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.
Update: The video finally arrived on the city website. Barring any technical difficulties, you can see Ms. Keller’s remarks beginning at time stamp 32:55. We would post it here but we haven’t figured out how to pull it from Silverlight yet. -JKG
A hat tip to our good friends over at The Liberal OC who wrote a great article on Last Night’s Tustin City Council meeting. Early yesterday, we had heard there would be a special speaker at the meeting. However, we wanted to wait until the video was up so that we could see it firsthand before writing about it.
By coincidence, the video took over 24 hours to appear on the city website. I say coincidence because the same thing happened a month ago at the city council meeting where Councilmember Deborah Gavello accused Councilman Jerry Amante of threatening to “take her down”, vowing never to work with her. She also, to her credit, offered an olive branch which Jerry promptly snapped in half and threw back in her face. Jerry publicly and adamantly denied making any type of threat whatsoever, saying that he only challenged her because of his sense of service. He also challenged Gavello to bring anyone forward that might have heard these threats (Dan Chmielewski from The Lib and I had a bet that the video might never show).
So, she did.
Shortly after that meeting, The Liberal OC wrote about how former Fullerton City Councilmember, Pam Keller, saw the video and decided to come speak at the next city council meeting. She was unable to make that meeting but her speech that she planned to make was published by several blogs, which you can read here.
So, Hizzoner must have thought he was off the hook and thought everything would die down. It might have, except Keller was intent on letting Amante know, up front and personal, just what she thought of him as she attended and spoke at last night’s meeting. Suffice it to say, the right side of the dais sat there in stony silence as Keller made her accusation, largely as it was originally written. Pam was eloquent and succinct in her gentle reminder to Jerry about their conversation three and a half years ago. When she was finished, there was light applause from the audience as Jerry’s mouthpiece, John said, “Please, let’s not have outbursts here.” I guess it is OK if you applaud for one of the Gang of Three but not if you applaud for the truth.
Jerry is supposed to be a lawyer. But, he has forgotten the first thing they teach you in lawyering school: never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. This episode has shown just how unethical and boorish our former mayor and city councilman is. We are fortunate that we have only a few more months of the blathering blabbermouth and he will be finished. Of course, the right side of the dais can always appoint him to a commission or committee or something so he can continue to keep his hand up the back of our good mayor who will be happy to speak for him. Time will tell.
In the meantime, it was good to see that Deborah, who must have been feeling vindicated, took the high road and did not gloat. She should know that Hizzoner probably won’t let up and will keep the pressure on. Just the same, it is also good to know that there are enough political pundits out there who will keep any future political career he might have had in check. Maybe he can ask to be placed on the board of the Tustin Community Foundation where he can work his magic with John’s wife and the CDBG funds they claim they don’t manage for the city (hint, Erin, check the minutes of the last city council meeting).