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On The Planning Commission Agenda, December 11, 2012

agenda-clipartThe year is quickly coming to a close and the last meeting of the year for the Tustin Planning Commission is at hand. Not a lot on the agenda this time around save for two public hearings.

Item 2 – Code Amendment and Conditional Use Permit – The Kiddie Academy Child Care Learning Centers would like to establish their presence in a new commercial construction on the corner of Walnut and Newport Avenue. The company proposes to demolish the existing structure and replace it with a 6,300 square foot day care center. The request also includes  establishment of new and reduced parking requirements for day care facilities with drop-off and pickup areas. The day care center will be able to accommodate 108 children with a one story structure and play area in the rear.

Item 3 – Code Amendment Update to the City of Tustin Parking Code – This is an update to the parking code that includes new business definitions and re-aligns some types of commercial parking to better serve the community. There were a couple of items we saw in a draft copy of the amendment that we had issues with. But, they did not appear to make the final cut coming before the commission.

There may be some discussion concerning the parking as it relates to business, although we don’t really see anything to get excited about. One of the changes will allow for greater flexibility in parking related to restaurants that are part of a larger shopping center. And, for some reason, the planners saw fit to change the code to make definitions for different types of parking equal between residential areas and business enterprises. That may be workable for apartments and condominiums, where parking can sometimes be at a premium but, it’s probably not neccessary for single-family homes.

Hopefully, for the commissioners at least, this will be a short meeting so they can get back to their eggnog. Of course, the last time I said that they wound up in a two and a half hour meeting.

John Moorlach: Politician, Soothsayer, Storyteller

Courtesy of The Liberal OC

(The story was updated to correct the quote at the end -ed.)
Growing up, my mom always taught me that omission is as bad as commission meaning that, if you fail to say something when you should have, that is just as bad as telling a lie. In Orange County Board of Supervisor John Moorlach’s case, he does not seem to have gotten the same message.

On June 21, 2012, Moorlach took his “message of change” to county employees. In an email sent to all employees entitled, “A new Approach for Labor Negotiations”, he outlined the current financial condition of the county and laid the blame squarely on the backs of the public employees.

This is not an unusual tactic for Moorlach, who still feels that he is the savior of the county after having foretold the coming 1994 bankruptcy. Of course, whenever Republicans like to speak of that, they emphasize the foretold part, as he did absolutely nothing to prevent the bankruptcy. He could have. He could have notified the state of the illegal doings of then county treasurer, Bob Citron. He could have notified the district attorney. Instead, he simply voiced his opinion. And many people agree that, had he not said anything, the crisis would have passed in a week or two and bankruptcy would have been averted. In fact, many say a bankruptcy was not required anyway and that it was engineered by some for personal and political gain. So much for John’s soothsaying. That could be why no one is listening as he screams, “the sky is falling”, again.

But Moorlach, who had already decided to run for office, capitalized for several years on his fortunetelling abilities. When he came to the Board of Supervisors, it seemed as if the other Board members were a bit in awe of him. Like the E.F. Hutton commercials of old, when Moorlach talked, people listened. One of the things Moorlach said from the beginning (and we will hold him to his word) was he would not run for any higher office. We assumed he meant that he was a local politician and not one to go to Sacramento on our dime. We’ll see how that works out now that he is in his final term after his unsuccessful bid to extend Supervisor’s terms to a third limit. Nowadays, we hear the Republican Party locals like what John says more than they like John himself. In any case, his motives on a variety of issues have been called into question on more than one occasion, most notably by one of our newest Supervisors, Shawn Nelson.

Oh, let’s not forget that, when Moorlach left his job as County Treasurer to take the job of Supervisor, he anointed his crony and friend, Chriss Street to take his place. Street, as you know, became mired in  scandal of his own when, as trustee of the bankrupt Freuhauf Corporation, he breached his fiduciary duty “in an effort to serve his own selfish ends.” Almost as quickly as he said hello to his buddy, Moorlach was quoted as saying, “He’s got to go. The taxpayers don’t deserve this nonsense.” Apparently, John made a better politician than a friend.

Now, there is no doubt that John hates public employees. He hates their unions and he hates the fact that he cannot just change their compensation whenever he chooses to balance the budget. He has been know to refuse to shake hands with union officials and refers to them as union thugs. He has his hatchetman and chief bootlicker, County CEO Tom Mauck attempt to deal with them. Tom Mauck is a story unto himself but, suffice it to say, he hates public employees as much as John. It was rumored that, at one time, he even said he deserved the compensation he received, including his lucrative pension, car allowance and other personal benefits, because he worked hard and most public employees were slackers.

So, now that nearly every public employee union is in negotiations this year, it comes as no surprise that Moorlach would be pushing his agenda hard. Although his influence is waning with a public who has come to see him as a typical politician, he continues to put out missives like the one he penned Thursday and backs it up with graphs. From his letter:

These negotiations come at a time when our financial resources have experienced several years of contraction and are projected to see minimal, if any, growth in the future. Moreover, we continue to defend against efforts by the State of California to reach for our current assets and future revenue streams. Juxtaposed with our flagging revenues, the total compensation for County employees has steadily risen. The primary drivers of the increasing total compensation are salary growth (for a number of reasons), pension contributions, and health care benefits. The chart below demonstrates the growth in average total compensation for county employees over the last five years.

A New Approach for Labor Negotiations

This year ranks as one of the most important in recent history in Orange County for labor negotiations. Discussions are already underway with several of our largest bargaining units, and by the end of this calendar year, we hope to have new agreements in place for all the major labor groups in the County. These negotiations come at a time when our financial resources have experienced several years of contraction and are projected to see minimal, if any, growth in the future. Moreover, we continue to defend against efforts by the State of California to reach for our current assets and future revenue streams. Juxtaposed with our flagging revenues, the total compensation for County employees has steadily risen. The primary drivers of the increasing total compensation are salary growth (for a number of reasons), pension contributions, and health care benefits. The chart below demonstrates the growth in average total compensation for county employees over the last five years.

In total, the Average Total Compensation across all of the County’s positions has grown by nearly $15,000 over the last four years, equivalent to a raise in total compensation of 17.2%. During this same timeframe, property tax revenue, which represents the overwhelming majority of our General Purpose Revenue, has grown scarcely more than 3%. In order to address the unsustainable trend in total compensation growth, the County is now faced with either laying off employees and reducing services in order to achieve a more tenable financial position, or finding ways to restrict the growth in total compensation in order to bring it in line with the growth in available resources. The Board of Supervisors has decided to pursue the latter approach, in an effort to retain as many employees as possible and maintain service levels to the public we all serve.

In simple terms, this means that the Board is committed to negotiating agreements with all of our major bargaining units in which the costs of employee compensation do not exceed our expected growth in property taxes. Going into fiscal year 2012-13, property tax revenues are expected to remain flat. Consequently, total compensation must remain flat. In order to achieve this goal, some forms of compensation will need to be reduced in order to counterbalance growth in other areas of compensation. These reductions could come in a variety of different forms, such as greater contributions toward pension costs, health insurance modifications, changes in premium pay, and/or salary reductions.

Our financial advisors and staff estimate that property taxes (which account for more than 90% of our General Purpose Revenue) will not make significant gains in the near future. This sobering projection means that absent a paradigm shift in the County’s pension liability (the second most important driver of total compensation after regular salaries) modest reductions in employee compensation will need to continue in the near future if the County is to maintain its goal of financial prudence. These reductions will not need to be at the levels seen in some of our peer counties or at the State (which is looking at a 5% reduction in 2012/13), but will need to be sufficient to offset the anticipated growth in other forms of compensation, like pension contribution and health benefits. The Board of Supervisors will continue to pursue solutions to the ever-escalating pension costs that are crowding out salary increases for our employees, but it is clear that true solutions can only be found with the assistance of our employees and their labor representatives.

It is vital that each County employee know that this new approach to labor negotiations is born out of financial necessity and a commitment to provide the highest level of service possible to the taxpayers who entrust us with their resources. A commitment to the public is something that binds us together as civil servants, and it is what will see us through these times of austerity and sacrifice. Thank you for your continued service and perseverance.

It is interesting that Moorlach now attempts to appeal directly to the employees in the county. It is also interesting, but not surprising, that he does not tell the honest truth, even to those same employees. But, as we said before, he hates public employees and hates the fact that he has to pay them more than minimum wage or any benefits. In other words, he is a typical Republican politician.

One only has to look at the accompanying graph which he points to as proof. Note that total compensation does, indeed, rise 17%. What he doesn’t tell you is why compensation rose at all. In spite of the fact that no line employee has received a raise since 2007, base compensation has gone up. How could that happen, you ask? I will tell you what Moorlach failed to say. Since 2007, managers, executive managers and others above the rank of supervisor (and there are a lot of them) have all received multiple raises. Most of the executive managers receive a car allowance of nearly $800 per month and all managers down to manager I, receive an optional personal benefit of about $4,000 per year which, if they swing it right, comes to them tax-free over and above their salaries. So, if you spread that $9,000 per year out to just the management staff, rather than all employees, how much did their compensation increase? Moreover, the question is, when the county should be in austerity mode, how could anyone receive an increase in salary? Much of it was caused by unjustified promotions and raises in the management ranks.

Let’s talk healthcare. In his letter to the masses, Moorlach talks about how cost have increased. The graph, once again, shows how costs per employee have risen a modest $2400 since 2007. Healthcare costs are one of the single-most expensive benefits of employees. Moorlach makes it sound like the employees are being unreasonable about healthcare. However, the unions and the county have always been willing to sit down and discuss the issues over healthcare cost. A few years ago, OCEA agreed to split the retiree pool. This resulted in higher costs (and a lawsuit) for retirees, while helping to contain costs for active duty employees. Over the years, the unions have agreed to pay a portion of their dependent healthcare and substantially increase co-pays to doctors and for medications. In fact, it has been the unions who have been at the forefront of  containing healthcare costs while maintaining an important employee benefit. Still, healthcare costs have increased through no fault of the employee or the county. So, why lay the blame on county employees?

The big elephant, of course, is pensions. And here, Moorlach clearly withholds important details, even from his own employees. For example, he likes to expound upon those unreasonable pensions of public employees. It is true that most non-safety public employees (including managers and executives) negotiated an enhance pension that would allow them to retire with more money at an earlier age. Prior to the enhancement, employees received 1.67%@57. In 2004, unions successfully negotiated a new tier. No one can disagree the resulting pensions would cost both the county and the employee more.  What he did not say is that the union agreed employees would pay for both the employee and employer side of the increased costs.

In a recent editorial, OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino stated:

In other words, since OCEA-represented employees agreed to pay the entire cost of improving their retirement benefit – the improvement did not cost the county or its taxpayers anything. Not only that, the employees’ commitment to pay for the new benefit was enforceable into perpetuity. Employees are used to seeing that pension offset being taken from their paychecks regularly.

Then, in 2009, OCEA once again stepped forward, negotiating a one-time option for current employees to elect a hybrid retirement benefit consisting of a 1.62@65 defined benefit formula coupled with a modest defined contribution plan. San Jose’s approach also involves a current employee option component, but OCEA and the county have been attempting to get IRS approval for their plan long before most jurisdictions, including San Jose, even had pension reform on their radar.

Another important piece of the pension shortfall puzzle is the fact that the county, much of it during Moorlach’s term, frequently took “pension holidays” where they did not make any contribution to employee pensions (employees do not have that option). That’s because they did not have to. But, in looking back, don’t you think they should have? Does anyone think that would have made a difference (a show of hands, please). This was clearly shortsighted thinking on the part of the Board. To be clear, the Orange County Retirement System, although below the recommended 80% level due to the depression, is well funded and not in any danger of collapsing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that, until recently, managers, executives and elected officials did not pay into their pensions at all? I guess I am getting like John in my old age.

So, where is it that county employees have not done their part to rein in pension costs and continue to provide quality service to the residents of Orange County? It would seem, with this new information, that Moorlach is only telling the part of the story he wants us all to hear. And, if you thought he did not want you to hear it, this blog is not the only one to mention his letter to the masses.

So, there you have John, the storyteller.

If you look at anyone in this, look at how badly the Board of Supervisors and CEO Tom Mauck have attempted to cover their embarrassing situations and keep their own pensions intact. Oh, did I tell you, John Moorlach, as an elected official and employee of this county, receives the same pension as other employees (we won’t mention that lucrative 457  plan available only to elected officials and managers)? Including his time as Treasurer-tax Collector, Moorlach will have 20 years of service by the time his term ends on the Board of Supervisors. It is interesting to note that he will not even acknowledge this fact. He is one of three members of the Board that gladly keep their pensions intact even while disparaging the good names of union employees. The two that keep a saner head about them are Pat Bates and Shawn Nelson, neither of whom take a pension.

Now you have, as TV commentator Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

A Little Clarification if You Will

If you have been reading Our Town Tustin over the past few months, you know that we have been highly critical of the involvement of the Tustin Community Foundation in the administration of the Community Development Block Grants. Since 2007, the TCF has been designated the “Citizen Participation Committee” for this program. That means, they are pretty much allowed to recommend what community programs will be allocated funding for each period of the block grant.

Our issue, of course, has been that Erin Nielsen, wife of Tustin Mayor John Nielsen, is the Executive Director of the Tustin Community Foundation, a paid position from what we understand. That raised alarms with us and, judging by the amount of email we have received over the last few months on the issue, many in the community. It also caused the TCF to issue a curt notice in their latest newsletter that the TCF does not “manage” CDBG funds. While technically, that may be true, in practice it is hard to believe the majority of input is not made by TCF as the “Citizens Participation Committee.”

In an email/voicemail discussion with Tustin Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack, she explained that the TCF is charged with holding one of two public hearings and then, based on those hearings, they make a recommendation to the City Council on how those funds should be managed. To be fair, the City Council is not required to abide by the recommendations of the TCF. In fact, the City Council, according to Binsack, holds the second of the two public hearings themselves. So, anyone not getting the recommendation from the TCF has another chance at  a slice of the pie with the city council, right? Except, there is this relationship between the Executive Director of the TCF and the Tustin Mayor which, we find it hard to believe would not have some influence on the decision making process. And, while Binsack did say the city council has occasionally gone against the recommendations made by the TCF, she did not offer any examples where that has happened.

Prior to April, 2007, CDBG fund allocations were recommended by a  Citizens Participation Committee consisting of various leaders of other city committees, commissions and two at-large members. This was amended by the city council to designate the TCF as the CPP for all public service projects. And, while John Nielsen had not been elected to the council at that time, he was a planning commissioner for the city and had certainly made his intentions to run for city council known by then. Oh yeah, and the planning commission had a representative on the CPP when John was a commissioner.

So, does the Tustin Community Foundation “manage” Community Development Block Grant funding? The short answer is, no. They do not actually have hands on management of the funds. However, their role in the decision-making process is much more integral. They hold so-called public hearings and take input from community representatives. They then make recommendations that, by the city’s own admission, are almost always followed. This takes us back to ethics and conflict-of-interest issues.

In a previous post, we wrote:

What is a problem is the fact that Mayor John Nielsen’s spouse, Erin Nielsen, is the Executive Director of the TCF. I checked with my political rabbi concerning any conflicts of interest regarding this issue. What he told me was, while their may be no specific conflict of interest that rises to the level of a violation, there is certainly the perception of one anytime there is a direct relationship between entities such as this.

And, if the perception issue is not bad enough, it is about to get worse. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Both former Tustin Mayor Chuck Puckett and Alan Bernstein have declared their intention to run for Tustin City Council. Chuck Puckett, has ethical baggage of his own that involves negligee shows and city credit cards (at least he shopped locally)  during his last tenure on the city council and was, until recently, listed as President of the TCF Board of Directors. We notice he no longer has a position on that board. Somebody must have mentioned the baggage that would carry.

Bernstein, on the other hand, is a friend of former Mayor, Jerry Amante and actually lives in his neighborhood. He also recently received an exemption for his daycare business to allow more children at the home. It is safe to assume that Amante has the ear of Bernstein and is probably well established in the shadow government of Tustin.

But, the real issue remains. How long will John Nielsen be allowed by the community to exercise decision making over CDBG funding with his wife, Erin, at the helm of the organization that has the most influence? It would be a simple matter for the good mayor to recuse himself from all votes regarding this portion of the CDBG funds, thereby giving him clean hands on the issue. The question is, will he work for the betterment of Tustin through ethical decisions or will he continue to exercise control over the issue, ehtics be damned?

We would like to know what you think on this issue.  Your comments are welcome and can be made anonymously under any name. Your email is not published and, to the extent the law allows, this blog will never divulge your name or other identifying information without your permission. First time commenters are moderated only to limit spam and OTT has no control over that matter (it’s a software thing). We will not edit comments and will publish them as written (spelling counts here). So, comment away.

It’s Not Always about Politics

OK, I don’t usually do food reviews. But, I couldn’t pass this up. I go by Pina’s Bistro nearly every day and, until recently, I had never eaten there. I am a big foodie and, while this blog doesn’t normally do restaurant reviews or, eww, culture stuff, this little place I now know, deserves the highest praise. I urge all of my readers, if they have not made their way down to First and Pacific for Italian food, they drop what they are doing and head down there now….well, read my blog first…then go -Jeff

A few weeks ago, I lamented in a post that I couldn’t share Valentines Day dinner with my wife. I went on about my favorite romantic Italian restaurants both without and within the city and was instantly slapped down by my friend and fellow blogger, Dan Chmielewski over at the Liberal OC. Immediately after, I was hit by a number of reader emails concerning the same thing. In fact, I was hit so many times, I was starting to feel like the hysterical woman in the cult classic Airplane! with all the passengers lined up waiting to smack her.

All of this, because I failed to mention what they felt was simply the best Italian restaurant in our town Tustin. Dan wanted to make sure I understood the serious gravity of the breach I committed so he invited me to lunch at his favorite spot. I never turn down a free meal and, to make it even better (or at least to claim the tax deduction) he also invited the Orange County Register’s local talent, Elysse James to join us (note to the Register editors, Elysse insisted on paying her own tab).

So, we all wound up on a recent Wednesday afternoon on a sidewalk table at Pina’s Bistro for lunch. Dan and Elysse were already there when I arrived. He promptly presented us to Pina who then showed us around her establishment.

If you haven’t been there (and who hasn’t…I mean, besides me), Pina’s Bistro is really more like the kitchen and dining room of her home. The kitchen, a scant twenty feet from the front door, was alive with the aromas you would expect to find in your mom’s house… well, if your mom was Italian. Between the kitchen, stuffed with an enormous range and grill, and the front door are the half dozen or so tables filled with hungry patrons, of course, that comprises the dining room. Another half dozen tables outside make up the front porch and that’s where we chose to sit on this unusually warm Winter day.

Pina made us feel right at home as she showed Elysse and me the kitchen and explained that everything, including the pasta, is made to order when it is ordered. Servers were hurrying past us as they brought huge dishes of great looking food out to hungry customers. So, we got out of the way and took our seats outside with Dan. Drinks were waiting for us, along with a wonderful Caprese salad that made it’s way to the table as soon as we sat down. It did not take long to figure out what I wanted from the menu. I am a pasta fan and a marinara fan. The Baked Mostaccioli beckoned and I answered. Dan ordered, what I suspect is his favorite, Linguini and Clams and Ellyse ordered a great looking pannini.

I would like to tell you the three of us ate lunch without a political word between us. But, you probably know that putting together two political bloggers and an ace reporter is probably going to bring the conversation to our favorite subjects (are your ears ringing, Jerry?) In between overseeing the kitchen activities and tending to her customers, Pina would pop out to see how we were enjoying our food. I have to tell you, Dan was right. In fact, he could not do Pina’s justice because I am not sure there are adequate words in the English language to describe the delicious food we consumed that day. The pasta was cooked exactly the way I like it (how did she know?) and the sauce had the subtle flavor nuance one looks for in fine food crafted by an artisan. Every bite put a smile on my face and a warm comfy feeling in my belly.And, in any case, I hope she reads this because I am sure she could not understand me singing her food’s praises with my mouth stuffed with pasta and homemade bread. Did I mention the homemade bread?

Now, I like to try a new place a couple of times before I make a decision whether it will be on my regular trail of food havens. That way, I don’t give credit to a chef or cook when they may have just gotten lucky. Never mind that Pinas has been here at this location as long as I have lived in Tustin. Who knows, she might have been fooling everyone, right? So, the other day, I invited my good friend Linda Jennings, president of the Tustin Preservation Conservancy, to lunch at Pinas. Of course, Pina knows everybody in Tustin. She welcomed me back and greeted Linda like an old friend.

This time, I was torn between the Cannelloni and the Penne Arabiata with Sausage (which I eventually went with) while Linda had a sandwich. The day was a bit brisk but we still sat outside with the heater on, of course. When our dishes came I was, once again, in heaven. The sausage was ground perfectly, the spices just right and the pasta slightly al dente as I like it. And, if I haven’t mentioned it before, the homemade pasta is just the right consistency because it is made by the loving hands of Pina and her dedicated crew consisting of three generations of highly skilled family who know the art of great food.

Too soon, I had to leave for my real job. Another great day with good company and conversation over a wonderful meal from one of Tustin’s hidden gems. Of course, now that the city politicos and their henchmen know where we bloggers eat, I may have to have Pina’s occasionally swept for bugs. We just can’t get away from the politics. I just hope we didn’t bore the table next door with the gossip from our town Tustin.

Pina’s Bistro, 640 West 1st Street, Tustin, CA 714-730-5442. Hey, they are on OpenTable.com. It doesn’t get any better than that!

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