Not much to report on for this coming week as the Planning Commission has cancelled another meeting, presumably for lack of business. That doesn’t mean there isn’t quite a bit happening around our town Tustin.
At the same meeting where the city council sold out the residents of Old Town to repay local campaign contributors (more on that later), Chief Scott Jordan was honored by a plethora of bigwigs. The list included Senator Mimi Walters, OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer, neither of whom could bother to show up personally, The OC Chiefs of Police, the Joint Powers Agency and the Orange County Fire Authority. All in all, the chief endured nearly a half hour of kudos and probably needed a small trailer to carry home the plaques and certificates. Good luck, Chief Jordan. And, thanks for sticking with this bunch of yokels as long as you did.
And, even though Lisa Woolery is no longer PIO, I guess we are still on the black list as we did not receive the press release from the city naming Captain Charles Celano as interim police chief. Based on his longevity with the city and his apparent credentials, I would say he would be an excellent candidate for our new chief. Perhaps our resident expert, Al Murray, can have coffee with him (as I’m sure he has) and discuss it. Congratulations, Chief Celano. You have big shoes to fill but I don’t think the council erred on this one.
Clown College Comes to Order
It didn’t take long for clowns on the city council to show their bias toward the Wilcox Manor CUP application. Practically before Mayor Murray announced the public hearing, Councilman John Nielsen was running for the door, recusing himself from the proceedings. A recommendation to the city council: not everyone who watches the meetings knows what is going on. You might want to take the time to explain a bit before rushing off the dais. Assuming everyone knows your dirty secrets just makes them curious. Of course, if they want the dirt, they can come here.
So, now the presentation could proceed… except that, Murray had given special dispensation to one speaker to speak first due to another engagement. It just so happened the speaker was a representative of a church from outside the city that wanted to recommend approval of the CUP. One has to wonder if Murray would have given the same consideration to say, Chad Ortlieb, had he needed to tend to outside business. One thing for sure, it was evidence of how the rest of the evening would go.
One thing Ms. Hahn mentioned was the fact the Wilcox Manor hosted a seminar for the Irvine church she belongs to. Would anyone else consider that running a business venture that neither Lindburgh or Michael have a business license for?
So, after Ms. Hahn from the outsider church speaks, Murray goes over the “rules” about speaking and decorum, making sure to threaten anyone who violates the rules with being escorted out. It was his comment about how “One of the things we all pride ourselves in is carrying ourselves in a professional manner”, that had me laughing out loud. Well, I will agree that, since Boss Tweed Amante’s departure, the council has been nicer to each other. But, if they are, it’s only because they don’t have Deborah to pick on and they are all scared of Beckie. As far as nice? Well, there is that little issue of the unethical antics of the city council at large to consider.
Now, you know just how important this issue is because Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack, did not (for once) delegate the presentation to one of her underlings. Instead, she proceeded to run a dog and pony show with her minion, Scott Reetskin, to give a glowing report, complete with justification, of just why the boys should grant the CUP.
Now, I’ll admit, I did not watch the entire presentation. I’ve seen enough of these to know, they will use any justification, no matter how distantly connected, to justify their position. However, one item did catch my eye on the fast forward. That was the section about the Pasadena Tournament House, a place I am intimately familiar with. Now, I am not sure how they thought this classic location could be tied to a justification to grant a CUP to the Wilcox Manor. After all, the Tournament House is owned by the city of Pasadena, as Scott pointed out; the Wilcox Manor is privately owned. Proceeds from the use of the Tournament House go to the city; proceeds from the Wilcox Manor events would go into the pockets of the owners. Did I mention that could be in the neighborhood of $20,000 per event?
The voice of reason on the city council, Councilperson Beckie Gomez, raised several concerns during the council discussion portion of the hearing. She hammered the issue regarding the parking as, true to form, the Wilcox boys were attempting to get out of the use of the shuttle in all cases. She also pointed out issues regarding the trash, noise and stated what we all knew – that, even though there are laws against these things, how would they be enforced?
Gomez took the time to thank the public for their interest in the matter and writing thoughtful letters. And, though she chided some of the writers for getting personal, she let everyone know she took the time to read them. Well, Beckie, it is a personal issue when your neighbors want to make money by invading your personal peace and quiet. So, how can you blame them?
I’m not going to bother recapping anything the Clown councilmembers said because they were all hovering over their “yes” button as they couldn’t wait to vote in favor of their favorite campaign contributors. It was clear they didn’t care about the neighborhood or the folks this travesty would affect. And, it was clear they didn’t care how this would affect the character of Old Town Tustin.
As for the applicants? In his closing remarks, Lindburgh McPherson began by discounting the detractors and stating, “I feel we have created a legacy here that will go on for a long time.” Great. Of course he didn’t state the obvious that would have sounded like, “I feel we are going to make a ton of money (upwards of $400,000 a year) at the expense of our neighbors’ peace and well-being. And, as Councilmember Gomez pointed out, there is nothing that requires them to put any of that back into further restoration of the property.
Lindburgh also stated, emphatically, that all but one of the neighbors on Pasadena Avenue, “within walking distance” of the Wilcox Manor, were in favor of the CUP. Again, he did not mention that the letters of support from nearly all of those folks were form letters that he and Michael handed out and asked folks to sign. So, the question remains, did they understand what they were signing?
Oh well, after more than two hours of public discussion on the matter, the city council voted in predictable fashion, 3-1 -with Councilmember Gomez dissenting- in favor of granting the CUP. So, the fat lady sings.
Or does she?
Remember, there were two letters of opposition from attorneys in the crowd. And, even though another lawyer who supported the CUP said they didn’t know what they were talking about (don’t lawyers always think they are the smartest guys in the room?), it has been my experience that whenever lawyers get involved, a lawsuit is soon to follow. So now, not only does the city council have to live with their biased decision, they may soon be spending your taxpayer money to defend it.
In the meantime, life in Old Town will go on. I am sure the paranoid Lindburgh is already seeing the “opposition” behind trees and underneath legally parked cars, just waiting for errant wedding guests to litter while flipping off a neighbor. Opponents, in the meantime, may be gearing up for a lawsuit. There are some other questions that have risen recently that may not make this a cut-and-dried situation. We’ll keep you posted.
Oh, and Lindburgh and Michael were so quick to address their proponents when seeking support on their Facebook page. I noticed that, as of Monday, they had not taken the time to thank anyone, least of all the pandering city council that voted in their favor. Oh well, I’m sure the next campaign fundraiser is on them.
(Updated 08/20/13) You might call it the Phoenix Rising, although we would probably characterize it more as the Amityville Horror. It seems the boys at the Wilcox Manor just won’t take no for an answer and the city council is more than willing to sell the soul of Old Town Tustin for the sake of a few fundraisers.
Thanks to Lindburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the Wilcox Manor is not just another historical property in Old Town Tustin. Although the two purchased the property several years ago and put thousand of dollars into restoring the dilapidated structure, it is their recent effort to turn the icon into a money-making enterprise that has made the house locally famous.
Since October of last year, Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack has championed the cause of a profitable events center for the two. Along with her employees, they promulgated a glowing staff report that would make the owners of the Wilcox Manor appear to be the ambassadors for Old Town. This, of course is due in part to her vision of Old Town that sadly lacks input from the residents.
The report justified the granting of a Conditional Use Permit, without the necessity of an environmental report, by attempting to tie the property into surrounding property that is zoned differently. And, although it is true there is an apartment complex across Main Street, the fact remains that the Wilcox neighborhood, cut off by a cul-de-sac, remains a primarily residential neighborhood. The fact that other property on that side of the street is zoned for industrial use is a matter of circumstance (the city water well) and not opportunity.
It was clear, at that October meeting, the Planning Commission was desperately looking for a way to approve the CUP for their Wilcox friends while maintaining an air of impartiality toward Old Town residents. Jeff Thompson, then chairman pro tem, was clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, probably because he lived in Old Town. Newly sworn-in Commissioner Wisam Altowaiji recused himself from the discussion for living within 500 feet of the property. Perhaps Jeff should have done the same although that would have left only three commissioners to discuss the matter.
And discuss it they did.
For more than an hour, folks came to the podium to speak about Michael, Lindburgh and the Wilcox Manor. Many of the attendees were from non-profit organizations from outside the city. All of the supporters spoke glowingly of Michael and Lindburgh as friends, attesting to their character as fine, upstanding citizens. The staff report was inundated with, what turned out to be, mostly form letters from local neighbors that, apparently, the Wilcox Boys had prepared for their signature.
After the public hearing closed, the planning commissioners began deliberations. That public discussion showed their discomfort in having to put this in the public light. After an hour of discussion, however, they came together with eighteen modifications to the CUP before voting 4-0 in support. Then, it was off to the Tustin City Council.
A few days before that meeting, Demoratz and McPherson assailed Old Town residents Brent Ferdig and Linda Jennings. In a widely distributed letter posted to their Facebook page, the boys attempted to demonize Jennings saying she founded the Tustin Preservation Conservancy as a rival organization to the Historical Society. They accused the two of them of harassment and slandering the “good names” of Demoratz and McPherson.
Linda Jennings, for her part, maintained the Conservancy and the Historical Society had a good working relationship and the Conservancy even donated money for computers and other items.
From the letter:
They have gone on a campaign to slander our names and misrepresent what we are doing and who we are. Our supporters in Old Town have been told that they have confronted by people banging on their front doors stirring the pot on this issue. Now they have begun a campaign of going after potential partners – we were in negotiations on leasing a parking lot and they were able to reach the owner of the property before us and frankly – made it so we cannot lease this lot now.
It was interesting to see McPherson squirming when it had been discovered they did not have a complete agreement for off-site parking as they had previously indicated. The letter attempted to place the blame on Ferdig and Jennings for issues they had actually caused themselves. They later came back to tell their supporters they did not have to put anything in place, including the parking, until the CUP was approved.
Taking the matter before the Tustin City Council in November provided its own set of issues. This time it was outgoing councilman Jerry Amante, along with crony John Nielsen -who had been re-elected for another term- who found themselves looking down the double barrel of possible ethics and campaign violations. We pointed out in an article at the time that Nielsen was married to Erin Nielsen, the director of the Tustin Community Foundation. TCF had been the direct and indirect recipient of considerable funds that resulted from Demoratz and McPherson donating their home for charitable fundraising. So, the issue was continued to January, when fresh faces would arrive on the dais.
But, that caused a whole set of issues on its own when it was pointed out that not only John Nielsen faced conflict of interest issues, nearly the entire council had the same problem. When the item came up for discussion, the dais looked like a Shriner car full of clowns as Nielsen, Puckett and the Podiatrist Councilman ran off the dais after recusing themselves. Once the dust settled and City Attorney David Kendig cleared up who had to do what, the boys’ mouthpiece, David Hunt, Esq., asked for another continuance, citing “personal business issues” from the applicants.
At the time we opined the Three Amigos were also in an undesirable position because of their relationship with the Wilcox Manor. And, although use of the home was gratis for their fundraisers, we wondered (in print) what the Fair Political Practices Commission would think? Alas, the boys did not have to answer the question as they voted to continue the matter until September. That was at the request of Demoratz lawyer.
Apparently, Michael and Lindburgh are no longer burdened with personal issues as they have, once again, asked that their CUP be calendared for tonight’s meeting rather than wait for September as originally planned. Way back in November of last year, after the original Planning Commission meeting, Demoratz and McPherson asked the city council to consider their application with over forty line-item changes that would, essentially, gut the Planning Commission approved CUP.
Chad Ortlieb, who has been a vocal opponent of the Wilcox Manor CUP, has questioned whether the substantial modifications the boys are asking for would trigger a new application for a CUP. The most glaring amendment Demoratz and McPherson are asking for is a change from 24 total events to 36 paid events (leaving the number of free events unspecified). That has not gone unnoticed by the opposing side. In response to Ortlieb’s public concerns, it appears that McPherson is now on a witch hunt against Ortlieb. In a recent public records request made out to the city of Orange, he has requested information related to the personal use of Ortlieb’s work computers. It was hard to discern from the request whether McPherson was attempting to garner information for his own use or whether he was attempting to alert Ortlieb’s superiors of any personal use of the city’s computers (For the latest discussion, Ortlieb has sent a 28 page missive that dismantles city staffs’ rendition of the code supporting the permit. It’s hard to argue with fact).
Demoratz and McPherson have attempted to cloud the issue with the neighborhood by writing letters of support and having the neighbors sign them as if they came from them personally. This was pointed out by Martin and Tina Blenz in a letter penned by them opposing the events center CUP:
Please accept this as an opposition letter to the [Wilcox] application. It is with mixed emotions that we write this letter.
We were given a letter of support from Michael and Lindburgh. Since it was not written by us, we refused to sign….. The other letters show the same type font, date and format as ours.
The Blenz letter goes on to point out the issues they, as neighbors, have with turning the Wilcox Manor into an events center, citing the problems they now have with trash, liquor and parking. They also point out the apparent error by the city when they first purchased their property as it was not listed single-family residence as the tract map showed (and Binsack used in justifying the approval for the CUP).
There is also an issue of whether the application was subject to an environmental impact report. The city, citing law that they say supports their position for not requiring a report, has taken the stance all along that a report is not required. However, Ortlieb, a former city planner for Tustin and Jennings, President of the Tustin Preservation Conservancy, bothy believe that, due to the nature of the venue, one would certainly be required. From a recent letter by Jennings to the city:
Rather than enhancing the goals of the Cultural Resource District as listed in Resolution 4207, the proposed use will cause immense traffic congestion in the neighborhood, increase parking problems on residential streets, increase noise pollution, create health and sanitation issues from routine food service and cost Tustin tax payers’ money to monitor the activities, parking and event attendees.
Contrary to the findings of staff, it is our opinion that these factors constitute a significant environmental impact and should trigger a CEQA assessment.
Jennings goes on to say the granting of the CUP would alter the character of the Old Town residential neighborhoods.
And, we have to agree.
One thing is probable. Should the City Attorney erroneously tell the Tustin City Council that no recusal is necessary, it will mean the end of residential life as we know it in Old Town Tustin. An events center approval will mean even more parties, traffic and noise than before, all so the good friends of the City Council can make money. But, before that happens, we would like to point out a few things to the good councilmembers:
- A survey of the affected residents might shed some light on just how popular the idea of having an events center in the neighborhood truly is. It would go a long way to assuage the feelings of the residents that their voices are being drowned out by outside influences in the form of non-profits (and political candidates) who stand to lose a rich fundraising venue.
- Considering the complexity of the situation and the CUP itself, after having been worked over by a scared-stupid planning commission, a review of whether a CEQA report is necessary -by an outside agent- may be in order.
- Based on the over forty modifications the Wilcox Manor applicants made to the original, approved CUP, a new application de novo may be in order, regardless of what your Community Development Director may say.
- It may be appropriate to utilize the services of a law office that specializes in zoning and CUP matters to analyze this. The city attorney has demonstrated that he is too close to the players and basically ignorant of the true issues at hand to offer unbiased advice.
- John and Erin Nielsen, though separated, remain in a situation that would cause him to recuse himself as Erin continues as Director of the Tustin Community Foundation.
- This is a moneymaking business, apart from the generous fundraising the applicants have done in the past. Demoratz and McPherson stand to make upwards of $200,000 per event.
Should the city council approve the Conditional Use Permit, especially with the modifications proposed by Demoratz and McPherson, it is likely the fight will not be over. Both Ortlieb and Jennings have informed me that lawyers have been involved since early this year. That could make this another war that is quite likely to be waged in Superior Court.
Another consideration is the recent revelation that the FBI is now conducting investigations here in Orange County regarding campaign financing improprieties and corruption, along with ethics violations. Given that the Feds seem to be eyeballing conservatives in particular, the city council majority may want to distance themselves from this debacle in the interest of at least appearing to have clean hands.
Hot on the heels of a scathing grand jury report and the announcement of an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, the FBI announced Wednesday, they have created a task force to investigate corruption here in Orange County. The earlier probe stems from management issues with CalOptima, the county’s low income health system for the poor.
Earlier this year, the Grand Jury issued two reports highly critical of the Board of Supervisor’s mismanagement of the CalOptima system. Supervisor Janet Nguyen, along with others, has been accused of conflict of interest and ethical breaches.
On June 18th, Supervisors lashed out at the Grand Jury, saying it was not their job to publicly embarrass the county. Supervisor John Moorlach, in one of his typical misconceptions, stated, “Your here to help us, not embarrass us nationally.” Todd Spitzer, who will eventually run for district attorney, went as far to say that their is no corruption in Orange County. The Board then moved to cut the grand jury stipend in apparent retaliation.
As it turns out, the FBI formed the task force in April, about the same time as the FPPC announced its own investigation. The FBI, which has a permanent anti-corruption unit, said they typically form a task force to focus on specific issues. According to the Voice of OC report, the task force consists of agents from the FBI, the IRS and other agencies, bringing in experts in all fields. In other words, they form a task force when a small, boutique investigatory unit just won’t do.
This is not the first time the county has undergone investigation by the Feds. The FBI was involved in investigations during the 1994 bankruptcy as well as the more recent witness tampering charges that brought down former OC Sheriff Mike Carona, who is serving a 6 year sentence in Colorado. That investigation revealed widespread corruption in the upper ranks of the sheriffs department.
The formation of the task force highlights the ethical woes of the county. And, although it may seem the task force is pointed at the Board of Supervisors, other elected and former officials of cities and special districts would do well to watch themselves. The FBI has a tendency to cast a wide net when it is looking for information. Typically, during an investigation of this type, other deeds of mismanagement on the peripheral of the investigation are brought into the light and reviewed.
Coming to mind are the charges brought by the Grand Jury last year against our own Jerry Amante, accusing him and another councilman from Laguna of misusing their official positions with their cities to interfere with Brandman University officials. Although the city of Tustin made an official response to the report, as required by law, they never actually denied the charges. Rather, they stated the Grand Jury got it all wrong and, even if there was a misuse of power, the city could hardly be held accountable for what two renegade councilmen did on their own time.
The rhetoric got so bad, self-appointed and well-respected watchdog, Shirley Grindle actually fired off a letter to the Register saying the two officials owed Smoller of Brandmand University a “huge apology for their unethical behavior.” She said they should then resign in disgrace.
So, while the conservative Republicans of this town continue to be incensed at the thought of their dirty laundry coming to light, it looks like the FBI has gladly set up shop in their back yard to eke out corruption. While I expect much of the work to be done in secrecy, one can expect an investigation of this size will bring out a wide variety of players in county politics. Don’t be surprised to find the fickle finger of fate pointed at a variety of folks, both public and private. Coming to mind are those behind the well funded smear campaigns against Tracy Worley-Hagen and David Waldram that brought in hidden money from local contractors we suspect do business with the city.
Denial is one thing. But, our city fathers may have to prove it this time. And no amount of ranting on the dais will keep the FBI from their task.
Suffice it to say, the water in Tustin may taste terrible but it is healthy, according to the Public Health Goals 2010-2012 report as presented at the July 2nd Tustin City Council meeting by Water Services Manager, Art Valenzuela.
It seems we aren’t the only ones who are unhappy with the five percent raise being considered for Police Chief Scott Jordan during this session. Councilmember Beckie Gomez pointed out that, last year, Jordan received a five percent raise that was supposedly for a two year period. She let the cat out of the bag (sorry it took so long to get to this) and said the chief, in spite of the raise that was supposed to keep him here, has now chosen to leave the city.
So, the city decided to give him a parting gift of another five percent raise….. for what? Gomez, as the only true fiscally responsible person sitting ont he dais, pointed out the absurdity of this. Saying that her comments were not about his work performance, she said the raise reflects a ten percent raise in less than a year. “I think it would be inappropriate to add another five percent because that would be ten percent in just over a year, and that’s not what we’ve done in respect with our other employees.”
Gomez made a motion to bifurcate the item in order to vote separately on Jordan’s raise. Surprisingly, Councilmember John Nielsen provided the second for Gomez’ motion. Now, here is where it gets interesting.
First, Gomez had to explain the motion to the Podiatrist Councilman because he has trouble understanding anything that isn’t drawn in pictures. They also had to wake up Chuck so he could vote with the block. I’m not sure if Nielsen was just being nice or if he really agreed with Beckie on this one. In any case, Nielsen and Gomez were the only votes in favor of deciding these issues separately.
In a moment of absurdity, Councilmember Chuck Puckett showed his ignorance in moving the entire item saying, “We have an excellent city manager and city police chief.” Yes, Chuck, we did until the police chief decided to leave. So, where does it make sense to give him a parting gift of 5 percent? And, where was the public discussion of the proposed raises for the deputy city manager and the departing chief? Apparently, that is not part of the open government plan in the City of Tustin. Of course, that doesn’t matter to Puckett who, again, showed he either doesn’t read the material presented or he doesn’t care when he thought they were discussing the city manager when, in fact, the proposal included the Deputy City Manager.
The other item we would like to have seen called out by Gomez was subitem 3 of item 6 that further cements Parker’s ability to abridge employment hiring rules at his discretion. However, the item was pointed out to the city employee’s union and they were not concerned either. Good luck when new hires are no longer represented by the union.
The final items on the agenda were the agreements with the unions representing the Tustin Police Officers, Police Management and the Police Support Services. The union representing the rank and file employees in the city, Tustin Municipal Employees Association, have reached impasse (although the city won’t admit it) and talks have been suspended as far as we know. Apparently, they are the only ones ticked off about the shenanigans between the corrupt city council and the executive managers over their incentive pay.
Although no one is talking the sticking point, we think, may be the city’s desire to accelerate the increased payments by employees to pay their full share of the cost of their pensions. Previously, they had agreed to a timetable for coming to full payment. But the city, impressed by non-existent data that puts the city at risk for pensions, asked for employees to pay their full share beginning this year. Of course, this is without the benefit of a raise to offset the cost, such as Chief Jordan received last year and Deputy City Manager Charles Robinson will receive just as soon as Parker can sign the papers. And, don’t forget, now that Parker has full authority, he does not need to notify the city council or anyone else about Robinson’s raise.
To their credit, the city will increase the Flexible Benefits payments in the second year. However, with the expected increase in costs for healthcare, this is probably a wash.
Regardless of the kudos the city council lavished on the staff and employees for coming to resolution, don’t expect the TMEA to roll over any time soon. My sources tell me they are prepared to sit it out as long as necessary. They are not happy about the lack of leadership shown by the conservative council who continue to lavish raises and benefits on executive and mangerial employees while ignoring the rank and file. This council meeting showed their continued disdain for employees in the city and for labor in general.