With 25 meetings, including those very special meetings where the public was not invited, the Tustin City Council is on the verge of calling it a wrap. I was about to bet my readers they would not hold a final meeting on December 18th but history shows this is the meeting they slap each other on the back for a job well done and pick each other (or mostly so) for mayor and mayor pro tem.
In the meantime, this week’s agenda starts off with the usual Closed Session Items. We notice that they have not apparently made much progress on any of these, particularly the issue with the Army Reserve Center swap that was a feature item in Regular Business exactly one year ago. At that time, the Army made it clear they were not interested in a swap and were quite happy with what they had. I guess everyone has their price. The city just hasn’t hit theirs yet.
Regular Business will start off with The American Legion Post 227 posting the colors. Their Color Guard, by the way, has won awards at The American Legion State Conventions in the past.
Under Public Hearing Items, the city will have the second reading and adoption of State Buildling Codes, a procedure that is mostly formality. As the city was having problems (again) with posting the video of the last meeting, I’m not sure if anyone even bothered to show up for this. In any case, staffers recommend passage.
The second item, is a routine funding for COPS. $100,000 is slated to be received by the department. No real changes to how the department intends to use the money for a Crime Analyst position and related software. Except for complaints by former councilmembers, most of us think the police department does a pretty good job of allocating resources where they are most needed.
Under Regular Business, the council will be asked to approve an amendment to the classification and compensation plans to award the Director of Finance, Pamela Arends-King, a whopping $8,000 raise for essentially doing what she has always done, manage the finances of the city. The staff are correct in their report that it will save the city money. But, considering the Finance Director was already probably checking the previous Treasurer’s work, did she really rate a raise, particularly when every other line staff took it in the short end during contract negotiations?
After the fiasco caused by the city’s use of a shady collection agency to catch business license scofflaws, the staff have come up with a proposed ordinance to exempt real estate agents from obtaining business licenses. The recommendation is to pass the ordinance on a single reading and be done with it. I guess they are hoping to sweep the whole issue under the rug.
The final issue at hand for our busy city council is to select the new mayor and mayor pro tem for the coming year. As usual, I have no doubt this years selections have been made and they do not include the sole female on the dais. That’s a shame because, out of all of the bodies on the city council, Beckie Gomez has proven to be the most level headed among the crew. But, intelligence and experience have no bearing here. The most likely candidate for Mayor is, of course, Chuck Puckett. Chuck has the experience although we suspect he will be about as effective as the current mayor in conducting city business to the betterment of our residents. At least Chuck returns our phone calls.
What we really have to worry about is that they will make the Podiatrist Councilman the
Podiatrist Mayor pro tem. That would leave him as heir-apparent next year. That is a scary thought…
We didn’t bother to post the agenda for the Planning Commission last week due to its brevity and lack of interest. The only item of note was an item on AT&T utility cabinets for servicing their U-Verse internet and cable-like system. It seems the city’s resolution of their video issues was short-lived as, a week later, the video is not up so we can’t report on the outcome. We’ll keep you posted.
Tuesday’s Tustin City Council meeting should be a bit more interesting with several items of interest, both on the Consent Calendar as well as the Regular Business Items.
Not much on the Closed Session for the City Attorney to report on even if there is any movement. There is one new item listed as existing litigation regarding the estate of an individual and the police department.
Police had previously declined to discuss the case publicly, stating potential litigation as the reason. TPD did have an encounter with the young man, nineteen year old Paul Quintanar, prior to the accident that took his life. No one has been charged in the incident.
There are also several continuing negotiations concerning MCAS property and swaps with both the TUSD and the US Army Reserve.
The Regular Meeting Agenda is headed by three presentations including one for outgoing Audit Commissioner Richard Hilde.
One glaring item on the Consent Calendar that may be pulled for discussion is Item 4, City Option to Retain or Delegate Authority for Award of Ambulance Contract. Currently, the city retains the authority and, judging from the issues the county is having with its ambulance services, it sounds like it might be a good idea for the city to retain that authority rather than delegate it to the County. The staff report indicates city staff feel the same way.
We’re not sure if Item 5, AB109 MOU on Realignement which would authorize a bank of overtime cash is just for purposes of obtaining what OC Supervisor Janet Nguyen calls, “free money”. AB109 involves the realignment of responsibilities of post-release supervision of prisoners to the community. Previously, most of this was handled by state parole agents. It is now handled almost exclusively by county probation officers.
In reading the agenda report for this item, we found the city has assigned a “Compliance Detective” to monitor the activities of released offenders. Of course, this is what the Orange County Probation Department, who has a full-time deputy probation officer assigned to Tustin, does. So, we’re not sure why the need for additional manpower in this area. We do recognize the detective also monitors sex and drug registrants, not a bad thing in our book.
Under Regular Business, city staff have finally answered all the questions the city council had when they last addressed a recommendation to appoint City Finance Director, Pamela Arends-King as the city’s Treasurer. As we’ve noted before, we endorse the idea of Arends-King being officially appointed to the position. We are opposed, however, to the hefty $8,000 increase in pay, particularly since the previous City Treasurer, George Jeffries, did the same job for half the amount.
The staff report indicates a savings to the General Fund and the Water Enterprise Fund of $19k but they provide no evidence, other than “because we said so”, of the savings. Where is the transparency to the public when calculating these so-called savings?
It seems Boss Tweed Parker is cementing his executive relationships at taxpayer cost.
Item 8, Business License Program, is a request by city staff to continue to use a questionable company to assist them in business license compliance. MAS, a company that has made a living off cities by making it a practice to offend the business owners, has a checkered history in collecting fees for errant businesses who have failed to obtain a license to operate in the city.
When the city first contracted with MAS to collect delinguent business license fees and taxes, we foretold the issues they would have. Businesses have reported harassment and unqualified accusaitons as they have been contacted by MAS representatives who have combed the city on a witch hunt for transgressors. The backlash to the city appears to be catching up with them as they back track on collections.
The proposed recommendation involves refunds and reassessments of the operations. What it should involve is a complete investigation into the business practices of the contractor to determine whether this is appropriate action for a city like Tustin, who purports to be business friendly, to be conducting.
To deflect attacks from the root problem, the staff report addresses the questions asked by the city council regarding business licensing for realtors. The city currently has a policy in place that seems adequate. Perhaps they should leave well enough alone and concentrate on MAS operations.
That’s it for this week’s meeting. We’ll try to keep you posted on any changes.
Conference with Legal Counsel -
Two items each Exposure to and Initiation of Litigation.
Existing Litigation – Marie Sales on Behalf of Paul J. Quintanar v. City of Tustin et al.
Confernence With Real Property Negotiators
MCAS properties, 14 lots, OC Property Company (Cushman Wakefield).
Price and Terms of Payment APN: 430-391-12, 430-391-09, and 430-391-03, Tustin Unified School District.
Property Address/Description 2345 Barranca Pkwy and 15 acres of the N/E corner of Red Hill Avenue and Warner Avenue – Army Reserve negotiating.
Regular Business Agenda
Item 4, City Option to Retain or Delegate Authority for Award of Ambulance Contnract.
Item 5, Master MOU Between City of Tustin and County of Orange for Public Safety Realignment and Post Release Community Supervision Authorized Expenditures.
Regular Business Items
Item 6, Approve Agreement with the City of Irvine, et al, to Fund the Peters Canyon Wash Channel Water Capture and Reuse Pipeline.
Item 7, Recommendation of the Finance Director’s Appointment as the City Treasurer.
Item 8, Business License Program.
In news from the Republic of Orange County, we found the not so surprising tidbit that OCTA has voted to refinance the 91 Express Lanes Bonds. The 91 toll roads, supposedly an award-winning design, has been a money losing operation from the beginning. Originally a private enterprise wherein mostly foreign investors bilked the state out of real estate on the center divider of the 91 freeway to build a business, that business turned out -as predicted by many- to be a deep hole to sink taxpayer money into. And, sink it they did.
When California Private Transportation Company developed the toll road complex, they quietly transferred ownership back to the State of California who then leased it back to CPTC (confused yet?). CPTC then continued to operate the toll road on a for-profit basis, presumably for the next 35 years.
In 2003, when CPTC couldn’t make a dime off the venture, they wisely conned the Orange County Transportation Authority to take it off their hands for a cool $207.5 million in cash and tokens (OK, I’m kidding about the tokens – everyone knows the toll road uses FastTrak).
The toll roads use “congestion pricing” to set toll prices for any given hour – except it’s not, really. True congestion pricing would require real-time input on congestion to determine pricing. That wouldn’t work for the toll road, which the developers (and OCTA) knew would display a grossly underused road at any hour of the day. Instead, they use a predictive model to determine the most heavily congested hours and adjust every so often for changes. That, of course, is not exactly transparency in government. But, then, one only has to look at the Toll Road website for the inside information. Oh, wait, that paints a rosy picture that just isn’t true.
And staff at OCTA know it.
In May of this year, a staff report titled, “91 Express Lanes Debt Restructuring” was sent to the OCTA Board, of which our own Al Murray and Todd Spitzer belong. That report, which you can read here, outlines deep trouble with the debt structure of the toll roads and the immediate need to refinance both the 2003 and current bonds for the Toll Roads. Recommendation by staff, of course, is to refinance.
Now, what I know about bonds and debt restructuring could be put on a pinhead. But, I do know how to read bond ratings (thanks, brother John) and can tell you that, when your bonds go from an original Aaa/AAA/AAA rating to A1/A/A-, you are in deep doody. This is akin to your going from an 800 credit score to a 400 credit score only, while your interest rate goes up to buy that house, the interest rate goes down on the bonds and they become difficult to sell-unless you offer artificially attractive interest. Oh, but there are laws against that sort of thing, aren’t there? Well, according to Spitzer, who sits on the OCTA Finance Committee, the rates went from 2.75% to 2.65% practically overnight. Spitzer, who in his latest newsletter to constituents is trying to paint a portrait of a rose from a picture of a sow, is clearly losing the battle on the Toll Road.
Al Murray, by the way, is of the same mind as his predecessor Jerry “Boss Tweed” Amante was, that we should turn the carpool lanes on the San Diego Freeway (there, I said it) into toll roads as well. All this while not one toll road in the county can meet its ridership or its financial goals. Another Tustin Councilmember, Chuck Puckett, is a member of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency and, although we haven’t checked, we are betting he is in favor (like Amante was) of the Foothill Extension that would wreak havoc on the Trestles area.
Peas in a pod.
What we can’t figure out is why the Republicans in this county continue to chase after the toll roads, a proven money loser for government and a bane to the public. If you have ever ridden any of the county’s toll roads, you know that -at any time of the day- they are grossly underused. None of the toll roads have been able to reach their lofty projections. Their answer to low ridership? Raise tolls, making the roads even more expensive and out of reach for the everyday commuter. The 91 Toll Roads show the best ridership of any in Orange County. But, they are still vastly underused. An old non-compete agreement threatened a widening project at one time. When the issue was settled, mostly due to the sale to OCTA, ridership fell when the widening was completed. Will connecting the 91 and the 241 Toll Roads help matters? Possibly. But, are we, as taxpayers, willing to fund another possible boondoggle to find out?
We, as taxpayers, are stuck with the existing toll road boondoggle foisted upon us by a so-called conservative leadership shouting the privatization mantra. But, time and time again, we’ve seen that privatization of government enterprises creates substandard product amidst the cronyism and backroom deals. Toll roads are not the answer and it is time to tell our elected officials to get off the same broken record. We may be stuck with what we have. It doesn’t mean we should continue to propagate the species.
(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.