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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.

Rumors are Just Rumors Until They Become Fact

A hat tip to Dan Chmielewski of The Liberal OC for bringing a story that has been on our minds for some time. As you know by now, former Orange County employee Carlos Bustamante, has been charged with multiple sex crimes that he allegedly committed while a high level manager of the Orange County Public Works Department. Subsequently, it came to light that Assembly Candidate, Tom Daly, has also been the subject of multiple claims of sexual misconduct while holding the office of Orange County Clerk-Recorder. The allegations against both of these men allegedly came to light through a series of anonymous letters. As Dan said, “Government by anonymous letter is the trend one can take away from the Summer of 2012.”

Some time ago, both The Liberal OC and Our Town Tustin became aware of anonymous letters and emails alleging misconduct of sorts of Tustin Chief of Police, Scott Jordan. The letters made unsubstantiated allegations against Jordan saying, among other things, that he had slept with a police department employee and had been applying for “lots of jobs” and complaining that Jordan received a raise while other employees with the city were required to give up benefits in their latest contract. It was signed by “The Women of TPD”. It also listed his home telephone number which was verified by Chmielewski.

The second letter followed on the heels of the first. It outlined the saga of Jordan marrying a woman in Garden Grove Police Department that was “below” him, came to Tustin and promoted a woman based on her looks over other, more qualified applicants and then got her pregnant.

The two letters outline quite a saga in the history of our police chief that you can read in the post on The Liberal OC so we won’t republish them in full here.

Chmielewski did quite a bit of research, inquiring of the city about the allegations of the letters. From the Lib:

We’ll note the Chief did marry a former employee of the department after she left the City’s employ.  There was no pregnancy and no call to HR as alleged in the letter.
The chief did travel with a woman named in the letter but several other members of the city’s elected officials and staff made the same trip.  Hence, the holes in the story.

The city responded almost a week after we delivered the letters.  We deleted names and titles in the city’s response to protect the privacy of those employees mentioned in the letter.  The email from Tustin City Manager Jeff Parker goes like this (excerpted – for the entire letter, see The Liberal OC story):

First, the City takes very seriously an allegation of workplace harassment. I’ve attached a copy of the City’s Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation policy which can be found in the City’s Personnel Rules.

The training focuses on our policy, the law, and how employees can address concerns they have regarding conduct in the workplace.

Please note that neither of the letters you provided to me were given to our HR department nor have complaints in any other form been received relating to this matter.

The city manager goes on to say that anything that happened in Garden Grove is unknown to him and he cannot make an investigation into those allegations. As to the first letter, Jeff Parker says he looked into it and found it had been adequately investigated two years ago by the then city manager. Hmm, two years ago the city manager would have been Bill Huston who left with serious issues of cronyism and alleged coverups of his own. You’ll forgive us if we believe that any “investigation” conducted by Huston was anything more than cursory in aspect. Perhaps Parker should have re-opened the investigation in light of the allegations. Or should he?

Parker also addresses the issue of the promotion-by-looks of one police department applicant (we understand this is a non-sworn employee, by the way) over other more qualified applicants. He assures Dan this is not true and the applicant was one of six who qualified and that she exceeded the minimum qualifications for the position. He blows off the allegation that the chief is currently having another affair with a deapartment employee, saying there is no credible evidence.

But, Parker brings up an interesting point when he says, “…I find it interesting that these letters were provided to you after the City entered into a contract with Chief Jordan rather than when the issues were actually occurring.” We do too. More than that, the employees were locked in tough negotiations where the city was demanding certain concessions from the employee unions. So, was this just to throw gas on the embers in hopes someone would shout, “Fire”?

We agree with The Liberal OC that government by anonymous letter is unsavory, to say the least. Unsubstantiated claims, where those making the allegations believe a reporter will be able to “dig up the dirt”, more often than not, result in inaction. That is partly because of laws that, rightly, protect individual privacy even of city employees, where the trend has been to open the doors on everything from compensation to every report or complaint -substantiated or not- brought by a member of the public or even another employee.

Scott Jordan is a well respected member of the law enforcement community. He is also well-respected in our community where crime has dropped and the professionalism of the police department is second to none in the county. And, although OTT has been critical of the recent raise he was given in light of the takeways experienced  by other employees of his department and the rest of the city, we think he deserves the benefit of the doubt unless those who wrote the letters come forward with allegations they can substantiate and not just grouse about. In fact, Dan has given a set of guidelines to use for would-be whistleblowers who believe they would be retaliated against if they were to go through official channels:

But for those government employees who feel that they have no choice but to go to the local media with their story, some advice:

1.  Ask a reporter or editor for confidentiality and make sure you get agreement before you say anything.

2. Summarize your complaint; Who, what, where, when, why (in your opinion) and how.  Bring copies of documentation, emails, photographs, videos, audio files….be prepared to prove your claims. He said, she said isn’t going to help you.  Copies of letters, emails, photos, and other evidence surely will.

3.  Bring copies of department/city/county policy and show why your documentation proves your complaint.

4. It’s not what you think; it’s not what you heard.  It’s what you can prove.

5. An employee who meets with a superior behind closed doors for an hour or two does not mean the two are having an affair; hasn’t anyone else had two hour business meetings with the boss or a conference call that required a closed door?  Think of your own interactions; we all have relationships with our business associates that range from professional loathing to genuine affection and friendship.

6.  Journalists can protect the identity of confidential sources provided you deliver on documenting your claims with evidence.  It also helps if you have two or more colleagues who will back your story with details of their own. And yes, we’ll protect your identity if you have a tip for us.  But we are going to check it out.

We subscribe to the same advice.

Along with The Liberal OC, we would also like to thank the Tustin City Manager, Jeff Parker, and the Human Resources staff who responded to his inquiries. In my conversations with Dan, he offered that Parker was very frank in answering questions, declining to answer only when required by law. That says volumes for our new city manager and his willingness to work toward a more transparent city. Thanks, Jeff.

Since Our Town Tustin began as a watchdog for the Tustin political community, we have had our share of anonymous letters about various city officials and electeds. I am sure that many of the writers have wondered why nothing was ever published. Now you know. This blog, and no respectable news source, will ever publish anything that cannot be independently verified and substantiated. When something is published here, you may not agree with it (and I hope you don’t agree with everything we write) but you will know it is truthful. And, you can rest assured that, unless your comment violates our simple rules, it will never be deleted or modified.