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Playing it Safe

Playing it safeIt was a reasonably quiet hall for Tuesday’s city council meeting. Part of that was due to the fact that neither Councilmember Beckie Gomez or John Nielsen was in the house. I suspect more of it was due to the boring nature of the agenda items, however.

With two councilmembers absent, there weren’t enough backs around to pat for Public Hearing Item No. 1. This item is one of the biggest residential developments to date on the MCAS property. And, while everyone was buzzing about it, the mayor announced the (yes) vote on the item would be postponed until the next meeting when all members of the council could be here.

The second hearing item on the CDBG funds was a non-issue with almost no discussion and a quick vote to accept. Likewise, with the consent calendar where, if Gomez had been there, we might have seen the police vehicle purchase pulled for some type of discussion. At least this moves one of Mayor Murray’s goals to enhance public safety (more on that later).

Who’s Got the Money?

The regular session highlights included a report on the CAFR. Finance Director, Pamela Arends-King gave the city council a bit of good news, letting them know the city is in the black due to sales tax and other revenue resources. She also let them know there were no audit findings. Maybe Pam is worth that extra 5% after all. Needless to say, the bewildered city council (remember, Beckie wasn’t there) had no questions or comment other than to thank the “team” for what they do.

For what it is worth, the Finance Department has done an outstanding job, although we suspect it is more to do with the city riding the economic recovery train than any magic coming form the cubicles. The finance department, giving the mid-year budget review also gave us good news concerning the economic recovery and its impact on revenue. Of course, what is taken in is spent. The best news was that reserves would not be dug into as deeply and the reserve funding would rise to 31 percent.

A significant item Tuesday, at least for those of us in Old Town Tustin, was the request to advertise for a consultant to develop  what the city is currently calling a “commercial core plan”. We like it. Now Mayor Murray needs to remember that, regardless of how boring the meeting (and how few of the public are in the room),  many of us watch on cable TV or the video and the presentations are often as important for the publicity they generate as informing the council. So, next time they want to do a presentation just say, “Oh, by all means…”

After listening to Elizabeth Binsack’s presentation, though, we wonder why they need a consultant. Binsack outlined a pretty comprehensive plan for the downtown area and it wouldn’t take much to flesh it out. The selected consultant would be required to work with a city staff steering committee, taking input from community focus groups and workshops. Sounds pretty in-depth and something that could be done in-house. Now, if they could just get going on the residential area with the second unit ordinance they promised.

We get it, Chuck

You know it is an election year. people start doing odd but obvious things to promote certain cronies for office. It’s no coincidence that Al Murray was unanimously elected Mayor by his peer for a second year. Mayor sounds slightly better than Councilman on the ballot.

And, we really didn’t need Chuck Puckett’s thirty second dissertation on how great Al is and what a wonderful speech he is going to give at the Mayor’s Inaugural Speech later this year, and how he just can’t wait for the State of the City speech… well, you get the drift. This is the most animated I’ve seen Chuck since he took office.

Murray himself is playing it safe. His recently stated goals for the coming year are about as non-committal as it can get.

Touching on what he will do for public safety and for seniors, he establishes a strong tie with both by building on what is already there. CALEA Accreditation was earned on former Tustin Chief ScottAl Murray Stock Jordan’s watch. It had been a long time coming and, frankly, the city council can do little to help. Let’s hope Interim Chief Celano is up to the task. If Murray really wanted to solidify public safety, he would push City Manager Jeff Parker into finding a permanent Chief.

The Senior Center at Peppertree Park is but one facet of what the city needs to help the senior community here in Tustin. Our city is growing, however, and a better aim might be to establish another center elsewhere in our town.

But, we will take the bocce ball courts, thanks.

Murray has not forgotten to let his business cronies know that he will be looking for support from them this year. Goal two is to improve and facilitate economic development through business attraction and retention. We love the goal. We just hate how some of it has been to the detriment of the residents over the past few years.

Murray has also stated that he wants to implement a transparent and sustainable community outreach (communication) program. Yes, a new website would be nice. What would be better is a Public Information Officer that will speak to the public, press and blogs, even when they don’t always have nice things to say about them. With a city manager that refuses to speak to anyone critical of city management (the city manager in particular), it is difficult to see how Murray intends to accomplish this. A bright, shiny new website will only go so far in establishing transparency and open government. A PIO who can take the occasional public hit would be better.

And while I am glad to see the Mayor wants to recognize our military history, perhaps he should start by asking former (and current) councilmembers why they did away with one of the finest Veteran’s Day parades, whittling it down over the years to a small celebration that, had it not been for our local American Legion Post 227, would have died even sooner. The city did everything in its power to quash any celebration of our military history. For several years, there was bad blood between the Legion leadership and the city. And, nothing has really been done to effectively change the situation.

Mayor Murray probably won’t have to worry. He is about as safe and sane as Red Devil fireworks. And, during his tenure, he has shown that he can stand up to the pressure of leadership. The devastation of the killing spree that wound up in Tustin last year was an example. Murray conveyed the collective despair of our city while keeping the public informed. And, except for the occasional bewildered look when the finance director drops a 40 page summary on his desk, he manages to take care of the city business. And, he doesn’t carry a stupid dog with him when he rides in parades.

We hear there will be no mudslinging from either of the two incumbents running this year. Whether that deal holds together will probably depend on who runs against them. But both Murray and Gomez are in a pretty safe place right now. Let’s just hope Nielsen stays too busy with his pending divorce to “help” Al.

Reader Alert: Sign Thief in the Area

We received notice that a sign thief was spotted pulling campaign signs for Tracy Worley-Hagen and David Waldram, taking them with him or ripping them up. The Tustin Police Department has been notified of the incidents. The suspect is described as a grey-haired man driving what appears to be a new, black BMW SUV with no license plates. He was last seen in the vicinity of Tustin Ranch on Irvine Blvd. between La Colina and Irvine. He has also been spotted at an office building on Irvine Blvd. doing the same thing. When the man was confronted, he said, “I’m replacing their signs” and drove off.

Since the original sighting, sign thieves have hit the Tustin Meadows and Tustin Ranch again, taking hundreds of signs. A suspicious person was spotted outside my residence in Old Town but, after seeing me standing by the gate, he drove off.

Theft of campaign signs is a misdemeanor that carries a hefty fine and possible jail time. However, due to the cost of signs the theft of more  than a few can easily be elevated to a felony in short order.  The city of Orange had a few problems with one of their candidates stealing another candidate’s signs a few years ago that resulted in sanctions against the thief. It would seem that some people cannot allow the candidates to run their own campaign.

If you see sign theft in your neighborhood, please call the Tustin Police Department at (714) 573-3200. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way but if you can, get a description of the person, vehicle and license number to assist the police. We all need to do our part in running a clean campaign.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

You may not have heard but, John Nielsen held a Town Hall meeting a couple of weeks ago. You may not have heard because, as Councilmember Beckie Gomez pointed out at the last city council meeting, it was not very well advertised. In fact, it appeared to be pointed directly at Old Town residents rather than the community as a whole. John claimed notice went out to OTT residents, but I never saw anything myself… neither did anyone else I talked to. Maybe, Lindburgh and Michael got an email.

It was a rather mundane affair that turned out to be more of a campaign effort for the good Mayor than a vehicle for communication between the city and its residents. While Nielsen, who could not have spoken had it not been for the PowerPoint presentation, rambled on about how much the city has done to improve the Old Town Business District (there was some dissension about that), the friend I was with pointed out the glaring absence and then sudden appearance of certain members of the council and council candidates.

Now, it is my habit -borne from my years as a peace officer- to scan any room I enter for possible threats. Along with checking my rear view mirror (I’m thinking about changing cars weekly) much more frequently, that has become even more imperative since I began blogging in Our Town Tustin. When I entered the community meeting room at the library, I’m pretty sure I saw Councilmember Beckie Gomez among the several city staffers and local talent I recognized. I did not notice any of the others. Of course, I did not expect to see Deborah because of the date. However, I did notice that neither of John’s cronies were around. And, while I did see council candidates, David Waldram and Tracy Worley-Hagen, I did not see the other two candidates, Chuck Puckett and Allan Bernstein- that is, until a few minutes later.

As my friend pointed out, John spotted Waldram and Worley-Hagen in the audience and suddenly ran out of the room, cellphone in hand, into the hallway. Although I wasn’t privy to his phone call, it was just a few minutes later when his cronies showed up, en masse, to make the rounds. I’m sure the sudden phone call and subsequent appearance of “Team Tustin” and the Three Amigos could have been a coincidence.

And, John got free publicity out of the whole thing. After all, who do you think picked up the tab for the cookies and milk?

John Brings His Dog and Pony Show to Old Town

I just spent an interesting hour with our mayor, John Nielsen, and about 75 Old Town residents and business owners. Billed as a “town hall” meeting, we were enticed to attend with the promise of fruit punch and cookies. There were plenty of each, along with the expected rhetoric.

Arriving with my daughter in tow, I was immediately greeted by one neighbor and snubbed by our Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack. Hey, I wasn’t there to hob nob with city staff anyway. I was there to hear what Nielsen had to say about my part of town and the plans the city had for it.

John began the evening with a slick PowerPoint presentation that he read almost word-for-word. He talked about the recently approved projects and the changes in parking that will make it easier to build in the area. He spoke eloquently of how Old Town is the “heart” of Tustin and thanked all of us for coming to his meeting where he could tell us what the city had in store for the good folks of the area. He didn’t talk about the stonewalling the Community Development Department did in handling the new Del Rio Building project or the difference in how Binsack’s department handled the ground contamination at Del Rio and the new Restaurant to be built across from Rutabegorz. He also didn’t talk about the tens of thousands of dollars and hundred of man hours spent opposing Old Town Homeowner Brett Fairbanks. Water under the bridge.

It was during the question and answer session when it became obvious that Nielsen really only wanted to show off and possibly get a little free campaigning without really having to go head-to-head with residents.

Good questions were asked by local business owners, particularly about parking enforcement, or the lack thereof. The owners of Fred and Daffy’s Antiques on El Camino Real asked about parking enforcement which generated quite a bit of interest. Nielsen had a captain from the Tustin Police Department answer questions pertaining to enforcement. Unfortunately, he had a hard time addressing the issue and kept putting it back on the business owners because, as he put it, “we can’t be down there all the time patrolling”. Really? I guess the parking guys have much more important things to do like chase the street sweepers around.

Other questions were asked about traffic patterns and what was being done about putting Newport Avenue through to Edinger. Incredibly, staff blamed the demise of Redevelopment Agencies for the lack of speed on the project. The Acting Public Works director, Doug Stack, stated that much of the design work had been done but it was a $41 million dollar project with no funding. So, even though it is, according to him, the second highest priority item in front of the council, don’t expect to see it completed in the foreseeable future.

Discussion was also held concerning the Old Town residential area. And, here is where it became obvious that our good mayor did not really want to deal with the riff-raff of Old Town.

A neighborhood resident said she heard a rumor that the owners of The Wilcox Manor on Pasadena Street, will be asking the city for a Conditional Use Permit to be allowed to hold paid events on the property. We had heard this rumor ourselves but it was apparent many in the room had not. I heard more than a few gasps of surprise.

Owners Lindburgh Mc Pherson and Michael Demoratz have opened the Manor up for events for several years. They, apparently don’t charge and they offer the use of the grounds as well as their glass and dinnerware. The Tustin Area Council for Fine Arts, the Preservation Conservancy and many other non-profit organizations through the years have used the beautiful grounds of the manor to host their events, all for a good cause. And, in keeping with that, the immediate neighbors have been gracious as far as the traffic and noise go.

After Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack verified for all that it was true, it became clear that Nielsen did not want to discuss the matter. Laughably claiming that, since the issue could come up before him for consideration, he didn’t want to discuss it, he attempted to squelch the issue. You see, he did not want there to be any appearance of bias.

It is also likely he did not want anyone to know that the Mc Pherson and Demoratz have been quietly sowing the seeds for this project for some time. They recently held fundraisers for city council candidates and Amante allies, Allan Bernstein and Chuck Puckett (We wonder how Puckett, who recently resigned from the Planning Commission, would vote on this issue). The Wilcox Trust has also made at least one campaign contribution to Johnn Nielsen’s re-election during the last reporting cycle. The owners have been steadily mailing requests for support for their endeavor to many of the non-profits who have used their facilities in the past, regardless of whether they are in the city limits. If that is not enough, until recently, there was a blurb on OCFabulousEvents.com that listed the Wilcox Manor as an event venue. Clearly, Mc Pherson and Demoratz expect a return on their investment. It is kind of funny, though, how they sided with the city in the Fairbanks matter, calling his issues with the city no big deal.

So, do you really think there will be no bias when the CUP application comes before the Commission or the City Council? Rumor has it that Binsack has her rubber stamp poised to approve. Of course, we won’t know for sure because she wouldn’t talk to us at the meeting. So much for friendly Tustin staff.

In the end, it was just another dog and pony show for Mayor Nielsen and his talking head, Elizabeth Binsack. It was a chance to remind the Old Town folks of who is in charge. It was unfortunate the good mayor was more interested in telling Old Town resident and business owners what the city had planned rather than to listen to their concerns. After all, isn’t that what a town hall meeting is supposed to be for?

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