Blog Archives

The City Council Shell Game

Conspiracy Theories Abound

(Update- We were advised by Tustin’s PIO, Lisa Woolery, that Tustin City Clerk Pam Stoker is still technically an elected official through the end of her term in 2012. After that, the City Clerk position will convert to a regular employee position serving at the pleasure of the city council.-jg) Sorry, it has been a busy week. I could blame my not reporting on the Tustin City Council meeting on the City’s faulty IT/Video system but that really was just a small part of it. So, let’s just say, it’s been a busy New Year and leave it at that. I did manage to get an interview in with John Nielsen this week. And my email account is on fire with public information requests. Oh, and the video appears to still be down. There’s a conspiracy theory in there somewhere for sure. (news flash, I just received my own personal copy of the video from the city. It must be that transparency thing-jg)

In any case, there were only three items of real interest this week on the City Council Agenda. One was the Annual Appointment of the City Treasurer, which we will save for a future article.The second was a discussion on the now-defunct redevelopment agency. The third, City Council Appointed Representatives, bears discussion.

Ellyse James of the Orange County Register wrote a recent article on the council appointments, pointing out only that the council majority, consisting of Jerry Amante, Al Murray and John Nielsen, were all appointed to boards and committees that pay stipends. Neither Deborah Gavello nor Beckie Gomez, who was handed a bone with unpaid committee appointments to the Library Board, Santa Ana Flood Protection Agency and a couple of other minor boards, were given even a passing notice. Stipends for boards, such as the Orange County Fire Authority and the Transportation Corridor Agency range anywhere from $100 to $212.50 per meeting day.

In fact, the appointment of John Nielsen to the Southern California Association of Governments means that he could net as much as $11,520 per year to attend SCAG meetings and events. He would also receive mileage for each of these he attends. And, lest you think they would never meet that often, I suggest you take a look at the SCAG calendar which appears to be quite busy. The appointment to the Orange County Fire Authority is not quite so lucrative. Al Murray will receive a maximum of $3600 for his service, if he attends up to three meetings or events per month.

The manner in which the nominations were made could not have been any more of a sham had the good old boys used a no bid contract consultant to formulate the plan. The Fair Political Practice Commission had previously ruled that nominees may not be involved in the election process to a paid board. Although the Agenda Report spelled out this complicated process whereby the nominee would not vote for themselves (and the process would somehow be streamlined this way) it was obvious to anyone with a 4th grade education that the devised procedure would not result in a fair nomination process. That’s because, the “staff recommendations” ensured that at least two of the three good old boys would remain in the room at all times. And, it looks like the council, in its so-called endeavor to remain open and transparent, violated a key rule of Roberts Rules of Order in order to keep their appointments safe.

Article XI, Sec. 66, of Roberts Rules of Order states, “The nomination need not be seconded” for a nomination to be effective. So, when Councilmember Deborah Gavello nominated Councilmember Beckie Gomez for the Fire Authority board, the nomination should have stuck. But it didn’t because that would not fit in with the plan of the good old boys. Oh yes, Article I, Section 1302 of the Tustin City Code says the City Council shall operate under Robert’s Rules of Order or such other rules they may implement (there are none).

And if this shell game wasn’t obvious by now, what occurred during the vote for the Director and Alternate Director for the Orange County Fire Authority should be on the minds of every Tustinite this year as this council conducts its business. When Mayor Nielsen was nominated by his two cronies, he left the room for the vote. The vote did not go exactly as planned as the Right voted to approve the nomination and the Left, unsurprisingly, voted against it. Here is where the shell game comes in. In a subsequent nomination, John Nielsen was again nominated by Jerry Amante. After Nielsen left the room, in one of the most unethical displays I could imagine, Boss Tweed Amante then nominated Beckie Gomez for the same position, thereby assuring a majority vote for “their man” Nielsen, for the alternate on the Orange County Fire Authority. Ah, but then, he doesn’t have to drive as far.

To add insult to injury, John Nielsen actually had the nerve to say afterward, “I think it made it more of an open process for everybody involved and it gives everyone an opportunity. It just happened to be the way it kind of fell.” Wrong. It happened exactly the way you and your cronies planned. Talking the city staff into creating the “open process”, which violated common rules of procedure and allowed ethical jumps to get what you wanted, does not make the process any less jaded just because it may pass muster (barely) with the FPPC.

Had Nielsen or any of the Gang of Three even reached out to Gomez by hailing a second on her nomination, they would have shown that they intend to run the council less as a soapbox for their brand of partisanship and more for the benefit of a diverse city. No one (not even me) really expected to see Gavello with even an unpaid committee position. Given the fact that, apparently even Beckie Gomez does not align with her, it would have been out of character for the entire city council. But, Gomez appears to be happy with her appointments to minor boards, even though she complained that the three councilmembers that support the ballot measure to do away with council stipends are the only ones to receive appointments to paid positions. “If they’re trying to save taxpayers money that’s inconsistent.” That’s about as much of an argument we are liable to see from our milktoast representative. That’s OK, Beckie. Deborah didn’t get it until it was too late either. In a midnight, slap-your-head-as-you-sit-up moment, Deborah exclaims, “Now I get it…” Perhaps Deborah needs to have a staff assistant text answers to her ala Janet Nguyen. It certainly would not have taken an explanation by the city attorney, David Kendig.

Oh, and by the way, Jerry’s shill City Clerk should at least have the courtesy to follow protocol. It isn’t nice to call for the vote for an office until it has been ascertained that there are no more nominees

. Instead,  not waiting to pander to the Gang of Three, she jumped the gun and then had to be pulled back, ever so briefly, as the question was asked if there were other nominations. That’s what we get for making her a paid Amante tout instead of an elected official.

I had sincerely hoped the change in mayors would have brought enlightenment to the Tustin City Council. I would like to have been able to start off the year with a nice article about how they stood on the dais and sang kumbaya as the American Legion posted the Colors and Father Al chanted a prayer of humility. Alas, based on what we have seen so far the council chambers, I will be regularly reporting on the bad behavior of the Gang of Three.

T-mobile Sues City

Flagpole Phonebooth?

In a not-so-surprising move by a third-rate megacorporation, T-Mobile has sued the city of Tustin over the recent design reviews of cell sites.

For the past five years, T-Mobile has been trying to come up with a suitable design for a cellphone tower in Cedar Grove Park. The original design specifications called for a piggyback site that would accommodate two cellular companies, one of which was T-mobile. Several revisions later, at the  last meeting of the Tustin City Council, the final design review was voted down.

Positions on this issue have been contentious. In an effort to appease residents of the area, who saw this as an intrusion on a local nature park, T-mobile came up with what they felt was the best compromise: Dump the dual-use part of the site and install a single-use site in the parking lot of the park. The design, incorporating the antennae into flagpoles, would have put the equipment storage in an underground vault with the entrance covered by foliage. It sounded like a good compromise until one took a look at the drawings. It was obvious even to the most casual user that there was more to these poles than just flags.

To be sure, T-mobile had it’s champions in the city. Both (former) Boss Tweed Amante and his cheerleader, Al Murray, couldn’t wait for the cell site to be built. In fact, at one meeting, when tensions were high in the room, Jerry blurted out that a lot was riding on this cell site. It seemed that the city was already set to allow cell sites in two other neighborhood parks, Pioneer and Citrus Grove. Jerry also lamented that the city was not being a good business partner because they would not roll over and play dead. Huh? Since when are we supposed to try and be good business partners? We are a city, Jerry, not a corporation. In the meantime Councilmember Al Murray took the usual rhetorical public safety stance of how residents out there would not be able to make an emergency call just when they most needed to. But, T-Mobile representatives had previously stated that the cell site was not being placed so much for area residents as it was for transient mobile traffic. And the data regarding measurements of cell signals in the area were not as clear as they should have been… or, perhaps they were.

Citizens who were against the cell site in any way, shape or form, organized and stormed city hall whenever the subject came up. Their complaints ranged anywhere from microwaves impeding the brain to the utter ugliness of utilities in general. They also had, what they termed, a better solution: Move the cell site to the nearby OC Fire Authority compound on Jamboree road. That location already had one cell tower with room for T-Mobile. And, although the height was less than what the company desired, it was offset by a higher overall elevation. This was not good enough for T-Mobile representatives or Hizzoner who clearly saw the other two park sites fading as well. Oh, and do we need to remind anyone that the city would receive a nice rent check from all three facilities if built?

In a final showdown, the grassroots opposition was strong enough to sway even Jerry’s (former) black ops guy, John Nielsen, who voted with the left side of the dais to finally squelch the deal. This elicited the expect response from T-Mobile who accused the citizens of Tustin of skullduggery. They said Tustinites had been dishonest while T-Mobile had acted in good faith. They also reiterated their threat to forgo the necessity of obtaining city approval and to just use the public right-of-way for future construction.

Of course, the specter of their threat looming over the head of the city like Damocles’ sword, lends us to wonder why they would spend money on suing the city rather than just build in the right-of-way. Is it really that easy or would that require T-Mobile to jump other regulatory hurdles? It is hard to believe that a cellular company could build an antenna tower on the right-of-way with no construction oversight. The implied threat was that the company could build whatever they liked without having to consider aesthetics. In reality, they could put up the most utilitarian structure they want on the right-of-way and I doubt anyone would care, even if they noticed it. But somehow, with this new lawsuit, I have to believe that it isn’t as simple as that.

In any case, this will prove to be an important issue for the future of Tustin cell service. We haven’t had an opportunity to read T-Mobile’s petition yet, although the California Broadband Council has posted a press release on their website. We will keep you apprised as this new saga unfolds and we get more information. One thing in Tustin’s favor: our new Mayor, John Nielsen, was not a proponent of the cell towers as former Mayor Amante was. That bodes well for Tustin Ranch. Hopefully, the city will not cave on this and the Central District Court will not trample the sovereignty of the city because they mistakenly think corporations are people, too.

What’s in Store for the Future

The king is dead, long live the king.

So goes the traditional saying when power is transferred from one monarch to another in the succession of heirs. In modern times, about the only thing missing is the bloodlines (although in some cases we are not so sure about that). In the last meeting of the Tustin City Council for 2011, Mayor Boss Tweed Amante handed over his scepter, uh, I mean gavel, to his heir apparent, Mayor pro tem John Nielsen. John, in turn, conferred princely status on rookie councilmember, Al Murray. This is an important step here in Tustin which, for the past two years, has had their own brand of tyrant ruling the dais.

Jerry has always had his fair share of problems ruling the middleclass here in Tustin. He was visibly upset when Deborah Gavello ascended the dais three years ago and had the nerve to challenge the right-wing noise over investments. Never mind the next most likely candidate would have done the same thing, the questioning of fiscal practices at Tustin Tammany Hall wound her up in the doghouse. She was stripped of virtually all committee and board seats and relegated to the far left of the dais, where her microphone appeared to have a special switch controlled by Jerry. And, Jerry did not mind spending taxpayer money on toys for the council while touting his fiscal conservativeness. He didn’t even mind that the money came from our reserves (reserves, smerves, let them eat cake). And, Jerry (along with his hatchetman…, er, person Elizabeth Binsack) hates Old Town. He went after residents there with a vengance that has continued most of the year while it gets sorted out in hearings. He refused to allow mediation and refused to settle.

But Jerry’s troubles ran much deeper. Last year, many citizens who were fed up with his brand of obnoxious behavior, banded together in an effort to recall the good mayor. And, although the Recall Amante folks made a great run, garnering thousands of signature, they fell short of the number needed and Jerry continued to rule. Jerry, who couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad just decided to call them all bad and falsely accused his arch-nemesis, Deborah Gavello, and a few others of being part of the recall effort. The recall folks have stated they will continue as a watchdog group for the city. That is probably not a bad idea.

So, what do we have in store for the future? John Nielsen must already step into a quagmire as T-Mobile has chosen to sue the city over the cell towers in Cedar Grove Park (and here we thought they were just going to take their ball and go home). He also has to contend with the current lawsuits between the city and the school district. Hopefully, he has something better to bring to the table than their recent lame attempt to settle. These lawsuits need to be settled and both sides need to quit spending taxpayer money on attorney fees. The grading permit issue may ultimately have to be decided by a judge. Both sides have valid points and, it may appear, conflicting law on their sides. That would require a judge to decide.

At least he has help. After a long search and a false start, the city council finally hired a new City Manager. And, aside from the shenanigans Jerry and his kids played with his pension, Jeff Parker looks like he may be a good fit for the city. The councilmembers, even Jerry, like him. He has great credentials and he has lots of experience. As we told him before, he just needs to lie low until Jerry departs next year. So, good luck to you, Jeff. You are going to need it.

Thinks have slowed down around Our Town Tustin. But, we are gearing up with new articles and lots of political discourse for our fair city. We recently sat down with the new Mayor Pro Tem, Al Murray, and will have an article out about his view on the city over the coming year. No, don’t ask. I won’t tell, other than to say that Al is nice guy and I like his views on our town. We are still working on getting an interview with our new mayor. Please, John? Al will tell you that I am real nice in person. In any case, congratulations.

On the Agenda, December 6, 2011

As the year winds down, so does the city council. Don’t expect a whole lot of interesting things to happen before the end of the year. Coming up on the Agenda for Tuesday:

In closed session, the Council will discuss the two lawsuits between Tustin Unified School District and the City. Recently, the city of Tustin offered to settle both cases if TUSD would agree to pay their own legal fees and return the Heritage school to its original intended use by the fall of 2012. The school board will not be meeting until December 12th and, as their public information officer told me in a phone call, the city is well aware of that. So, the earliest discussion that can be held on the matter will be after the first of the year as the council has already moved to cancel its final meeting of the year.

It is also doubtful that the TUSD Board will agree to the offer. They have already set up shop at Heritage for the school year. It is not likely that the remodeling and construction at Hillview will be completed along with whatever construction will take place to replace any of the lost office space at the District’s headquarters in Tustin within the next year. Moreover, school district officials are not likely to see the solution as equitable. The issue of legal fees aside (it is the taxpayer’s money, either way), there is the question of what happens in the future regarding permitting of school district projects. A judgment, stipulated or otherwise, would have the force of law when dealing with the city in the future. TUSD has a strong argument, backed by state law. After the city’s lame attempt to close the perceived loophole by rescinding the grading ordinance, TUSD may be looking for a solid legal judgment to rely on in the future. In any case, you can bet this won’t be the end of it.

In public hearings, the Council will vote on a Planning Commission recommendation to deny changing the requirements for retail alcohol sales to reduce minimum square footage for stores. Walgreens is asking for this change to benefit stores located in our town. They had asked for an extension to bring in new information. That does not seem to have arrived. Expect the denial to be approved. And, don’t expect to buy your booze when you pick up your prescriptions at Walgreens.

A few items of concern on the consent calendar starting with Item 4, Police Department Vehicle Purchases. I am always interested in seeing if the city puts high cost items out to bid and this time they did and they did not. 8 police vehicles are proposed to be replaced. In replacing some of these, the city “piggybacked” onto another contract from a city they claim has the same bidding process as Tustin. I’m not sure how that works, but OK. Other vehicles were purchased under the Department of General Services contract which most department use and it usually gives the best price to the city.

One unit that did go out to bid was a Dodge Durango, assigned to a police captain. I was pleasantly surprised to see that, although the lowest bidder was a dealership in Anaheim, the staff recommended purchase from a local Tustin dealer. The difference between the two was less than $700. The cost in helping business in our town? Priceless.

Item 11 Limitations on Gifts to Councilmembers may generate some discussion. Remember that Mayor Amante made a big deal out of gifts and council stipends a few meetings ago. He asked staff to ensure that councilmembers were held to the same limits as city staff. Guess what? They are. That should be the end of discussion. But, knowing Jerry, he will want to crow about this. Also, knowing Jerry, he knew in advance the staff response. So, how about Jerry actually putting his money where his mouth is?

A few weeks ago, the City Council voted on the issue of letting voters determine whether councilmembers should continue to receive stipends. A divided council voted to place a measure on the ballot in November 2012, conveniently at the end the Amante’s term. So, here is the question. If Jerry is so concerned about the $800 a month he receives (we won’t go into how much he receives for sitting on the TCA, the water board, OCTA or other boards and committees right now) as a councilmember, why doesn’t he elect to give up his stipend? It does not require any council action. It requires no decision by anyone except Amante himself. So here is the proposition, Jerry. Make a good faith gesture and put your money where your mouth is. Publicly state that you will refuse to accept your stipend for the rest of your term. That would show the good folks of Tustin that your motives for proposing the ballot measure is altruistic. What do you say?

Speaking of altruistic motives, does anyone want to bet who will be mayor of Tustin next year? I was pretty sure it was going to be Amante. Now, I am not so sure. He has his black ops guy on one side, chomping at the bit, and I hear the councilmember on the immediate left side of the dais has been warming up to him. They hail from the same school. He even calls her by her correct title.

All just supposition of course. But, I may have to run a poll on this one.