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It Cost How Much??

A hat tip to our good friends at the Liberal OC who have proven, once again, that the fiscally conservative Tustin City Council isn’t so fiscally conservative after all.

A little over a year ago, the City Council (well, most of them) voted themselves a nice little perk in the form of iPads. The pretext, of course, was to eliminate the endless paper trail of agenda and staff reports that every councilmember piled in front of themselves during each meeting. The tablets were never meant to be used for more than basic services and to allow the city to kill a few less trees. Nonetheless, each councilmember received a top of the line iPad complete with WiFi, 3G connectivity and 32 gigs of storage. Nice… Total package cost? $4,794.75 plus monthly charges for the 3G . The worst part is, as Dan Chmielewski reports, not one, single tree is being saved as each councilmember still receives the same pile of paper they did before they got their toys. And, as his article says, no money appears to have been saved.

But, it seems the Council, or at least Hizonner Jerry, will make any wild claim to justify an expenditure or to boost his political position, even if it is categorically untrue.

Take,  for example, Jerry’s boast at the last City Council meeting that, despite the efforts of the Recall Amante Group (of which Deborah Gavello and I were falsely accused of being a part of),

“I’m pleased to report that not one, single signature was presented to the city clerk by today’s deadline”

Duh, well of course not. Why would they turn in any signatures for verification when they knew that, despite having gathered several thousand, they did not have enough to force a recall election? So, why would they waste staff time and  taxpayer money by turning them in?

But, it was Jerry’s boast that the Recall Amante group cost the taxpayers of Tustin $10,000 that really caught my ear. I realize that the City Clerk was about as uncooperative as one can be with honest citizens attempting to lawfully submit a recall petition. In fact, she managed to kick the proposed petition back four times before finally allowing it to go through on the fifth submission. So, if Jerry’s claim is true, that works out to about two thousand dollars per submission just to review it for formatting accuracy.

You may be thinking that the document in question was multi-paged or, possibly, written in several European languages concurrently, maybe with accompanying illuminated illustrations. I assure you it was not. In fact, if you have ever been approached by “those people” outside the local supermarket asking you to sign a petition to save the night crested gnatcatcher or outlaw the fluoridation of city drinking water, you have seen an example of the one page  recall petition submitted to our City Clerk. It is not difficult to create but, it is required to be in proper format, which the State of California dictates. So why did it take five submissions when the average, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, is two? Could it be that Sheree Loveland, Nathan Menard and Chuck Horvath are too illiterate to understand simple formatting instructions? Hardly. I’ve had many conversations with all three. They are quite articulate and well spoken (Nathan and I even share the same barber). Could it have been the City Clerk was having four bad days and took it out on the Recall group? We’re getting warmer. Or, could it have been that the single, largest city event of the year, the Annual Chili Cookoff, was just around the corner and the Recall group had a booth, ready to obtain signatures from some really pissed off people? Bingo! I would say that was a good bet. What better way to sabotage the Recall effort than to somehow prevent them from being able to present their petitions to more than thirty thousand people, the majority of them Tustin residents, in one day at one location?

Now, you may think this is farfetched. So, I would like to remind you that, thanks to an effort by Boss Tweed Amante to consolidate his powerbase at Tammany Hall Tustin, a measure was placed on the ballot last election year to change the City Clerk’s office from an independent, elected official to an appointed official who would be beholden to… you guessed it, Jerry and his Kids. So, now that the City Clerk has lost her autonomy, if she still wants that job, she has to play ball.

So, let’s get to that claim that Jerry made at last week’s council meeting where he allegedly slandered Councilmember Gavello by claiming that she was part of the Recall Amante effort? I did some Recall Amantechecking around, including making a request of public records relating to the cost of reviewing and approving the petitions submitted for the recall. Specifically, I asked who worked on the reviews and how much they charged. What I found out was a bit surprising.

It should also be surprising to Mayor Amante because the cost for review was nowhere near $10,000. In fact, it was not even half that amount.

In replying to our request, the city’s attorney stated,

In response to paragraphs (1) and (2) above, the total number of ’employees, contractors or other persons’ involved in the scope of the work you describe is two, including Patty Estrella and City Attorney, Douglas Holland.

I was also told that the city did not specifically allocate time spent by city employees on the review of the petitions. So, I took that to mean that the time spent by Miss Estrella to review the petition submissions was within the normal course and scope of her everyday work, which she would have been paid for anyway. So total cost for petition review by city staffers? Zero.

The city attorney was another matter. In the city attorney’s response, I received a timetable of hours broken down by days and individual law firm employee,  specifying hours and costs. Yes, the letter said only Douglas Holland worked on the petitions. But, the accompanying documents indicate that up to five attorneys actually worked on them. Although my original request was specifically for costs involved in reviewing/rejecting/accepting the petitions, I received cost information that should not have been included because it was for work obviously performed beyond the date the final petition was submitted and finally approved in June. Nonetheless, understanding how lawyers like to pad their bill, I considered the total amount of time they say they spent. Oops. But, then, I discovered a miscalculation in hours billed vs. charges. Well, they are lawyers, not accountants.

So, including the overcharge of one-tenth of an hour, the Attorney’s office charged the City… drum roll, please… $4,209.80 for 21.6 hours of work. Of that, according to my precise calculations, only 15 hours were actually spent on review of the documents prior to their final approval. That averages out to 3 hours or $582.00 per submission. Total cost to approve the petition? $2,910. That is less than one-third of the cost Jerry claims the city spent on the recall effort. Even if we included the 6.6 hours of work, which the attorney refused to specify on grounds of attorney-client privilege, it still comes out to less than half what Hizzoner claimed. I know Jerry is a lawyer, but that is really padding the bill.

So, in the end, it appears Jerry has been less than honest with the citizens of Tustin over the entire recall. First, he falsely accused Deborah Gavello, the TUSD and myself of being part of the great conspiracy against him. Second, he misleadingly alleged that no one signed the petitions by stating none had been turned in to the clerk’s office.  Finally, there is the brazen statement that the recall effort cost the taxpayers “approximately $10,000” when it actually cost less than it did to furnish four out of five  city councilmembers with iPads which, by the way, were paid for by dipping into the city reserves. So much for our fiscally conservative mayor.

Oh, and that nasty one tenth of an hour overbilling? It’s only $19.40. Not much, right? But, what if they made that error, say, every 21.6 hours they billed the city? How much do you think that would add up to? Do you think Jerry and His Kids care? After all, he is a lawyer.

So, Jerry, did I make a mistake or were you just being your usual, egotistical, blowhard self? I guess our readers can decide. Unlike you, I don’t think they are that gullible.

More on the Holland Resignation

Hmmm. While working on another article for OTT, I came across this small bit of information on Deborah Gavello’s website:

I continue to be deeply concerned with the control that the Mayor exerts on the city council, city staff, and our contract attorneys. It is my opinion that his overbearing appetite for control is contributing to a work environment that is oppressing the very freedoms that the Mayor purports to embrace.

I originally questioned the sudden departure of our city attorney. Now, it looks as if there may be more to this than some first thought. Amante’s desire for control over every aspect of city business is well known. That another councilmember would publicly be concerned over this and name, specifically, the “contract attorneys” in her message, is revealing, to say the least. The question again arises, will Amante seek a new contractor for legal services and, if so, why?

City Attorney Resigns

Updated August 17, 2011

Yesterday we were advised that the contract city attorney for Tustin, Douglas Holland, has resigned. Our source had no further information for us, only saying that the letter was addressed directly to Mayor Jerry Amante. We put a call in to the city for further information and, yesterday we got a call back from Lisa Woolery, Communications Officer for the City of Tustin.  She verified that the City Attorney Douglas Holland had, indeed, resigned on Friday, August 12, 2011.

In his resignation letter to the city, Holland states, “Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me that I am not able to continue to serve Tustin at the high level I expect of myself while continuing to serve my other principle client, The City of Palm Springs.”

Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart, has served the city through contract since 1995. Holland has worked on city matters for 11 of those years and has been the designated City Attorney for the past 6 years. His letter continues by saying that the law firm will continue to serve the city and names the new primary attorney from the firm as David Kendig, another attorney with the firm. Holland committed to conferring with Kendig when necessary. So, it would seem, this is not as ominous as it sounds. The city will continue to receive services for, what appears to be the same going rate of $195  (adjusted annually) per hour from the same law firm as always.

A couple of question arise, however. While the city attorney does not necessarily handle the lawsuits, such as the ill-fated TUSD v. City of Tustin, it would at least coordinate the information flow and manage the projects for the city. So why, after 6 years as the City Attorney, has Holland abruptly resigned? Surely, with the declining economy, the legal issues facing Palm Springs could not be so suddenly overtaxing that Holland would have to give up working for a city that is closer to home. No one at the city is talking and the only information is from the attorney’s resignation letter.A call to Holland’s office was shunted to his voicemail, where a recording advises that he will be out of the office until September 6th. We left a message and, hopefully, he will call us back when he returns.

Conspiracy Theory

Is this coincidence or is this another house cleaning attempt by Boss Tweed Amante? The City is still reeling from the abrupt firing of City Manager, David Biggs. In that episode, the council split on a 3-2 decision, with Amante and his yes men Nielsen and Murray to fire Biggs. Holland and his firm are contracted to the city so, in theory, it is easier to eliminate the service and recontract to another bidder. Is Jerry unhappy with the services provided? Or is this simply a matter of another member of the management team getting sick and tired of Amante’s antics and getting out while the getting is good? It should be noted that the law firm, including Holland, appears to be involved with the Orange County redistricting effort as well.

What remains to be seen is, with the sudden departure of Holland, will the city continue to contract with Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart or is Amante looking to make another no-bid contract with a favored firm? We’ll keep you updated as we get new information.