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Ain’t No Sunshine in Tustin

We have been keeping a close eye on our neighbors to the West of us and how they will handle an ordinance proposed by the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD). As reported in the Voice of OC, SACReD sponsored an ordinance that would create a new level of transparency in government. Santa Ana politicos have long lamented the secretive world in which the Santa Ana City Council often conducts business. In past years, they have been accused of scores of Brown Act violations as well as running roughshod over small businesses and the resident artist community alike.

While much of what SACReD asked for in their proposed ordinance is the subject of state law already, we can see their issue with a city council that has declined to work interactively with the community at large. Also at issue is how willing the Orange County District Attorney has been willing to investigate and prosecute violations of the Brown Act and other regulatory laws, particularly when those being investigated claim Republican Party affiliation. However, one part of the proposal has to do with lobbyist registration which, along with the publishing of each councilmember’s calendar, would have opened up the secretive bed in which lobbyists and the politicians they attempt to influence to public scrutiny lie. Not a bad thing in anyone’s book, unless you are a lobbyist or an influenced politician.

If you have to ask why an ordinance like this is needed, it was summed up when Councilmember Carlos Bustamante asked SACReD organizer Ana Urzua what she would gain by knowing who the councilman is meeting with, she replied, “So we know we cant trust you.”

City staffers have been sent back to work on the ordinance including the changes the city council and SACReD agreed upon. That should happen in a couple of weeks. It is likely to be a watered down version of the original proposal, but it is a start.

By coincidence, or perhaps by karma, a proposal to shed more sunshine on the business of the Tustin City Council was also introduced on the same evening as Santa Ana’s proposal. In this case, the issue was raised by Councilmember Deborah Gavello, who asked her colleagues to consider agendizing discussion of a proposed policy or ordinance on lobbying. Gavello read a short piece on ethics in government to support her position for an anti-lobbying ordinance. She mentioned that the City of Irvine has a strong policy on ethics and lobbying.

In speaking with Gavello on this, she said that she is concerned about the lack of policy on ethical behavior and the possibility that some former councilmembers have -or could- come to a sitting councilmember and, because of their former position, immediately lobby for their interests. We agree this is an issue worthy of consideration by the city council and that it should also include lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmembers’ official calendars.

John Nielsen, in an apparent move to obscure the issue, mentioned that the strategic planning coming up in October had an ethics component. He was concerned that, by agendizing an item as Gavello wanted, they would be requiring the staff to cover ground twice and addressing the issue in bit and piece fashion would not be to the benefit of the city (we’ll spare you the cost-saving remarks our fiscally responsible mayor made).

Councilmember Beckie Gomez did a great job of bringing the two issues together:

I think the gist of what Deborah is trying to do, and I could be wrong but, is maybe to encompass that with the strategic plan, that we are considering that policy, that ordinance, I’m not sure what she brought forward. I agree with you that we should not be duplicating effort but, that it would be incorporated into what we’re doing.

Surprisingly, John agreed.

Gavello, saying that she doesn’t trust “us”, said she does not see the strategic plan coming back with an ordinance. Saying that the strategic plan does consider ethics, lobbying is not mentioned at all and that is why she felt it needed to be brought forward for consideration by the council. Of course, Jerry can’t pass up any opportunity to hear himself bash Deborah so Hizzoner goes on about how the two ways to get an item agendized is either to discuss it with the mayor and city manager or to make a motion and obtain a second for a vote.

Uh, didn’t she just do that?

Fortunately, Coucilmember Gomez came to Deborah’s rescue and seconded her motion, “for purposes of discussion.”

Jerry apparently did not have enough air time. So, he decided to go on the offensive and accuse Gavello of using the lobbying issue as a personal attack on him for taking a position with an influential lobbying firm that deals with public entities. Saying that she has never been concerned about the issue before, she is only concerned now because of his employment and the fear he will come back and lobby the city. Telling her to “calm down little lady”  [you know you heard it] because there are “state laws that govern who I can lobby.”

We’ll get back to that statement later.

Thanks to Gomez, the vote was not a complete wash. Unfortunately, the Three Amigos voted together and the city attorney, when questioned by Gavello as to the rules regarding having something agendized, backpedaled into the three on the right sputtering, “It is not against the Brown Act to vote to agendize an item.” That’s not what she asked, of course, but it was enough of a sidestep by David Kendig to keep him firmly entrenched with the boys.

So, there will be no sunshine in Tustin, at least as long as the Three Amigos are holding the ball. Does that mean that Tustin does not deserve a sunshine ordinance? Aside from what Hizzoner Amante ranted about, the state law is vague on local government lobbying. In fact, there is very little written about it and there is, unless local ordinance or policy specifically prohibits it, little to prevent a former councilmember or city staffer from immediately lobbying members of the council as well as the members of boards such as the Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange County Fire Authority or the Transportation Corridor Agencies on which they may have served. It doesn’t hurt that the Orange County District Attorney shies away from investigating political violations and the vagueness of current law is often used as an excuse not to investigate.

Sunshine laws, such as the one Santa Ana is considering and Councilmember Gavello asked to be agendized for consideration by the Tustin City Council, are effective in insuring that the citizens whom the city serves are kept informed and aware of issues affecting them. This goes much further than simply posting an agenda or the financial report on the city website. It goes further than having the public information officer post pictures of city events and contests for the kids on the city’s Facebook page. It has to do with, as Gavello says, ethical behavior by those who are supposed to serve the city. It goes to trust of a city council and staff who often have a difficult time treating citizens without disdain, let alone their colleagues on the board. And yes, Jerry, it has to do with you.

Ever hear the old kids taunt, “Liar Liar, pants on fire?” Well we are surprised Jerry Amante didn’t burst into flames for his apparent untruths on the dais. Jerry says:

Let me begin by addressing the misstatement by Councilwoman Gavello, so we clear the air. All the time you have been serving on the council, councilwoman, I have been practicing law, not lobbying. I joined FSB Core  Strategies July second. I don’t lobby in the county. I don’t lobby any of the agencies I belong to. I, uh, follow the rules just as they have been written in state law. So, you have no basis to make scurrilous remarks.

Uh-huh. Well, that’s not what we hear, even from the man himself. It seems that, even though good ol’ Jer has found legitimate employment (we hear working for a woman by the way), he wasn’t always dependent upon someone else for a paycheck. Amante, indeed, has or had a law firm that practiced law. Among other things, his website lists advocacy for a number of entities including business. In fact, one web page says plainly:

GOVERNMENT RELATIONS – The firm provides strategic consultaion [sic] to clients with matters pending before government bodies or regulatory agencies. It represents clients before local, regional, state and federal governments and agencies. It specializes in the negotiation and presentation of complex matters for its clients and it frequently consults with other firms to assist them in their strategic planning for their clients. It is dedicated to the success of client projects and in zealous advocacy for them. It has particular expertise in land development, financing, construction and the like.

I don’t think you could get a more precise definition of lobbying if you looked it up in Webster’s Dictionary. And, while I won’t go as far as to say he has lobbied other Tustin councilmembers on behalf of his clients, others seem to think he has.

Somehow, we think this issue is not dead. There is that so-called “strategic plan” coming up for discussion. And, there will be a changing of the guard in November. Worse comes to worse, when Tustinites actually do get fed up with the dismal track record of their elected officials, this is a prime candidate for a ballot measure.

In the meantime, thanks largely to the Three Amigos on the city council, Tustin will remain dark.

On the Agenda, August 7, 2012

Except for a few items, the Tuesday City Council Meeting should be pretty routine. Because of the Strategic Planning Session, which we’ll get to in a minute, it looks like the Closed Session will be pushed off to the end of the evening. And, there are no surprises in Closed Session so I wouldn’t wait around for a report, especially since they are adjourning directly to the August 14th Special City Council Meeting. Besides, I’ll report on anything earth shattering.

The afternoon will actually start off with a Strategic Planning Workshop beginning at 3 pm. The agenda sounds more impressive than interesting. If you were ever involved in the aerospace industry, then you have been through this. In industry, it has gone by such catchy names as Total Quality Management, Quality Circles, and Zero Defects. Someone finally found a way to market the idea to government and they have managed to reinvent it. If you would like to see what your city envisions doing (as opposed to what they actually do, sometimes), take a look at the draft here. The workshop is put on by a nationwide firm called Management Partners, a consulting service whose laundry list of clients includes no less than 16 OC cities and the County of Orange. It may be interesting but I think I’ll just watch the video so I can skip the commercials.

One important item you may want to take a look at is the Analysis of Strengths, Limitations, Opportunities and Threats or, SLOT for short. It has already turned my initial impression of Management Partners around. There were no surprises in Tustin’s strengths: great parks, community pride, safe community, diverse business, strong staff, etc. All the things you would expect to see from a community like ours.

But, the “L” part. Well, let’s just say I thought it was just me. I mean, with the things I write about the city, I don’t expect to be invited into city hall and given a cool cup of water on a hot day. But, when MP ran their focus groups, guess what they found? Limitations included:

  • Poor Relationship with TUSD
  • City Hall not customer friendly (hint: cold cup of water?)
  • Community outreach – needs improvement
  • Not enough cooperation and civility between city council members
  • Little to no staff development or succession planning

A big one has been that the city has been so focused on developing The District business area, they have neglected other businesses in the city; Old Town is not as vibrant as it could be. We can certainly agree with that although lately, we have seen more interest by the city in developing businesses in Old Town with the recent approval of two new buildings in the area that will bring people to the Old Town area for more than just the Art Walk and Chili Cookoff. The changes in parking requirements have been innovative, to say the least. We hope this is a trend and not an anomaly.

And, you know, it is one thing when this blog and certain community leaders are aware of the discord among councilmembers in both public and private. It is quite another when MP’s focus groups show the exact same thing. We had hoped that, when John Nielsen assumed the Mayoral duties, there would be new civility on the dais. Instead, we found Nielsen unwilling to speak out on the absurdities of his colleagues. Of course, he has no problem publicly lashing out at legitimate press sources who question his motives.

Ooooh, lookie. Under Opportunities, they seem to disagree with our City Council on the development of Tustin Legacy and the hangar re-use as well. Can someone make sure the councilmembers are awake and listening to this part of the presentation? We have been harping for years about the re-use of the hangar and the fact that this city has been more interested in tearing down what Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack apparently considers an eyesore, rather than work with businesses and the community on generating interest in reuse. The County of Orange is going ahead with a plan to create a park around their hangar. Perhaps a partnership would be in order to save both hangars as a substantial and visual part of our history. It would be a shame to have to answer a visitor’s question, “The pictures showed two hangars. Where’s the other one?”

There is plenty under the “Threats” category as well. So, this may be an interesting workshop after all. And, this is all before the regular City Council meeting which, thankfully, should be short.

Item 7, Approval of an Exclusive Agreement to Negotiate with Regency Acquisition, may generate some interest from the Legacy folks. I have been listening to complaints that the city is now modifying plans to allow more apartments and fewer single-family homes than originally planned. All those folks the city says they are protecting with the TUSD lawsuits, are not happy about the new mix. It seems the city commands the TUSD to “do as I say, …”

Item 8, Legislative Report Affirmation of City’s Compliance with the Brown Act is probably one of the most important items they could have agendized. The Brown Act mandates that city’s follow certain rules regarding Closed Sessions. The city is reimbursed by the state for the cost of implementing the Brown Act. Unfortunately, what the State giveth, the State can taketh away (hey, I’m writing this on Sunday). In this case, they suspended parts of the Brown Act to save some money. This could give cities an opportunity to close their doors even more to the public than they already do.

In the case of Mayor John Nielsen, he has chosen to do the right thing (most cities have) and have the city continue to follow the Brown Act in its entirety. The resolution before the City Council reaffirms their committement to follow the Act. Let’s hope Hizzoner doesn’t see his chance and filibuster. Cost to the city to pay for full implementation is $38,000. I know that’s a lot of iPads. But, it is cheap to keep the windows open and the sunshine on government.

As I said, it  should be a long strategic planning session followed by a short city council meeting. The City Council meets again in special session on August 14th, the same day the Planning Commission is scheduled to meet. That could be for Closed Session only, however. We’ll keep you posted.