Category Archives: politics

Slot Machine Politics?

Way back in 2012, when “Il Duce”, Jerry Amante did his best to sabotage our town Tustin on his way out, he managed to talk the voters into foolishly voting for Measure HH that would end compensation for future generations of city councilmembers. I’m not sure how he managed to talk his cronies into it but, when it came to a vote, the residents of Tustin overwhelmingly chose to end the stipends and benefits for the incoming city council.

Granted, city council pay also included typical city employee benefits such as, paid healthcare and retirement contributions. And, while I would take issue with the benefits portion of compensation, I certainly had no problem with councilmembers making a few hundred dollars a month to oversee the city. Amante had already managed to eliminate nominal expenses for councilmembers in a previous executive action.

Some people at the time felt it was an all or nothing issue. I certainly didn’t. While health and retirement benefits should not be a part of council pay, a nominal stipend should be there to help pay for those expenses that any volunteer position incurs.

It took 8 long years but our trusty residents finally righted the wrong and returned reasonable stipends to the city council. We were fortunate there were enough civic minded candidates for the city council that we didn’t suffer those interim years from the lack of cash in the pocket. I did notice, however, there were an unusual number of candidates for the three council slots up for election when the stipends returned. Could it be…..nah…. They don’t care about the money. If they did, they would have investigated and found out that there was still money to be made in those lean years and that, sometimes, it makes the stipend look like a ten year old’s allowance.

What I am talking about, of course, is commission/committee assignments. Tustin doesn’t run in a vacuum. To make our community run, there are myriad boards, committees and well, clubs our councilmembers have to belong to.

Let’s see there is the Transportation Corridor Authority, otherwise known as the Toll Roads, there is the Orange County Sanitation District (who like to call themselves, OC San), and of course there is the OC Vector Control, known best for spraying chemicals around that do everything but kill the mosquitoes they were intended for.

All in all, there are a dozen assignments that are doled out annually by herhonor the mayor. And, some of them come with a hefty stipend. Take OC San, for instance. Meetings net the attendee $212.50 per and there can be as many as 6 meetings a month. In 2019, the latest reporting year for the Government Compensation website, one sanitation director made over $21,000 although the average seems to be closer to $7,500. Councilman Ryan Gallagher gets the big bucks this year, by the way.

The not so close runner(s) up are the Transportation Corridor Authority and the Southern California Association of Governments/OCCOG at paltry $120 each. Austin Lumbard and alternate Beckie Gomez are the recipients of the TCA stipend this year. SCAG hasn’t been decided yet, apparently.

There are others that pay lesser amounts.

All of this is not to say our public servants don’t deserve a little extra. However, most of the committee assignments with stipends also come with other personnel benefits and, like Tustin once did, maybe those need to be looked at. Since board members usually attend at least one meeting a month for each committee they sit on, the compensation can run several thousand dollars. In 2019, then Councilman Chuck Puckett received $6,120 plus mileage (according to the TCA website) for his time on their board.

By the way, Tustinites voted in a very reasonable $600 a month stipend. It is the maximum stipend by state law for cities of our size. And we can give kudos to Mayor Clark. Where her predecessors made no secret of rewarding cronyism with choice assignments, our current mayor has been thoughtful in who she chose for each assignment (except for the newbie, Gallagher….well, we’ll see). We wish them well.

About Last Night

If you missed last night’s city council meeting, don’t despair. You really didn’t miss much. I realize we are all on lockdown and social distancing and such. My family and I dutifully wear our masks when we go into stores (I refuse to wear one while driving, though). And I know the city video techs are getting really good at setting up Zoom city council meetings. It’s just that, well, everyone seemed happier and more energetic when we could all meet in person in the council chambers. I miss those comfy seats. I’d happily wear my mask if I could sit and snicker at the council in person. Let’s get those vaccinations rolling.

There was an interesting item discussed that I have been waiting for. That is the mayor’s goals for the year. Now, for being called mayor, Letitia Clark gets few perks (probably first in line at the coffee pot) and lots of responsibility. Even though it is a largely ceremonial role, the mayor has to kind of lead the charge. And she does that by kicking off the year with some broad goals. And Clark’s were pretty broad.

Public Safety – According to Clark, the city will “partner” with the county to provide more covid testing and vaccination sites. Besides testing at Families Together at 1st and Yorba St., Clark wants to have a vaccination site at the Senior Center and other venues in the city.

Clark also said she would like to see the Police Open House restarted. She misses it. So do we. Unfortunately, she alluded that it would be a virtual event. Maybe the department can postpone it until the fall and we can have a safe but socially distanced event instead (if we’re good boys and girls). She also announced the police department will host a virtual public safety training event. That should be exciting but shouldn’t it be one of the Chief Stu Greenberg’s goals?

Community Engagement – Yes, we had slides. Under Community Engagement, Clark said she would be holding virtual office hours in order for her to interact with the community. No word either from her or on the website on when those hours will be. At some point, Clark also wants her colleagues to join her on some type of educational series of videos. Although she didn’t specify, I suppose this will be a city council version of the Chief’s public safety training.

Clark commented on the city developing an app to, among other things, report graffitti. Along with this will be a new “branding” campaign to promote the unique characteristics of Tustin (Don’t we have a slogan already?). Well, all I can say is…. what took so long? Orange, Santa Ana and Irvine all have apps. The county has a plethora of apps that do everything from recycling to rescuing dogs. Tustin is way behind. The only thing I would ask is, make the darn thing useful. Santa Ana and Irvine both have very useful apps that aren’t just regurgitated web pages. There would be nothing more embarrassing than an app that simply loads the city’s overdressed website (there, I said it).

Clark’s third goal got a bit murky. Discussing her desire for improving housing mandates and advancing the Legacy’s development opportunities, she trailed off to what the Covid grants have done and hopefully could do. The truth is, the Legacy properties have been lying fallow far too long. Former City Manager, Jeff Parker, had the right idea to fire the old master developer and have the city take over development. Unfortunately, since his retirement, little -if any- has been done.

Of all the mayor’s goals, two of the more important for our city are in revitalization of the Old Town area and paying more attention to the needs of the long neglected southwest section of the city. she specifically targeted the Tustin Youth and Family Center saying the southwest area of the city has long been “overlooked” (we would say ignored). Hopefully we can see some city money going toward programs and materials for the center.

Clark glossed over Old Town, saying that she just wanted to revitalize the area. Unfortunately, downtown businesses and property owners will not act on their own. The city needs to do some encouraging and enforcing to fill the empty spaces we have on El Camino and the side streets of Old Town. Yeah, it’s great to have a huge lot to hold the farmers market every week. But that lot has been empty for much too long. Perhaps the city needs to do a little nudging. Empty lots are as much or more of an eyesore as empty storefronts. Until the city pays more than just lip service, expecting businesses to invest on their own, the downtown area will remain the same semi-lifeless curiosity it has been for the past 30 years (Hint: we need a new parking structure in the middle of downtown).

Clark’s last goals for the city council are a bit lofty – and, a bit scary. While equity and diversity is something to strive for, it is probable that she will hit a wall with staff in regard to implementing any change. And, the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be a need for it. One walk through city hall shows a pretty diverse group of people from all ethnic backgrounds. Talent is not something we lack, either. Honestly, this sounds like she needed something to put in the slide as filler material.

A concerning issue, however, is the mayor’s mention of “Community Choice Energy“. This topic has been discussed throughout Orange County and currently three cities, including Irvine, are committed to developing the program in their cities. Essentially, this would mean that the city of Tustin would get into the energy business, owning their own power company. Great, another bureaucracy.

If this sounds familiar, just think back a few years ago when the state deregulated the power industry. At least three dozen so-called power companies emerged that would give consumers a “choice” while selling power at a lower cost. Many of them were marketing energy from green sources. We see, today, how successful that was. It’s laudable that Clark would like to see residents get their power from clean sources. But, the city has no experience in buying and selling power and they should not be in a hurry to saddle homeowners and businesses with another boondoggle. You can be sure any cost will be borne by the folks who live and do business here. By the time we are left footing the bill for this mistake, Clark will be long gone to her next political stop. Mayor, take this one off your list.

So Long, Farewell

Tuesday night’s Tustin City Council meeting left us a little teary eyed as councilmembers Chuck Puckett and Alan Bernstein were bid goodbye in typical Tustin style. Accolades flowed for Chuck and Alan….at least until the glitch in software overcame the technical expertise of staff and the video came to a crashing halt. For those of you that did not get to see the video, you can find it here in it’s entirety. Chuck spent more than 20 years in service to our community. I don’t think he will sit still for very long (Alan either, for that matter).

The final act of a short agenda was the swearing in of three “new” councilmembers: Newbie Ryan Gallagher, veteran Beckie Gomez and, returning lame duck Letitia Clark. Immediately after the obligatory swearing in ceremonies, Clark was named Mayor for the 2021 year. It could have been another first for Tustin, had Gomez accepted the pro tem position but she graciously side-stepped the honor and it was given to Austin Lumbard. Lumbard was elected to the city council in 2018 and deserves the position, ceremonial as it is. Still, it might have been nice to shatter the image of the “good ol’ boys” club with an all-female lead cast.

The makeup of the new council is diverse. Healthcare professional, engineer, public affairs and yes, even a lawyer. That, hopefully, will work in their favor as they have a lot to tackle this coming year. Covid-19, if you haven’t heard, is not going away anytime soon. Just today, Governor Newsom made good on his promise to effectively shutdown California again. Saying that cases have spiked and hospitals throughout the state will be overwhelmed before Christmas, Newsom split the state up into five regions and stated that any region with less than 15% available ICU beds will be shutdown.

Orange County is well below that number with only about 66% of its ICU and 69% of hospital beds in use (as of November 30th). Unfortunately, the Southern California Region that Orange County is lumped in with includes Los Angeles, San Diego and extending up the easter side of the state to Mono County. It’s a sure bet that at least some of those counties are overwhelmed as this is written. Enjoy this weekend (even with a shutdown notice, we have two days). It will likely be your last for awhile.

Back to Tustin….

I noticed most of our city councilmembers place a high priority on public safety. It was the most often cited plank in candidates’ platforms, probably because it resonates well with most people. Tustin, however, is considered a “safe” city ranking 76 on the Safewise blog. Of course, our neighbor to the south is either #1 or #12, depending on which list your use. And, gosh, a total of 11 Orange County cities ranked in the top 50. Add to that, crime is down all over the country (at least until the September riots). And, have you seen our police department? Accredited, well-rounded training, top notch professionals, both civilian and sworn staff. Chief Stu Greenberg inherited one of the best police departments in the state.

All of this is to ask, do we really need a focus on public safety?

What we really need, and this city council has the combined expertise to make happen, is development of the Legacy property. Yes, we’ve been plugging along, improving piece by piece. But, we’ve had that land in our possession for 20 years. And less than half the old base has been developed. Of course, we are lucky that former city manager, Jeff Parker, was astute enough to see that our so-called “master developer” was jerking the city around and took the reins from them oh so many years ago. Since then, the city has seen development occur ever so slowly.

The District was a brilliant idea and might have been a hit save for the fact it opened in 2007, right around the time of the Great Recession. All of a sudden, the housing bubble burst and the last thing people were looking at were overpriced housing on suspect contaminated land in the middle of Orange County. So, there the base sat….and sat……and sat…..

Well, things did finally pick up but it seems the pace has been a bit slack. This city council needs to take the lead and get development rolling again. Housing is at a premium in the state and, especially, in Orange County. The city should be focusing on both housing and business development of the base property and leave Chief Greenberg to do what he does best.

All the Kings Horses

As if we didn’t have enough to concern ourselves with the pandemic, now we get to add another wildfire or two on top of that. We’re fortunate to have some of the best firefighters in the country working for us. That’s a post for another time.

If one were to look at the current state of elections in Tustin, one might think we are having a crisis in leadership. I mean, we have 9 candidates vying for 3 council seats with one incumbent running for re-election. It seems to be a trend, though. Westminster has five candidates running for two seats. Westminster is rife with allegations of corruption and back office deals. So, it’s no wonder they have plenty of candidates to seek office.

Like us, the city of Garden Grove has 9 candidates running for 3 council seats and the mayor’s office. Five of the candidates are running for mayor. Garden Grove has little in the way of corruption but has a huge agenda this coming term, contending with issues like the sale of the Willowick Golf Course (which is curiously located in Santa Ana) and the possible economic collapse of the Habor Blvd. corridor.

Besides the number of candidates running, Tustin also shares another commonality with Garden Grove. There is a lot of campaign money, both light and dark, backing the candidates. And that money is one thing that should alert folks to who they should vote for.

I know a good number of readers have already voted. I haven’t been in a hurry to post this I mean, we have less than a week to go before the official “election day”. And, quite frankly, it’s not my job to tell you how to vote. I just want every eligible person in Tustin to actually vote. For those who haven’t voted yet, I have a few things for you to ponder in case you are having trouble making up your mind. I mean with 9 candidates, which I don’t recall us ever having for a single election, a person needs to cut the field down. Now mind you this is my own way of thinking, your mileage may vary.

If there was anyone to cut immediately, it would be Kurt Bensinger and James Peres. The allegations of mismanagement of campaign funds by the FPPC is a good start. Our good friends over at the Liberal OC had quite a bit to say about the letter sent to the DPOC concerning the issue. Bensworth and Peres have denied any wrongdoing (of course) and blamed their campaign finance manager. Their campaign statements and ensuing multiple amendments make it difficult to see exactly what and from where they received contributions. What a hoot. C’mon guys, the buck stops here. You are ultimately responsible for every dollar (or contribution in kind) your campaign take in. If a person can’t manage their own finances, why would one let them manage the city?

Then there is our retread and what looks to be career politician in the making, Beckie Gomez. If the name sounds familiar it’s because she already spent two terms doing virtually nothing on the Tustin City Council except agreeing with the conservative good ol’ boys on almost every issue that came up. She was supposed to be the liberal voice speaking out for the little guy…uh person while the Three Amigos pushed through their agenda of business over community.

What’s worse is, to keep her name politically alive, Gomez got elected to the OC Board of Education to wait out the term limits thing. And now she is back for round two. Her qualifications make her much better suited to her current job. If she returns to the council dais, we can just expect more what we had. Some of what we can expect is, she will be beholden to the county firefighters association, Tustin Police Officers Association and assorted trade unions, all of whom have contributed heavily to her campaign, directly or through PACs.

Speaking of career politicians, there is current city council person and second term candidate, Leticia Clark. Reading the leading line on her campaign website one would think she has been the shining star of the city council. In reality, she hasn’t made any waves and, from the looks of things, we could expect the same from her in the future. There is this: she is probably one of the most educated persons we have ever had on the city council. Maybe if the people of Tustin were to elect a little more of a moderate crowd to the dais, she could better accomplish what she aims for…. I mean, her platform sounds good but she has had four years to work on it and what has she accomplished?

That leaves five other candidates. Of those, we have one candidate who is far and above the rest in campaign donations with an astounding $128,000 in the campaign chest. Actually, it is much more than that because I didn’t include the last minute reports of donations for Lee Fink.

I had a brief social media conversation with Lee concerning the fact that most of his donors seem to be lawyers. Logically, of course, lawyers are going to back lawyers. He has some pretty hefty donors in there that upped his funding but at least we didn’t see any businesses that do business with the city. That’s a big plus in my book. My only concern is the amount of campaign funding (and expenditures) he received. Fink is probably a record holder for the recipient of funds for a small city council campaign. That leads me to wonder if he is just another career politician in the making (move over, Beckie).

Lee is also a homegrown politician, so there’s that.

Another big recipient of campaign funding is Jorge Valdes. Valdes is another lawyer who received a considerable amount of the $90,000 or so he has reported from his peers. However, the red flag goes up when I see the typical contributions from the OC Biz PAC, a purveyor of dark money, and the sizeable number of auto dealers from the Tustin Auto Center who have contributed. Valdes has also received large contributions from the OC GOP, Lincoln Club and -what could only be assumed a dark money outlet- the “Taxpayers for a Sustainable Economy” (I haven’t checked them out yet but I will). Beholden to business or responsible to the community? You have to make that decision.

One person stands out from the crowd. Chris Cusac is a veteran and a local businessman. He appears to be running a largely self-funded campaign and has relied heavily on non-monetary contributions. He owes allegiance to no business or union. And he seems to be the only one who thinks we need a guiding hand and not significant change. From his website: “Cris is running to make sure our community remains as amazing as it currently is.” Chris has the kind of credentials I like to see in local candidates. Tustin Community Foundation, Veterans Advisory Committee, Chief’s Advisory Board, etc. Although he has only been here 6 years, he has made the most of it and I would think he would put a lot of thought into decisions that have to be made in the coming months.

So there you go. I’m not telling you who I voted for (I voted today) and I won’t tell you who to vote for. At least you have a little more information on some of the candidates (some weren’t worth mentioning). Pick wisely. You’ll have to live with them for the next four years. Oh yeah, there is one other thing: For more than 25 years, our city council has been primarily conservative (bad form to say R & D words in a non-partisan race). Maybe we ought to try a slight shift to the left. Consider it anyway. The fate of the city is in your hands.