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On The City Council Agenda – January 20, 2015

Hidden Agenda ClipartUnless the councilmembers suddenly get an urge to actually discuss something, it looks like it will be a fairly short meeting of the Tustin City Council on Tuesday. Councilman Bernsein, are you back yet? Chuck missed you.

The Closed Session, which begins at 5:30 PM, hosts the usual suspects. Several discussions regarding existing or potential litigation include a long standing case, now an appellate case, between the city’s old Redevelopment Agency and the Department of Finance. And, while the city attorney decided to keep the wraps on the case, we’ve been able to surmise it involves several million dollars of disputed RDA funds. It turns out the parties reached an agreement in December and we should soon see this issue drop off the radar.

Redevelopment agencies were dissolved by law back in 2011. Unfortunately, as is the usual case with a half-baked legislature, they only did half the job and made up for it by creating, so-called “successor agencies”. Much of this was in the middle of the state attempting to remain solvent by grabbing as much tax money from cities and counties as possible. This, of course, generated millions of dollars in business for lawyers which, I’m sure, our city attorney is happy to keep going as long as possible.

Most of the Regular Session items are on the Consent Calendar. Perusing the Demands and Payroll, the only item of interest is the apparent high cost of our mylawyercontract city attorneys at Woodruff, Speadlin & Smart. Perhaps City Attorney David Kendig is trying for partner. Total cost of our attorney services this month is $17 thousand and change. That’s apparently in addition to the $34 thousand plus the lawyers charged for Successor RDA work and other legal fees hidden sprinkled throughout the report. You’ll have to be the judge of whether we are getting our money’s worth.

Most of the other items on the agenda are routine business and we doubt they will generate much discussion. Item 6, Long Range Property Management Plan and Item 7, Amend and Reinstate the Working Capital Loan, etc., are two more pieces to the puzzle left by the RDA. We know the city council would love the legislature to reinstate the RDAs in California. Like most cities, they have been dragging their feet and crossing their fingers in hopes of resurrection. With any luck, they will run out of excuses and money to play with and disappear completely before that happens.

Two items will round out the Regular Business. Item 8, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2014 is the annual financial analysis of the city. I’m not much for numbers but you can read the report here. The short version is here.

Item 9, Commission Vacancies, lists the expiring terms of the Planning, Community Services and Audit Commissions. There are three terms expiring on each. Most of these carry a tidy stipend for a bit of community service. As soon as they are posted, we’ll let you know (along with who has applied).

That’s it for this meeting. We’ll let you know if anything interesting happens…..or anyone shows up for the meeting.

By the way, welcome back Chief Cellano.

Silent Mike and Lindburgh – The Wilcox Sequel

creepy house(Updated 08/20/13) You might call it the Phoenix Rising, although we would probably characterize it more as the Amityville Horror.  It seems the boys at the Wilcox Manor just won’t take no for an answer and the city council is more than willing to sell the soul of Old Town Tustin for the sake of a few fundraisers.

Thanks to Lindburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the Wilcox Manor is not just another historical property in Old Town Tustin. Although the two purchased the property several years ago and put thousand of dollars into restoring the dilapidated structure, it is their recent effort to turn the icon into a money-making enterprise that has made the house locally famous.

Since October of last year, Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack has championed the cause of a profitable events center for the two. Along with her employees, they promulgated a glowing staff report that would make the owners of the Wilcox Manor appear to be the ambassadors for Old Town. This, of course is due in part to her vision of Old Town that sadly lacks input from the residents.

The report justified the granting of a Conditional Use Permit, without the necessity of an environmental report, by attempting to tie the property into surrounding property that is zoned differently. And, although it is true there is an apartment complex across Main Street, the fact remains that the Wilcox neighborhood, cut off by a cul-de-sac, remains a primarily residential neighborhood. The fact that other property on that side of the street is zoned for industrial use is a matter of circumstance (the city water well) and not opportunity.

It was clear, at that October meeting, the Planning Commission was desperately looking for a way to approve the CUP for their Wilcox friends while maintaining an air of impartiality toward Old Town residents. Jeff Thompson, then chairman pro tem, was clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, probably because he lived in Old Town. Newly sworn-in Commissioner Wisam Altowaiji recused himself from the discussion for living within 500 feet of the property. Perhaps Jeff should have done the same although that would have left only three commissioners to discuss the matter.

And discuss it they did.

For more than an hour, folks came to the podium to speak about Michael, Lindburgh and the Wilcox Manor. Many of the attendees were from non-profit organizations from outside the city. All of the supporters spoke glowingly of Michael and Lindburgh as friends, attesting to their character as fine, upstanding citizens. The staff report was inundated with, what turned out to be, mostly form letters from local neighbors that, apparently, the Wilcox Boys had prepared for their signature.

After the public hearing closed,  the planning commissioners began deliberations. That public discussion showed their discomfort in having to put this in the public light. After an hour of discussion, however, they came together with eighteen modifications to the CUP before voting 4-0 in support. Then, it was off to the Tustin City Council.

A few days before that meeting, Demoratz and McPherson assailed Old Town residents Brent Ferdig and Linda Jennings. In a widely distributed letter posted to their Facebook page, the boys attempted to demonize Jennings saying she founded the Tustin Preservation Conservancy as a rival organization to the Historical Society. They accused the two of them of harassment and slandering the “good names” of Demoratz and McPherson.

Linda Jennings, for her part, maintained the Conservancy and the Historical Society had a good working relationship and the Conservancy even donated money for computers and other items.

From the letter:

They have gone on a campaign to slander our names and misrepresent what we are doing and who we are. Our supporters in Old Town have been told that they have confronted by people banging on their front doors stirring the pot on this issue. Now they have begun a campaign of going after potential partners – we were in negotiations on leasing a parking lot and they were able to reach the owner of the property before us and frankly – made it so we cannot lease this lot now.

It was interesting to see McPherson squirming when it had been discovered they did not have a complete agreement for off-site parking as they had previously indicated. The letter attempted to place the blame on Ferdig and Jennings for issues they had actually caused themselves. They later came back to tell their supporters they did not have to put anything in place, including the parking, until the CUP was approved.

Taking the matter before the Tustin City Council in November provided its own set of issues. This time it was outgoing councilman Jerry Amante, along with crony John Nielsen -who had been re-elected for another term- who found themselves looking down the double barrel of possible ethics and campaign violations. We pointed out in an article at the time that Nielsen was married to Erin Nielsen, the director of the Tustin Community Foundation. TCF had been the direct and indirect recipient of considerable funds that resulted from Demoratz and McPherson donating their home for charitable fundraising. So, the issue was continued to January, when fresh faces would arrive on the dais.

But, that caused a whole set of issues on its own when it was pointed out that not only John Nielsen faced conflict of interest issues, nearly the entire council had the same problem. When the item came up for discussion, the dais looked like a Shriner car full of clowns as Nielsen, Puckett and the Podiatrist Councilman ran off the dais after recusing themselves.  Once the dust settled and City Attorney David Kendig cleared up who had to do what, the boys’ mouthpiece, David Hunt, Esq., asked for another continuance, citing “personal business issues” from the applicants.

At the time we opined the Three Amigos were also in an undesirable position because of their relationship with the Wilcox Manor. And, although use of the home was gratis for their fundraisers, we wondered (in print) what the Fair Political Practices Commission would think? Alas, the boys did not have to answer the question as they voted to continue the matter until September. That was at the request of Demoratz lawyer.

Apparently, Michael and Lindburgh are no longer burdened with personal issues as they have, once again, asked that their CUP be calendared for tonight’s meeting rather than wait for September as originally planned. Way back in November of last year, after the original Planning Commission meeting, Demoratz and McPherson asked the city council to consider their application with over forty line-item changes that would, essentially, gut the Planning Commission approved CUP.

Chad Ortlieb, who has been a vocal opponent of the Wilcox Manor CUP, has questioned whether the substantial modifications the boys are asking for would trigger a new application for a CUP. The most glaring amendment Demoratz and McPherson are asking for is a change from 24 total events to 36 paid events (leaving the number of free events unspecified). That has not gone unnoticed by the opposing side. In response to Ortlieb’s public concerns, it appears that McPherson is now on a witch hunt against Ortlieb. In a recent public records request made out to the city of Orange, he has requested information related to the personal use of Ortlieb’s work computers. It was hard to discern from the request whether McPherson was attempting to garner information for his own use or whether he was attempting to alert Ortlieb’s superiors of any personal use of the city’s computers (For the latest discussion, Ortlieb has sent a 28 page missive that dismantles city staffs’ rendition of the code supporting the permit. It’s hard to argue with fact).

Demoratz and McPherson have attempted to cloud the issue with the neighborhood by writing letters of support and having the neighbors sign them as if they came from them personally. This was pointed out by Martin and Tina Blenz in a letter penned by them opposing the events center CUP:

Please accept this as an opposition letter to the [Wilcox] application. It is with mixed emotions that we write this letter.

We were given a letter of support from Michael and Lindburgh. Since it was not written by us, we refused to sign….. The other letters show the same type font, date and format as ours.

The Blenz letter goes on to point out the issues they, as neighbors, have with turning the Wilcox Manor into an events center, citing the problems they now have with trash, liquor and parking. They also point out the apparent error by the city when they first purchased their property as it was not listed single-family residence as the tract map showed (and Binsack used in justifying the approval for the CUP).

There is also an issue of whether the application was subject to an environmental impact report. The city, citing law that they say supports their position for not requiring a report, has taken the stance all along that a report is not required. However, Ortlieb, a former city planner for Tustin and  Jennings, President of the Tustin Preservation Conservancy, bothy believe that, due to the nature of the venue, one would certainly be required. From a recent letter by  Jennings to the city:

Rather than enhancing the goals of the Cultural Resource District as listed in Resolution 4207, the proposed use will cause immense traffic congestion in the neighborhood, increase parking problems on residential streets, increase noise pollution, create health and sanitation issues from routine food service and cost Tustin tax payers’ money to monitor the activities, parking and event attendees.

Contrary to the findings of staff, it is our opinion that these factors constitute a significant environmental impact and should trigger a CEQA assessment.

Jennings goes on to say the granting of the CUP would alter the character of the Old Town residential neighborhoods.

And, we have to agree.

One thing is probable. Should the City Attorney erroneously tell the Tustin City Council that no recusal is necessary, it  will mean the end of residential life as we know it in Old Town Tustin. An events center approval will mean even more parties, traffic and noise than before, all so the good friends of the City Council can make money. But, before that happens, we would like to point out a few things to the good councilmembers:

  • A survey of the affected residents might shed some light on just how popular the idea of having an events center in the neighborhood truly is. It would go a long way to assuage the feelings of the residents that their voices are being drowned out by outside influences in the form of non-profits (and political candidates) who stand to lose a rich fundraising venue.
  • Considering the complexity of the situation and the CUP itself, after having been worked over by a scared-stupid planning commission, a review of whether a CEQA report is necessary -by an outside agent- may be in order.
  • Based on the over forty modifications the Wilcox Manor applicants made to the original, approved CUP, a new application de novo may be in order, regardless of what your Community Development Director may say.
  • It may be appropriate to utilize the services of a law office that specializes in zoning and CUP matters to analyze this. The city attorney has demonstrated that he is too close to the players and basically ignorant of the true issues at hand to offer unbiased advice.
  • John and Erin Nielsen, though separated, remain in a situation that would cause him to recuse himself as Erin continues as Director of the Tustin Community Foundation.
  • This is a moneymaking business, apart from the generous fundraising the applicants have done in the past. Demoratz and McPherson stand to make upwards of $200,000 per event.

Should the city council approve the Conditional Use Permit, especially with the modifications proposed by Demoratz and McPherson, it is likely the fight will not be over. Both Ortlieb and Jennings have informed me that lawyers have been involved since early this year. That could make this another war that is quite likely to be waged in Superior Court.

Another consideration is the recent revelation that the FBI is now conducting investigations here in Orange County regarding campaign financing improprieties and corruption, along with ethics violations. Given that the Feds seem to be eyeballing conservatives in particular, the city council majority may want to distance themselves from this debacle in the interest of at least appearing to have clean hands.

On The City Council Agenda, May 21, 2013

VHS-tapeThe city apparently fixed the video problem they had with the May 7th meeting and the video is finally up for viewing. We’ll let you know if we find anything interesting that we haven’t already reported on. We are wondering if the issues had to do with their recent changeover to allow direct downloading of the video, something we applaud as a step toward a more open government.

May 21st could be a busy day for the city council. The Closed Session, which begins at 5:30 pm, makes no mention of labor contracts. Negotiations have been in progress for the past couple of weeks. Most of the employees in the city are represented by the Orange County Employees Association. The grapevine tells me the city may be looking for increased pension payments as they are in a hurry to catch up the unfunded liability. City employees belong to CalPERS, not the County pension system, OCERS. Too bad. OCERS is doing quite well at this time, even though the OC Board of Supervisors would like the voters to think otherwise.

Most of the Closed Session will discuss property negotiations on the MCAS base. The fact they are discussing terms is a good sign the development of the base is finally picking up. As we said before, the best thing the last city council could do was to make the city its own master developer for purposes of developing and selling the property. It seems when that occurred, development picked up drastically.

The Open Session begins with presentations to Hewes Kids, OCFA Fire Chief Keith Richter and the National Student Leadership Council of SADD. Chief Richter was recently awarded the Fire Chief of the Year Award by the Metropolitan “Metro” Fire Chiefs Association. Undoubtedly, the city council will bestow a certificate or two on him as well.

Two items on the Consent Calendar deserve discussion. The first is the contract with the Orange County District Attorney to prosecute violations of city code. The DA provides prosecution for the city for any violation of state law without cost (the people vs. etc. etc…). Violations of city ordinances, on the other hand, must either be handled by the city attorney or the district attorney under contract. Now, I could really slam the ineptness of the city attorney here but his law firms expertise is in government not criminal law. So, he is off the hook.

The DA has proposed a contract with a reasonable rate increase ($150 p/hr Attorney & ($84 p/hr Clerical) that we doubt the city could find elsewhere. The indication is the OCDA’s services are rarely needed and the contract is based on use rather than time. It is interesting to note the burden of deciding prosecution remains with the DA rather than the city. This is the same as it would be for any felony prosecution.

Item 4, Asset Capitalization Threshold, should also be pulled for discussion. There is a (very) brief discussion on the issue in the staff report that outlines the issue. The economy has outgrown the previous amounts used for capitalization of short and long term assets. City staff are proposing new thresholds but, we question how they came up with those numbers. In fact, judging the economy from a consumer standpoint, we wonder if the new thresholds may be too low considering the skyrocketing cost of infrastructure constructions nowadays.

The final item on the consent calendar is the Quarterly Investment Report. Since the passing of George Jeffries, responsibility for investment of city funds has been delegated to Finance Director, Pamela Arends-King. We’ll reserve judgment as this is her first time out. Suffice it to say the funds are intact.

While most of the Regular Calendar consists of Second Readings of various ordinances affecting MCAS property, one item stands out as a bit of good news for homeowners.

The Approval of Issuance of Special Tax Refunding Bonds should be good news for some homeowners in the Tustin Legacy. About 563 homeowners will see their Mello-Roos lowered by a tax refunding bond. If you are a glutton for punishment, read the 232 page staff report that details the background and refunding of the money. Of course, all of this assumes the economy will continue to improve, a hedgy bet at best.

A second reading will also be heard on amending an ordinance to allow city commissioners to remain on their commissions until such time as they are elected to city office or replaced by the city council. This change will not only bring the city in line with most other cities policies in Orange County, it actually makes sense. One item of contention at the March meeting when this was first discussed was commissioner compensation. If we had to guess, we would say the current city council is not happy with the way the previous council screwed them in regard to compensation.

When Jerry Amante first proposed the voters have a say in compensation, it was clearly a tactic to hurt Councilwoman Deborah Gavello, whom he considered his arch nemesis. That he could care less about the city and future councilmembers, who largely foot the bill for their own expenses, was obvious. By shaming them into compliance, he convinced John Nielsen and Al Murray, both of whom were on the council at the time, into voting to place an ill-conceived ballot measure before the voters that eliminated compensation for city councilmembers. This has placed an undue financial burden on all of them and could hurt the city when it comes time to find otherwise qualified candidates for office.

Seeing the damage it has done so far has apparently caused the Gang of Four to reconsider compensation and not do the same thing to city commissioners. This makes the city commission seats, as influential as they are, a more palatable choice for those who choose to serve the city in a volunteer basis.

The final item, as usual, is the Legislative Report. Staff are recommending support for several bills in Sacramento.

The first, AB229, is specifically geared toward creating tax districts and, in Tustin’s case, on former military base property. Essentially, when redevelopment agencies went away last year, it left Tustin in limbo regarding financing of infrastructure on base property. They joined other government entities who had former base properties in legislation that would allow them to continue to operate similarly structured enterprises. This is, of course, an end run around the demise of redevelopment agencies and is actually RDAs on steroids. We have to wonder why Democrats continue to give gifts of bad public policy to the Republicans.

We do agree with the city’s opposition to AB667 which would require an Economic Impact Report in “economic assistance areas”. This is essentially a “rent control” for businesses that would require a superstore, such as Wal-mart, to study the economic impact on small businesses in a city before they would be allowed to build a superstore. On its face this is protectionism at its worst and should be defeated. What makes this bill even more ominous is the fact the city could be allowed to conduct the so-called study itself, leaving business development even more prone to corruption than it already is. The fact is, there are already enough impediments to business, big and small, that no more should be required by law. Two previous bills like 667 were vetoed by the governor. Support and opposition are typically aligned with unions and business.

Likewise, we agree with the city in their opposition to SB323 which would exclude tax exemptions for private non-profit organizations whose membership requirements exclude certain classes of citizens. SB323 is clearly aimed at the Boy Scouts who continue to exclude gays from their organization. In doing so, the author of the bill, Assembly Speaker John Perez, who is openly gay, is willing to chance the disbanding of other organizations that cannot meet the strict definitions of membership in their organization. This is nanny state government at its worst. Better the BSA debate should remain in the public opinion arena rather than rely on implementation of socialist laws that serve a narrow purpose.

That’s it for the week. If you attend the meeting this week, drop me a line and give me your thoughts.

On The City Council Agenda, May 7, 2013

Hidden Agenda ClipartHappy Cinco de Siete. The bad news is, my desktop is in for repairs and will, hopefully, be out by this next weekend. Of course, depending on the cost, a new one may be in order. In the meantime, I will struggle to get out posts with the reliable but anachronistic netbook. Isn’t it amazing that, just a few years ago, the netbook was the hottest thing on the market? Now, they are right up there with…desktop computers.

It looks to be a busy night for the Tustin City Council as they hold a couple of public hearings preceded by a slew of feel good presentations. The presentations are likely to be lengthy with lots of pomp and circumstance (emphasis on pomp).

The first public hearing is to establish a new Community Facilities District and accompanying mello-roos tax for an area of the Tustin Legacy. You might think this a routine issue but, it is a timely one for the city. It should be unsurprising that, the vote on establishing a CFD, when there are no residents in the location, falls to the landowners, in this case, the city. So, why wait until there are pesky homeowners to get in the way of establishing a tax base? Trust me, the entire hearing is pretty much pro forma for establishing the CFD and it is doubtful there will be much input from the public. It is probably a good thing the staff know what they are doing. That way the Four Amigos only need to say “yes”. One thing the folks moving in should know is this is a forever tax that will be passed on to future landowners owners. That tax will increase by two percent per year ad infinitum.

The second Pubic Hearing concerns the disposition of the Community Development Block Grant funding allocation. As you know, in the past we have been critical of the method used by the city council to disseminate CDBG funds. Specifically, the relationship of members of the city council to the executive director of the Tustin Community foundation which the city used to manage funds was questionable, to say the least.

Most recently, a committee made up of city staff members evaluated the current funding and made recommendations that can be found in the staff report. Of course, I am always amazed that, with funding and programs the community depends on we would allow city staff, most of whom live elsewhere, to determine what is best for us. In the end, worthy projects are being recommended for continued funding, including Human Options, Laurel House and Mercy House, all of which go to assist those most in need in our community.

One item I find interesting is the “Old Town Study” which is funded at $27 thousand dollars. This study appears to be a marketing study to see how the city can eke the most tax dollar out of the cultural overlay district. Could this project be the one to take precedence over the recent community development project to determine changes in the Old Town zoning regarding guest houses and second units? When an inquiry was recently made by a resident, they were told the guest house ordinance would be completed some time in the future, that it wasn’t a priority for city staff at the time. Really? Perhaps the city staff, which we have shown time and again is out of touch with city residents, should rethink that. More in a future article.

All in all, the proposed CDBG update is in order, regardless of how we got there, and it should pass muster with the residents of the city. It should be interesting how much back slapping the city council does before approving it.

The third Pubic Hearing has caused quite a bit of discussion both on the dais and in the community. Chad Ortlieb has managed to segue the Wilcox Manor issue in with the zoning amendments when they were before the city planning commission and he may show up at this meeting to discuss the issues again.

While the ordinance was being considered by the planning commission, more than 50 comments were received and supposedly considered by the commission. The city attorney attempted to block Ortlieb’s critical letter based on a timeframe until Ortlieb demonstrated that he actually was within legal limits. That in itself should tell you how desperate city staff are to get these amendments in. Why the hurry? In any case,it would not surprise me to see a few more comments at the public hearing and I imagine we will see another appearance by Lindburgh MacPherson who is sweating bullets over the Wilcox Manor CUP application being kept in the limelight when he hoped it would fade into oblivion. Sorry, Lindburgh, we still don’t want your  dog and pony show in Old Town.

Item 7 on the Consent Calendar is to appropriate supplemental funds for the completion of Tustin Ranch Road and other road improvement projects. It appears to be a housekeeping issue more than anything else but, I’m no accountant so you may want to look at the agenda report yourself.

That’s about it. Unless you are a glutton for punishment, come late and go home early. By the way, the agenda doesn’t mention it but, I could have sworn The American Legion Pot 227 was back in good standing. If so, the should provide they best presentation: our Flag.