Blog Archives

Shades of Tammany Hall

smoking-460x307Yup, the smoke-filled backrooms behind bars have not faded into the distant past. At least, not here in Orange County.

Yesterday, the ever-declining-in-viable-news Orange County Register reported that shadow politics is alive and well here in the Real OC. If you’ve ever wondered how Tustin City Mayor Chuck Puckett arrives at his decision to deny appoint a fellow councilman a seat on a meaningful political committee or board (think OCTA), he has help.

Every year in November, representatives of the various city councils meet in conference to decide who will be added to what sitting boards. These boards and committees run everything from water and sewage, to transportation (think OCTA again), to even library boards. In fact, membership on almost any oversight board that is not directly elected by the good citizens of Orange County, is likely to be filled here, (now, try not to laugh) in the murky depths of the shadow government.

And, they’re in trouble.

Apparently, this super-secret cabal met November 13th at the Hilton to see who would sit where. And, it seems the Orange County Board of Supervisors is not happy about certain alleged Brown Act violations and they have called the cities out to rectify the situation. Specifically, the BoS is unhappy with the failure to give proper notification of the meeting, as required by law. The answer, of course, is to rescind all appointments and set a new, properly noticed meeting.

The “City Selection Committee” is actually the responsibility of the Clerk of the Orange County Board. So, one would think the whole thing would  be watched closely to make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. Unfortunately, as this political body is prone to do, they sluff off the tough jobs to others, providing little or no oversight, assuming it will run itself. And, when things fall apart or as in this case laws are violated, they do their best to blame others.

In this case, the other is the “League of California Cities” which had been coordinating the the meeting for years until Orange County left the LCC for the “more conservative” ACC-OC. You see, whenever the local government doesn’t like the way things are going, they just pick up their ball and go to another sandlot. They apparently don’t think the public cares enough about day-to-day politics to notice. After all, they’ve been getting away with it this long, haven’t they? And, in the case of starting the ACC-OC, they weren’t going to have the rest of California tell Orange County how to run their show.

The apologists at the Register tried to tone down the violations by saying that not everyone in the room was aware of the apparent transgressions. Then Tustin Mayor, Al Murray, reportedly asked if the meeting had been noticed and he received an affirmative answer. Technically speaking they were right. The meeting had been noticed – to the city council and other political bodies. It just hadn’t been notice to the general public, as required by the Brown Act. Methinks Al, being a retired cop and all, should have investigated further.

At stake here is hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipends and benefits. Oh, you didn’t think that just because you all voted stipends for the city council out of existence they still didn’t get perks, did you? Don’t be silly. Of course there is still money to be made – and lots of it. All paid by you and me, the taxpayers of this county.

For example:

  • Al Murray, OCTA Board of Directors – $5,900 (2013)
  • John Nielsen, OC Sanitation District – $4,921 (2013)
  • Chuck Puckett, Transporation Cooridor Agency – $4,829 (2013)

I’ve written about this in the past when the (of) late Jerry Amante (who also made a heck of a lot of money in stipends) was mayor.

Of course, there are plenty of non-compensated board positions to be had as well. Otherwise, where would the conservative bastion stick their liberal counterparts and enemies of the (Republican) state? Case in point: Beckie Gomez, who has a somewhat perennial seat on the library board and a few other non-prestigious and unpaid committees. Republicans like John Nielsen and Chuck Puckett are not about to go against the tide and nominate liberal members of the council to paying (and influential) positions. Never mind that Gomez refused to take benefits when offered by the city when Nielsen and his cronies continued to gobble them up.

Of course, this leads us to question our own backroom politics. Prior to attending the November meeting Murray, who was mayor then, had to have some guidance on choosing the right man….er, person… for each board assignment. He certainly didn’t do it in a vacuum. So, where on the list of meetings for the past year, is the one where committee assignments were discussed in public? Going back through the archives, there is no record of a “pre-assignment” meeting. You don’t think our own city council would have violated the Brown act (again), do you? Maybe we’ll put a call in to Chuck or Al and ask them.

As a result of the outing by the OCR, the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, Susan Novak, told the Register she would be taking over the duties as the committee’s recording secretary. She also said a new meeting would be set up after the holidays to re-appoint members to the various boards. Care to bet who will not be nominated to a paid board position? A hint: she’s a she.

Keeping the Status Quo

Dullsville-Snooze Alert-

It is going to be  a pretty boring election season in the city of Tustin this year. Either everyone in Tustin is too busy to worry about the political bent of the city council (they are all Republicans) or they are happy with the way things are going. Face it, it has been a slow two years around Our Town Tustin, ever since Boss Tweed Amante left. John Nielsen has settled down and become less interested in city politics. Our old friend Chuck Puckett has returned to the dais along with newbie Alan Bernstein whom we hope will learn eventually to look up from his notes once in awhile (wing it, Alan).

It is hard to believe that four years have gone by since Mayor Al Murray and Councilwoman Beckie Gomez were first elected. Both came to the dais under the ominous shadow of Jerry “Boss Tweed” Amante, who held a firm grip on the city, issuing edicts and offering regular rants against his detractors. The Liberal OC often referred to him as “Il Duce” both on and off the record. And, Amante never got it. He hated the residents of Tustin (where he resides), hated the women he was forced to share the dais with and loved his dogs. When Jerry was around, there was always something to write about. When he left…. well, things got a bit more boring.

That, of course, has been good for Tustin. After Amante’s departure, the city council was able to clear their collective head and get down to the mundane business of running the city. And, except for the occasional powerplay by City Manager Jeff Parker or Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack, the city has run pretty smoothly on their watch. About the only real issue over the past four years is the epitomal collapse of the old town area when a CUP was granted to the boys at Wilcox Manor to run a convention center wedding venue. That controversy (assisted by yours truly) outlined what is wrong when politicians who have a direct benefit from a business, help that same business to make money at the expense of others’ privacy and well-being.

All this leads us to the latest news from the city. As I said in the beginning, either no one cares or no one knows. Al Murray and Beckie are the only ones to file nomination papers for Tustin City Council. As such, they will run unopposed, meaning you can save yourself a trip to the polls unless the other issues we’ll bring up over the next few months matter to you.

Regardless of my criticism, I have always liked Al and Beckie. Al is a retired police captain from Irvine and his most pressing decision since he has been in office is where to have coffee (usually Keane’s, usualy with cops). That’s not to say he can’t make a decision. He just hasn’t had to since he has been in office. Originally an Amante yes man, Murray has a great quality of getting along with just about everyone, admirer and detractor alike. And, he is pretty darn good at calming a collective angry crowd. And when the stuff hit the fan, during one of the most infamous crime sprees to hit Orange County, he was the man every mayor wished they could be in time of crisis.

It has been my pleasure to know Beckie Gomez over the past few years. A closet Republican, she has shown a willingness to work with everyone on the council (including Jerry) even though the council has consistently refused to give her any of the cherished paid board or committee positions. Little did they know Gomez is quite happy with her Library Board appointment. Gomez has demonstrated that she is interested in the welfare of Tustin chiefly as a place to live and secondly as a place to do business. During Amante’s frequent rants, she proved to be a calming influence even when Nielsen and Palmer were also ganging up on their nemesis, Deborah Gavello. If she did not always back Gavello’s play, it was because she had a direction of her own to follow.

So, what will the future bring to Tustin? Perhaps, over the next two years, more mediocrity. Barring an infield play by Arte Moreno or the collapse of the pending cemetery deal at the Great Park, the MCAS property is all but disposed of. I am sure there will be controversy over the fate of the blimp hangars to jazz things up a bit. As the city is showing its age, perhaps it’s about time the city council took the Old Town Tustin bit out of Elizabeth Binsack’s mouth (before she finds a way to bulldoze it completely) and take a good hard look at revitalizing the downtown area. Both Fullerton and Old Town Orange have experienced a renaissance with myriad antique shops and second hand resellers replaced with chic restaurants and venues that draw a diverse crowd. Downtown Tustin’s time has come and, without the past controversy to impede them, this city council could make a lasting mark on the place we all love.

One rumor in the wind: Will John Nielsen, who has had his share of personal and public controversy while in office, choose to resign during his term as we have heard he may? That would open some interesting avenues, and some of those have the Amante smell.

On The City Council Agenda – May 20, 2014

Hidden Agenda ClipartUnless we run into another protest in chambers, this week’s Tustin City Council meeting should be fairly short. In fact, the Closed Session, which starts at 5:30  may be longer than the public forum.

The Closed Session has the usual items on it including multiple litigation issues. Two new claims from Russell Taitz and Southern California Edison will also be considered. Surprisingly, there are no real estate issues to bother them tonight. That’s because they completed multiple deals with developers and the Army Reserve for a land swap at their last meeting.

The Regular Session Agenda is headed up by presentations to students and teachers alike. Shelby Van Raes will be recognized for the Student Writing Contest while Joy Wardlaw and Jennifer Morrow will be recognized as Teachers of the Year. Congratulations to all.

One noteworthy item on the consent calendar is the purchase of electronic citation devices for the police department. Reading the staff report, it appears the department is being forced into the program due to changes in the court system. Cost is $110,000 that will be pulled from appropriate funding. Although the cost is substantial, this project is long overdue. To date, only three cities use electronic citations in a pilot project. The courts are forcing the issue but cities will benefit in a variety of ways in eliminating manual processing and more accurate ticketing. It will also make for efficiency in the police ranks, most of whom have better things to do than spend their time writing tickets.

Another issue on the Consent Calendar that begs discussion is the contracting out of processing and collecting administrative citations. It’s unfortunate the Republican hand has convinced everyone that contracting services is the best way to run city government. Judging from the cost, an in-house staff could probably handle this part-time at less cost. We can’t ascertain that for sure as staff have conveniently left off the amount of revenue realized from administrative citations. As with the business license issue awhile back, however, Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack doesn’t appear interested in having her staff do grunt work.

The sole item under Regular Business is the second reading of an ordinance that would keep keep some Tustin codes relating to construction consistent with  California Green Building Standards Codes by incorporating them through reference. The ordinance will lessen the need for repeated changes caused by changes in California law.

That’s the end of the council’s regular business. Unfortunately, at the last meeting, nearly all of the councilmembers delayed the requisite reading of their community activities due to the protesters. That means an inordinate amount of time may be spent listening to the combined diatribe. The good news? The Podiatrist Councilman did get to list his off last meeting. So, his list may not be as long. I did notice he looks up occasionally from his notes nowadays. Perhaps he took a few public speaking lessons.

Short Meeting, John’s MIA (Again?)

Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda

Olympic Gold Medalist, Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda

At 43 minutes, last week’s Tustin City Council meeting was the shortest of the year and one of the shortest on record. Even Mayor Al Murray joked about reaching the business and committee reports in record time. The Presentation of Colors by The American Legion Post 227 preceded by Furhan Zubaini, Darul Falah giving the invocation and a quick lesson on Islam took up a good portion of the regular session.

A great presentation on the life of Tustin resident Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda, who turned 100 years old, was made. This lady, an Olympian in her younger years, has led a remarkable life that was told in a silent PowerPoint presentation. Evelyn is the oldest living Gold Medalist of the 1932 Olympics. It is folks like her that make Tustin the great town it is. Happy Birthday, Evelyn!

The sole Public Hearing Item on the allocation of Community Development Block Grant funding was continued, at staff request, to the May 6th city council meeting.

Item 5, Extension of Lease Agreement for Operation of the Food/Beverage Concession at Tustin Sports Park, was pulled from the Consent Calendar at Councilwoman Gomez’ request. The rest of the Consent Calendar, including the award of construction projects on Warner and Armstrong Avenues, was passed without comment.

The food and beverage concession issue began with a presentation on the concession itself. According to the presentation, the concession has had a difficult history with three operators attempting to fulfill lease agreements. The current operator, Express Sports Cafe, took over in October 2000 and has operated the concession ever since. The presentation included the challenges now facing the concession operators including the ability of sports park patrons to order takeout food delivered to the park Really? Has anyone ever done that?

A bigger challenge is the fact the concession does not have a grill and cannot make the simplest of foods such  as hot dogs and hamburgers, let alone anything exotic like a bratwurst. Other so-called challenges include the time honored tradition of bringing a picnic lunch to the game. The presenter then wasted time telling us what we already knew – Tustin Sports Park is used for sports. All in all, the presentation could have been shortened to about 30 seconds. But, some people like to hear themselves talk.

In the end, Councilwoman Gomez still had to ask her questions regarding the closing of the concession for fundraising activities. It was pointed out in the presentation that local groups could ask the concession to close so they could have fundraisers, presumably during tournaments and games. Gomez asked how that would work. Her concern was, of course, that the concessionaire makes a living off the sales of the concession and would lose money when closed. It was explained that any group asking to close the concession stand so they could run a fundraiser is required to pay a $200 per day fee to the owner. Satisfied with the answer, Gomez joined the Amigos in voting in favor of the lease renewal.

With no reports from staff, the Mayor dove right into council comments. I won’t bore you with the details other than to tell you that the Podiatrist Councilman reported the fantasy group, ACCOC, is drafting pension reform policy based on the “excellent” negotiations they held in Tustin. If by excellent they mean how badly they screwed their rank-and-file employees while taking “excellent” care of the executive management, then yes, it was excellent.

There is no Planning Commission meeting tonight. I apologize for being AWOL this past week but, as you can see, not much happened anyway.

Well, there is one thing worth mentioning. We noticed lame duck Councilmember John Nielsen was absent – again. This from the guy who joined Hizzoner, Jerry Amante, in lambasting former Councilwoman Deborah Gavello for her every absence. I guess once you’ve sung your swan song, you don’t worry the details. As far as we are concerned, Nielsen continues his history of doing nothing on the Tustin City Council, whether he is present or not.