weather right now is not exactly conducive to weddings or fundraising. And, with the possibility of a deadlock on the dais (did John call the lawyer and tell him to continue the item?), they stood to lose outright if the issue came to a vote. Which leads us to wonder why Councilmember Beckie Gomez voted to continue the hearing. After all, we were sure she supported the integrity of Old Town and that she would not be in favor of the CUP. At least, that has been the sway of her vote in past matters regarding the area. So, why was she so quick to join Hizzoner and Al in continuing this matter? We put a call in to her but have heard nothing as of this writing.
In any case, as we said, the Wilcox boys did not have anything to lose. Betting on the election, if their candidates lost, they would probably not get a permit. If they won, as they did, they would most likely get the CUP, in some fashion, approved. How the final CUP will turn out now depends on a few things, however. For one, John will still have to recuse himself from the dais as the fiscal year is not up. We also think the Podiatrist-elect should also recuse himself as he was invested heavily by the Wilcox boys by that same use of a venue for campaign fundraising. Somehow, we think he will take the same unethical stand as his mentor and neighbor, Amante.
Looks like the deck is stacked against Old Town Tustin.