We Are Not A House Of Prostitution
It looks like this week’s meeting of the Tustin Planning Commission has been cancelled. So, let’s talk about what happened at last week’s Tustin City Council meeting. It was fairly short, at just over an hour, and half of it was taken up by the public hearing on an appeal for a massage parlor license.
As you probably recall, the Planning Commission tackled this issue a few weeks ago and denied a license for a “day spa” at a location where the cops had previously busted the business owners for prostitution. Day spa, by the way, seems to be the euphemism for massage parlor. It’s unfortunate because legitimate spas have a hard time overcoming the stigma attached to this.
The City Council heard the appeal and I was surprised at, not only the number of people that spoke in favor of this appeal, but also who spoke. Prior to discussion by the public was a presentation by city staff on the prostitution bust last year of the previous business as well as testimony by one of the Tustin PD officers who investigated the massage parlor in a sting operation. It was so cool when the cameras were diverted so the undercover officer couldn’t be identified. I would have opted for altering his voice as well just in case he ever works on phone sex stings.
Surprisingly, one of the first to speak in favor of the appellant was the owner of the building where the massage parlor planned to do business. Mary Ann Miller and her husband both attended the meeting to decry the way the city was treating the applicant. Miller made sure everyone knew her husband is not only a businessman in Tustin but also a former city councilman who “sat in those seats up there”. She also made sure to mention how she has also been involved in the community they live in. In her own words, she stated she and her husband are fine, upstanding citizens of Tustin.
Miller went on to say that her building has had a spa tenant for the past ten years and never had a problem….at least that she heard about. She said she would check the landscaping and other maintenance issues but, apparently, it wasn’t until recently that she went to enter the building using her key and found the locks changed. Huh. She stated that she never once heard anything about “the prostitution issue”.
Miller stated she was confronted by the building owner from next door who she claimed to know well (except the person didn’t know her) and was asked if she was the madame of the massage parlor. “I didn’t even know what she was talking about”, claimed Miller. She went on to lament how her and her husband were being found guilty without a trial and they knew nothing about the prostitution.
According to Miller, the city is holding that against them as they attempt to rent the building out to the new spa business. Complaining that their livelihood is at stake, saying that she interviewed the new prospective tenants, she has found them to be of good character and decided they wouldn’t be involved in prostitution like the former tenants.
Too bad she didn’t read my blog or she might have seen how the new tenants of good character are tied directly to the old, disreputable tenants.
It’s interesting our state legislators are about to wrestle with this problem – again.
According to Capitol Alert, cops and cities are hoping the legislators will work out the kinks in massage parlor regulation that is scheduled to sunset soon. A sunset oversight committee of the business and professions committees will review the upcoming debate over the California Massage Therapy Council that was created to assist in regulating the industry. Unless action is taken, the Council will discontinue and massage licensing will revert entirely to local control.
Since it was created, the CMTC has certified and licensed massage practitioners and given general oversight to the industry. The idea was to eliminate the “bad” elements and legitimize the practice. By and large, the industry backed the CMTC hoping for some continuity in regulation that, up to then, had been mostly ineffective
The new regulations and licensing established by the CMTC do not seem to have worked as advertised and now, many in the industry as well as the League of California Cities is asking legislators to restore some local control. That’s because businesses that utilize massage therapists certified by CMTC are not subject to the same scrutiny as those who don’t. So, all a massage business has to do is to hire “legitimate” therapists or have their own certified and then have them do what they want them to.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem in an industry driven by sex slavery or who employ those who are forced into prostitution for financial need. These are the stark realities that the legislature has, so far, chosen to mostly ignore.
So, forgive me if I have little concern for the Millers financial plight.
Others, mostly on the Miller’s side, spoke in favor of the appellant even though it was clear there was a tie with the previous owners who had been busted for prostitution. And, while I heard everyone saying give her a chance, what I really heard was the jingle of coin in the background, telling me the real reason for supporting a shady business such as this.
Now, the real kicker was when the spokesperson for the appellant stood up at Councilperson Gomez’ invitation and lamented how the poor appellant (who did not speak because she doesn’t speak English very well) was the victim of the previous owner who told her everything was fine. It cost her $80 thousand to find out it wasn’t fine. So, by their way of thinking, Tustin should approve the license. Hey, I know Tustin is reported to be a business friendly town but…..
It took the City Council all of three minutes to deny the appeal and uphold the denial. It would have gone faster but John Nielsen had to take a page from the Jerry Amante playbook and do a little grandstanding about a subject he obviously knew nothing about.
In other business, the city council discussed the lease for the new fire station 37 which will take the place of the old fire station on Service Road. Questions regarding response time from the new station to the old areas traditionally served were answered and everyone was reassured that they would continue to receive great service from our fire department. Interestingly, Councilman Nielsen asked that the item be pulled from the Consent Calendar for discussion and then recused himself. We had previously opined that he had just bought or rented a place on the base, pending his divorce. Hopefully, he won’t keep us in suspense much longer.
The only other noteworthy item (in our opinion) on the calendar was to approve the construction of the Bocce Ball courts at Peppertree Park. It will cost almost $117 thousand but the smiles on our seniors faces as they roll those colored balls will be priceless.
Playing it Safe
It was a reasonably quiet hall for Tuesday’s city council meeting. Part of that was due to the fact that neither Councilmember Beckie Gomez or John Nielsen was in the house. I suspect more of it was due to the boring nature of the agenda items, however.
With two councilmembers absent, there weren’t enough backs around to pat for Public Hearing Item No. 1. This item is one of the biggest residential developments to date on the MCAS property. And, while everyone was buzzing about it, the mayor announced the (yes) vote on the item would be postponed until the next meeting when all members of the council could be here.
The second hearing item on the CDBG funds was a non-issue with almost no discussion and a quick vote to accept. Likewise, with the consent calendar where, if Gomez had been there, we might have seen the police vehicle purchase pulled for some type of discussion. At least this moves one of Mayor Murray’s goals to enhance public safety (more on that later).
Who’s Got the Money?
The regular session highlights included a report on the CAFR. Finance Director, Pamela Arends-King gave the city council a bit of good news, letting them know the city is in the black due to sales tax and other revenue resources. She also let them know there were no audit findings. Maybe Pam is worth that extra 5% after all. Needless to say, the bewildered city council (remember, Beckie wasn’t there) had no questions or comment other than to thank the “team” for what they do.
For what it is worth, the Finance Department has done an outstanding job, although we suspect it is more to do with the city riding the economic recovery train than any magic coming form the cubicles. The finance department, giving the mid-year budget review also gave us good news concerning the economic recovery and its impact on revenue. Of course, what is taken in is spent. The best news was that reserves would not be dug into as deeply and the reserve funding would rise to 31 percent.
A significant item Tuesday, at least for those of us in Old Town Tustin, was the request to advertise for a consultant to develop what the city is currently calling a “commercial core plan”. We like it. Now Mayor Murray needs to remember that, regardless of how boring the meeting (and how few of the public are in the room), many of us watch on cable TV or the video and the presentations are often as important for the publicity they generate as informing the council. So, next time they want to do a presentation just say, “Oh, by all means…”
After listening to Elizabeth Binsack’s presentation, though, we wonder why they need a consultant. Binsack outlined a pretty comprehensive plan for the downtown area and it wouldn’t take much to flesh it out. The selected consultant would be required to work with a city staff steering committee, taking input from community focus groups and workshops. Sounds pretty in-depth and something that could be done in-house. Now, if they could just get going on the residential area with the second unit ordinance they promised.
We get it, Chuck
You know it is an election year. people start doing odd but obvious things to promote certain cronies for office. It’s no coincidence that Al Murray was unanimously elected Mayor by his peer for a second year. Mayor sounds slightly better than Councilman on the ballot.
And, we really didn’t need Chuck Puckett’s thirty second dissertation on how great Al is and what a wonderful speech he is going to give at the Mayor’s Inaugural Speech later this year, and how he just can’t wait for the State of the City speech… well, you get the drift. This is the most animated I’ve seen Chuck since he took office.
Murray himself is playing it safe. His recently stated goals for the coming year are about as non-committal as it can get.
Touching on what he will do for public safety and for seniors, he establishes a strong tie with both by building on what is already there. CALEA Accreditation was earned on former Tustin Chief Scott Jordan’s watch. It had been a long time coming and, frankly, the city council can do little to help. Let’s hope Interim Chief Celano is up to the task. If Murray really wanted to solidify public safety, he would push City Manager Jeff Parker into finding a permanent Chief.
The Senior Center at Peppertree Park is but one facet of what the city needs to help the senior community here in Tustin. Our city is growing, however, and a better aim might be to establish another center elsewhere in our town.
But, we will take the bocce ball courts, thanks.
Murray has not forgotten to let his business cronies know that he will be looking for support from them this year. Goal two is to improve and facilitate economic development through business attraction and retention. We love the goal. We just hate how some of it has been to the detriment of the residents over the past few years.
Murray has also stated that he wants to implement a transparent and sustainable community outreach (communication) program. Yes, a new website would be nice. What would be better is a Public Information Officer that will speak to the public, press and blogs, even when they don’t always have nice things to say about them. With a city manager that refuses to speak to anyone critical of city management (the city manager in particular), it is difficult to see how Murray intends to accomplish this. A bright, shiny new website will only go so far in establishing transparency and open government. A PIO who can take the occasional public hit would be better.
And while I am glad to see the Mayor wants to recognize our military history, perhaps he should start by asking former (and current) councilmembers why they did away with one of the finest Veteran’s Day parades, whittling it down over the years to a small celebration that, had it not been for our local American Legion Post 227, would have died even sooner. The city did everything in its power to quash any celebration of our military history. For several years, there was bad blood between the Legion leadership and the city. And, nothing has really been done to effectively change the situation.
Mayor Murray probably won’t have to worry. He is about as safe and sane as Red Devil fireworks. And, during his tenure, he has shown that he can stand up to the pressure of leadership. The devastation of the killing spree that wound up in Tustin last year was an example. Murray conveyed the collective despair of our city while keeping the public informed. And, except for the occasional bewildered look when the finance director drops a 40 page summary on his desk, he manages to take care of the city business. And, he doesn’t carry a stupid dog with him when he rides in parades.
We hear there will be no mudslinging from either of the two incumbents running this year. Whether that deal holds together will probably depend on who runs against them. But both Murray and Gomez are in a pretty safe place right now. Let’s just hope Nielsen stays too busy with his pending divorce to “help” Al.
On The City Council Agenda – January 7, 2014
Welcome to a brand new year and the same old city council. I hope someone told the Podiatrist Councilman about the apparent change in the Agenda. The Closed Session, which normally begins at 5:30 pm, prior to the Open Session, has been moved to the end of the evening. It doesn’t appear to be a permanent change as the current Agenda says the Closed Session will resume it’s regular spot at 5:30 pm on the 21st.
After the usual Presentation of Colors by our friends at The American Legion Post 227, there is a presentation by the White Cane Society regarding Glaucoma Awareness Month.
The Consent Calendar hosts the usual mundane items that don’t usually warrant discussion. There should be a bid award to International Computing Systems of Buena Park for construction of the water element at Frontier Park. Past discussion on this item estimated the cost at $115,000. ICS came in with the lowest bid at $148,500. The money comes from Community Development Block Grant funding and the extra amount was secured by staff. This may warrant discussion so that staff can explain how funds that were previously allocated were supplemented. If this is a reallocation of funds from other projects, there may be a problem.
Another construction project on the Consent Calendar is the Warner Avenue and Armstrong Avenue Extensions that will connect Redhill, Tustin Ranch and Barranca Parkway near the District. The projects are ready to bid, although it isn’t clear how this will affect or be affected by the Army’s refusal to give up their current Reserve Center site as the city has been trying to talk them into the past year or so.
An item that definitely deserves discussion, even at this early date, is the jet fuel pipeline construction listed in Item 5 of the Consent Calendar. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners is proposing to construct a 5 mile long pipeline through south Tustin to connect existing pipelines to John Wayne Airport.
The city had quite a bit to say about the proposal. The construction would extend from a connection point at Edinger Avenue and Tustin Ranch Road and head roughly south on Redhill Avenue near the airport. The construction consists of motor-operated valves and the pipeline.
City staff have reviewed the project and prepared a letter concerning the Initial Study. Most of the issues appear to be based on assumptions from the company concerning the construction hours and location of equipment storage. Staff have also asked for a public outreach campaign to affected residents and businesses to keep them informed of the project. A sound idea, in our opinion.
As the Initial Study was just issued, it doesn’t look as if this project is looming to close to the horizon. Hopefully staff will continue to demand diligence from the parties involved. Oh, and in case you are worried about the sudden appearance of jet fuel in your backyard from seeping pipelines, several have crisscrossed Tustin over the years without problems.
Still, a little discussion from the city council informing the citizens of this project couldn’t hurt.
Of the two items under Regular Business, the Mayoral Appointments to Committees prove the most interesting.
Of the thirteen seats on committees, boards and agencies up for grabs, only five net the councilmen any cash or benefits (we won’t include lunch or dinner in these). And, coincidentally, those five seats will continue with the 2013 appointments:
- Foothill /Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency ($120 p/meeting, 18 meetings per quarter) Puckett/Murray
- Orange County Fire Authority ($100 p/meeting, 12 meetings per year) Murray/Puckett
- Orange County Sanitation District ($100 p/meeting, Up to 6 meetings per month) Nielsen/Bernstein
- Orange County Vector Control ($100p/meeting, 12 meetings a year ) Bernstein
- SCAG Southern California Assocation of Governments ($120 p/meeting, up to 6 meetings per month) Nielsen
Thrown in as a bone for her good behavior, Beckie Gomez picks up an alternate spot on the Newport Bay Watershed Executive Committee to go with her 4 other non-paid appointments. And, while this may not be a paid seat, it is one of the more important ones in the county.
You can see all the appointments for the various seats here. If anyone thinks being an unpaid councilman is easy (or, in some cases, free) they should take a close look at this.
We did notice an apparent discrepancy on the official Form 806 the city is required to turn in to the state. The form lists John Nielsen and Chuck Puckett as the OC Sanitation District Representatives with a stipend of $100 per meeting. Yet, the Orange County Sanitation District website shows board stipends to be $212.50 per meeting plus mileage. Considering our councilmembers like to tout their “free” service, it is a pretty blatant error.
John Nielsen, fulfilling his role as OCSD board member, was paid nearly $5,000 for his participation on the board in 2012, the most recent full year reported by the OCSD. He is, by no means, the most highly paid either. That honor goes to Councilman John Anderson of Yorba Linda who made $12,301 dollars for his contribution to the cause. Not bad for a part-time job. Anderson, you may recall, was the subject of a failed recall attempt after the city council voted to oust their city PD in favor of the OCSD. I wonder how that would play out here?
Nonetheless, you can see that the city council, despite voters nixing salaries and benefits last year, can be a lucrative position. That’s, of course, if you are willing to play ball with the council majority. For the past few years, Beckie Gomez has been given seats on boards without stipends. Likewise, Deborah Gavello, as the arch nemesis of John Nielsen and former councilman Jerry Amante, was given no worthwhile appointments, paid or otherwise.
That’s it for the upcoming city council meeting. We will do our best to report back any worthy information we glean from the meeting. Thanks for reading.
On the Agenda – December 17, 2013
As with the past few meetings of the Tustin City Council, the topic of business licenses will take up a good portion of what should be the last meeting of the year.
The city council will be asked to decide if and how information related to gross receipts are received by the city. Gross receipts are used in many businesses to calculate the business license fees. Currently, businesses are required to offer proof of gross receipts in the form of a redacted tax return that protects any personal information from being disseminated through public records access. The average fee is $60.00
One of the proposals is to establish a flat fee of $100 for a business license. This would eliminate the requirement to supply tax information altogether and, on its face, appears to be a good alternative.
The third option, which I am sure Councilman Nielsen prefers, is to rely on the good word of the business owner to simply state how much his or her gross receipts are. The staff report points out the glaring problem with this alternative. Obviously, it would require a periodic audit to ensure businesses are telling the truth.
Nielsen, of course, would prefer this method because he is all for anything that protects businesses from the prying eyes of government. By doing so, he proves allegiance to his patrons at the various business councils and real estate associations that have funneled tens thousands of dollars through sham PACs into his and his fellow councilmens’ campaign coffers.
In reality, it is probably time the city looked at raising rates anyway. In the recent past, the city has foregone license and new construction fees to foster a business climate. I suspect most cities in Orange County have moved or are moving toward a modification in fees to increase funds coming into the city coffers. Making everyone pay the same fee, regardless of the value of the business, though, seems a bit unfair. The old system has worked fine and it seems Nielsen is the only one to complain.
In other business, the city council will be asked to approve the publication and appointment (or re-appointment) process for several city commissions seats. Seats open include 2 each on the Planning, Community Services and Audit Commissions.
Both Jeff Thompson and rookie commissioner Sam Altowaiji seats are up this term. I would be surprised if either were to leave now. Jeff is the old salt on the commission, having served several terms. Jeff has a history of community service including Chair of the OCTA Citizens Advisory Committee which advises OCTA on transportation issues.
Altowaiji, who worked for the city before he joined the board, is likely Elizabeth Binsack’s eyes and ears on the commission. However, he was also the only person to run (the only other guy was disqualified) and could potentially be unseated by another (any other) qualified candidate. We have one in mind but he is keeping mum on whether he will run for a seat..
The final item under regular business is consideration of an ordinance establishing a formal purchasing process, something that is long overdue in a city the size of Tustin. Not that we are accusing anyone of misfeasance. On the contrary, city staff, other than the occassional bonehead move by a department head, are pretty thrifty with our dollars. A formalized purchasing process will keep it that way.
That’s it for city council business this week and for this year (unless someone calls a “special” meeting). The next time the city council meets, it will be to ring in the new year. We hope the Christmas Spirit envelopes the dais (except for the Podiatrist Councilman – a belated Happy Channukah) and they all come back with a sense of renewed community spirit.