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Our Top Stories of the Year

Gnome-More-JerryHow quickly time flies. Our Town Tustin has been blogging for about a year and a half and the past year has kept us busy in our little corner of the county. Here are some of the top issues we have covered in 2012:

“Team Tustin’s” Hate-Filled Campaign – In what was probably the most contentious election to mark our city in year, the Republican led “Team Tustin” showed they could stoop as low as necessary to achieve their ends. Eight hit piece mailers went out against Tracy Worley and David Waldram nearly all of which were funded by a mysterious entity calling itself Tustin Residents United. Funny thing is, not one dime of money came from any resident of Tustin. Yet, thousands of dollars funneled in from the Orange County Business Council’s BIZPAC and other similar committees, all of whom had indirect ties to Nielsen and his team. While Nielsen, Puckett and the Podiatrist Councilman looked like the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil monkeys, Worley & Waldram held their heads high during a clean campaign.

Jerry Amante’s Use and Abuse of Power – Go ahead, believe our city fathers are not corrupt. If you do, I have a bridge to sell you. Early in the year, the

Courtesy of Pepperdine.edu

Courtesy of Pepperdine.edu

Orange County Grand Jury issued a report accusing then mayor Jerry Amante and another councilman of attempting to coerce Brandman University officials into squelching a report critical of city manager compensation. The Grand Jury rightfull found the two were attempting, for their own gain, to get Chapman University President, Jim Doti, to pull the report before it could get out. Doti, acting the part, was simply aghast at the report (…here are your winnings, sir…). The city subsequently answered the charges with the usual, we didn’t do nothing wrong, it’s free speech. Selective use of rights, to say the least.

TUSD vs. The City of Tustin vs. TUSD – It is sad the city and the school district have, together, wasted well over $2 million dollars on lawsuits which have clearly become the hallmark of Jerry and John’s tenure on the city council. What originally amounted to a personality conflict, exploded into multi-million dollar multiple lawsuits against each other over control of construction. The highlight, of course, was when the city, under Jerry’s direction, sued the school district for having the nerve to transfer another school and administrative offices to a new school on the MCAS property. Armed with some of the lamest arguments heard by first year law students, the city was laughed out of a Riverside court and told not to darken their halls again. The other shoe drops first thing in 2013 and I am taking bets on the outcome.

courtesy of srbranson.edublogs.org/>/i>

courtesy of srbranson.edublogs.org/>/i>

John Nielsen’s Unracism – In “Dear John”, we exposed the bigotry (among other things) of then mayor John Nielsen. In an attack on the First Amendment as well as the city schools, Nielsen attempted to defend his decision to allow a court document claiming Tustin schools were overcrowded and minority-ridden. Claiming he was a pillar of the community, he extolled his virtues all the while, filing for divorce and using the legal system to swat at TUSD officials. Oh yes, and the divorce appears to be proceeding nicely with new recent filings.

Cell Towers in Cedar Grove – The City Council didn’t seem to be able to get this lawsuit thing right. First, they continue to chase windmills with the lawsuits against the school district. Then, when they actually had a chance to stand up for the citizens of our community, they folded like a deck of Vegas cards. The cellular towers in Cedar Grove were one of the most high profile issues of the city and the city council, led by Jerry and his Kids, refused (or were in cahoots with) to fight T-Mobile over the installation. There was no effort, no transparency and no noteworthy action on the  city council’s part as they acceded tot he demands of Jerry’s business partners.

North Tustin 1, Catholics 0 – Unlike the Tustin City Council, the folks in North Tustin were more than willing to fight for what they believe in. When the Diocese of Orange, led by Bishop Tod Brown, banded together with the County to try and slip in a zoning change, the Foothills Community Association rallied the troops and sued them to stop the rezoning of diocese owned land that would allow them to build a senior living center on property originally zoned for a church. The city could learn a thing or two from these folks. Now, if they can stave off annexation.

Fairbanks vs. Hizzoner – In another embarrassing fiasco for the city, Jerry Amante and his mouthpiece, Elizabeth Binsack, were finally defeated once and for all in their attempt to prevent a jim_ho_nicholsonhomeowner from exercising his property rights. By abusing their power and the appeals process, Amante proved, once again, who calls the shots. Too bad it cost $83 thousand dollars to make his point. Then he lost anyway.

The Demise of Redevelopment – Seeing Through the Magic of Redevelopment as it related to the MCAS property was pretty signficant. Backed by the California Supreme Court, Governor Jerry Brown dealt a double death blow to the worst kind of corporate welfare imaginable. We pointed out that everyone was in on this deal with Democrats handing this gift over to Republicans years ago. Now, the other shoe drops as the state is demanding $263 million dollars from Orange County and its cities. Tustin has already coughed up $7.5 million but the state wants more.

Dear Assemblyman Donnelly – One could call this the biggest goof of the year. Jeff Donnelly, Assemblyman for the 59th  District, appeared to have a problem with guns and telling the truth. When he was caught in possession of a firearm while attempting to board an aircraft bound for Sacramento at Ontario Airport, he was detained by the police and TSA. His lame excuse was that he had received death threats and forgot the gun was in his bag. OK, except for the fact the gun was only partially loaded and sitting in a carry-on bag, the guy didn’t even have a concealed carry permit from what is arguably one of the easiest counties to obtain one. The Brady Bunch certainly did not have anything on this clown.

Silent Bob and Darth VaderLindburgh and Silent Mike Strike Back – Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack, can’t do enough to for Old Town Tustin. In fact, it is a toss up whether it was Binsack or Amante that actually wanted to slap down the Fairbanks family over the apartments located on their historic property. I imagine it was a free for all when she colluded with nearly the entire city council over allowing the owners of the Wilcox Manor to open an events venue at their residence. Armed with pretty stickers and hauling people in from around the county (very few from Tustin itself), Lindburgh McPherson and “Silent Mike” Demoratz sought a CUP by subterfuge and chicanery. When they were called out on the apparent fib they told about their parking arrangements, they sought to turn the tables on their Facebook page by saying their detractors turned everyone against them. They didn’t seem to get it through their heads that no one in Old Town wants a three ring circus at the end of their cul-de-sac.

Next year is already beginning to shape up as the new Tustin City Council opens the first meeting with a how-to on city affairs. As much as we hated Jerry Amante, he could at least keep us entertained with his self-serving diatribes and rants against Deborah Gavello. Now that they are both gone, we can only hope Mayor Al Murray and the Podiatrist Councilman will be able to look up at the audience as they read from their scripts in the coming year. I hope they have good editors.

Tustin’s Wish List – 3 Items to Watch in the Coming Year

fingerscrossed(This column appears in the December 20, 2012 Tustin News – ed.) The post-election lull is in full swing here in our town Tustin. Following a contentious battle for three seats on the city council, the new supermajority, led by our new Mayor Al Murray, will have to hit the new year running. If we had a wish list of issues this council will have to tackle, it would start with these three.

Tustin Unified Lawsuits – January rings in a new year and 28 days later the city goes to trial in the original lawsuit with Tustin Unified School District. Earlier this year, the city increased the schism between the two with another lawsuit against the school district for changing the use of the Heritage Elementary School. Originally built to service the residents on the MCAS property, the district decided to temporarily house continuation schools and administrative services there when they couldn’t find enough school age kids to open the school as originally planned. The city opposed the move with ill-contrived legal arguments that were laughed out of court. Even with a change of venue, the city could not get past poor legal arguments and lost the suit a few months in.

That leaves the original lawsuit brought by the school district which has been continued at least twice. And, even though there is still time to resolve this without a trial the city is likely to lose, there may not be a will. During a harsh campaign season, Mayor pro tem Chuck Puckett was largely non-committal and Councilman Allan Bernstein was beating the drum loudly against the school district, vowing stay the line on the lawsuits. We suggest now that campaign season is over, they put away the war bonnets and sit down one last time. It seems over two million dollars of taxpayer money could have been better spent elsewhere.

The Hole in the Budget – For the past few years, the city council has been relying on reserves to balance the budget rather than make hard decisions regarding finances. Although they touted several budget cutting measures this year, including the golden parachutes for 35 retiring employees, it remains to be seen what -if any- money will have been saved. Lawsuits with the school district have drained over a million dollars from city coffers and, if the city loses the lawsuit in January, they will likely be forced to pay out another million or so to the school district for their attorney fees.

A New City Council Supermajority – There was a lot of glad handing at the latest city council meeting when new councilmembers Puckett and Bernstein were installed and John Nielsen rejoined them for a second term. Councilmember Al Murray, now a veteran, was chosen to be the first African-American mayor of the city. And, in a move that surprised no one except Councilmember Beckie Gomez, newly installed Councilmember Chuck Puckett was given the Mayor pro tem position as a final slap in the face to what is left of the liberal base on the dais. Chief combatants, Jerry Amante and Deborah Gavello, are history leaving a supermajority of pro-business councilmen to tend the city.

Before they sell the city to the highest bidder, however, they might remember that only 400 votes separated the winners from the losers. The voters have little tolerance for the antics of the past few years and there is another election coming only two years from now. The redeeming quality of the council overall is the experience that all but one brings to the table. Puckett is not only a council retread, he has kept his hand in city politics as a planning commissioner and has stayed active in civic affairs. Not so for freshman councilman Allan Bernstein, an unknown who clawed his way to victory as an Amante-backed business advocate with no civic or political experience. To make his mark, he needs to tone down the rhetoric heard during his campaign and focus on learning the job.

The city council should take the time in the new year to reflect on a true vision for this city that will benefit the residents who live here. Finding a true fix to the budget and mending fences with the school district would be a good start.

Say What????

I know it has been getting cold, lately but I believe Hell froze over at the last Tustin City Council meeting.

Councilmembers Jerry Amante and Deborah Gavello actually agreed on something and had an amicable discussion. And, wouldn’t you know it, there was practically no one left in council chambers to witness this epic event. Thank prior city fathers for their vision in encompassing video recording of meetings for posterity’s sake.

It happened over a discussion of the contract for tree maintenance services when, as luck would have it, both Amante and Gavello agreed that the item should be pulled and an RFP should be let for the coming year. Nielsen, gleefully anticipating one last blast from Hizzoner towards Gavello, allowed Amante to go first. Instead of the usual rancor we have come to expect from Hizzoner, we got agreement.

Now, Jerry admitted he only pulled the item because he saw that Gavello had done the same. Perhaps he didn’t want to be upstaged as he complimented staff for their report and asked that the contract, which had been awarded to West Coast Tree Arborists for the past 19 years, be let out for an RFP.

As he did so, you could hear Councilmember Gavello exclaim, “Oh my God…”. When Jerry was done, Gavello jokingly said, “Excuse me, I need to take a break”. Expressing her amazement that Amante and she could actually agree on an item, she said she had been asking for the past two years that this contract be looked at and had been blown off each time. As Deborah said, “I hate to say I agree with you but…” Amante replied, “It’s election night so, we ought to give everyone a break.”

Of course, they were both right when they said they have never agreed on anything on the dais before.

Mayor John Nielsen was so taken aback that he lost himself in the moment. Confused that there was more than one motion before the council, he looked at the city attorney and said, “So, we have a motion from Councilmember Amante…. let’s deal with this one at a time…” he panicked and went into some diatribe about needing an alternate motion when no motion had actually been made. Wow. I know, I know, John. It was a blindside by your buddy Jer and he should have warned you he was going to be nice tonight.

When John finally came to, he accepted Amante’s motion and Gavello’s second to call for an RFP for the tree cutters. The representative from West Coast, who is a hometown boy, was there to say they would welcome the opportunity to go to bid on the contract. Amante, who I am sure was a proponent of giving the insane 10 year trash contract to CR&R was thrilled that he and Gavello would agree on something…. anything. So are we.

I know you will find this hard to believe without proof, so here is the video:

On the City Council Agenda, October 16, 2012

It should be a busy night for the Tustin City Council as the clock counts down to election day and a new council makeup. Heading the list on the Closed Session are the usual suspects along with a few liability claims and a conference with real property negotiators on two items. Also, expect a couple of items to be pulled from the Consent Calendar for further discussion.

The council should pull Item 3, Completion of the Frontier Park Fitness Element so councilmembers can give kudos to each other for the work and praise our staff for the fine job in getting this completed. It is a nice addition to the park.

Item 6 is a Response to a recent Grand Jury report on the demise of redevelopment agencies and the implementation of successor agencies to manage debt. The city was required to make a response to three of the findings and four of the recommendations regarding oversight and costs. The city’s response, which starts on page 38 of the staff report, basically says, “Yeah, we know we didn’t have the proper amount of oversight but, trust us, we did the right thing.” OK, but we wonder if the grand jury will be happy with that response. To their credit, they have since formed the required Oversight Board as required.

Item 8, regarding environmental insurance for the Tustin Legacy Project may raise some eyebrows. We are not sure how this one passes muster as council should have been foreseen that insurance would be required. After the budget process, staff are now recommending a $700,000 outlay for the insurance from undesignated Legacy funds. The way the city went about this, it seems like a little subterfuge was involved.

Under Regular Business, Item 10, is the second reading of the ordinance that will amend zoning for housing owned by Redhill Lutheran Church. Although one resident expressed concern over the impact of traffic and parking, we noted that the church has been using these houses and the storage as adjuncts to the church for some time. This ordinance will simply change the zoning to allow the church to come into conformance of zoning laws. As far as we know, there was no opposition from the neighbors in regard to how Redhill Lutheran was using the houses. If the public or a councilmember does not pull this item for discussion, it will be a simple vote of the council.

Item 11, City of Tustin Strategic Plan 2012-2017, is a big-ticket item. We first wrote about the strategic plan when Mayor Nielsen outlined it as one of his priorities during his term. In August, we reported that Management Partners, a consulting service with expertise in the field, produced a report that criticized the city fathers for, among other things, maintaining a poor relationship with TUSD, and not enough cooperation and civility between city council members.

The staff report from City Manager Jeff Parker, attaches the MP product to an outline of the strategic plan with key components addressed. There is a lot here to take in and we don’t know if the city council would actually implement the plan as outlined. There is a lot of discussion about demonstrative leadership, fairness and integrity that will be difficult for this council to accept. There is also that issue of transparency in government. While the city complies with all laws regarding transparency, there is no will to go above and beyond. An exception to that is the recent decision to continue to publish city meeting agendas in advance and make them available to the public under the Brown Act. A better response, however, would be to see this codified in a sunshine ordinance (along with lobbyist registration).

Another topic of discussion is Respect. Well, OK. It seems, for the most part, our current city council has a problem with that. The exceptions are Al Murray and Beckie Gomez, whom I have never observed being disrespectful of anyone, resident or colleague. As to the other three, well they give us a lot to talk about here on OTT.

Among other things, the Strategic Plan discusses working collaboratively with other agencies on mutual interest issues. They specifically call out TUSD on this. They also recommend providing a method for obtaining feedback and “strengthen our partnerships with the community.” This includes communicating the outcomes of the strategic plan to the community. We’ll see how that works.

A critical part of the plan, to our minds, is the establishment of succession planning for professional staff. With the city council’s inane approval of a golden parachute for 37 city employees, including the city clerk supervisor, a vacuum has been created that will take some effort to fill. The plan addresses this, albeit after the fact, by establishing training and creating an internal leadership academy. This is a proven idea that works but we will see if the city is willing to do what it takes to establish true succession planning.

Likewise, with the change in attitudes necessary for the council to stop bickering and move on with the business of the city. One of the implementation plan items is to “Promote and enhance a strong culture of ethics.” The plan falls short by simply giving the same old tired response of providing required ethics training and training on how to cultivate a culture of ethics. Hint to MP: you can be ethical and a jerk at the same time. Just ask John Nielsen. Perhaps the newly seated council will see the value in treating everyone with consideration.

One of the most useful items in the strategic plan document is the environmental scan that begins on page 29. This really gives a snapshot of Tustin in relationship to the rest of the county. It shows that we are in above average shape overall.

All in all, the Strategic Plan is a good read and deserves the consideration of the City Council. But, the plan is just that- a plan. That is, until the city council and the city manager make a genuine effort to implement it.

Courtesy of the Liberal OC

Item 14 on the agenda is a response to Councilmember Deborah Gavello’s request for an anti-lobbying ordinance. While Jerry Amante pointed out that Gavello was targeting him and his new job, the idea of a sunshine ordinance that would incorporate lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmember calendars should be a priority to any city that touts transparency. The staff report on this item refers to the state law limiting lobbying efforts by councilmembers and city managers for the first year after leaving office. It also specifically states that state law does not preclude local agencies from adopting policies or ordinances that are more restrictive. We are disappointed that neither the City Manager, Jeff Parker, nor the City Attorney, David Kendig, recommended enhancing state law with an ordinance or, at the least, a strong policy that would open city council dealings to the public.

The final item on the agenda is a response to Mayor John Nielsen’s goal of establishing a stronger and better defined reserve fund for the city. We never argue with rainy day funding, especially when it is established to support infratstructure and emergency situations the city may face. Kudos to Nielsen for establishing this as a goal. We have to wonder why it was not addressed until well after this year’s budget was approved.