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Can We Get It In Four Part Harmony?

fat_lady_singsDid you hear it? Yesterday, the fat lady sang. And, with that, another chapter in the sordid history of the Tustin City Council is over.

After nearly three years of threats, court appearances and dirty pool, the Tustin Unified School District and the city of Tustin have settled their differences. The trial, scheduled to begin today, was narrowly averted when the two sides agreed to sit down one last time in an effort to mend fences and mediate their problems. A brief joint press release was issued shortly thereafter:

TUSTIN, Calif. – The City of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District are pleased to annunce that they have reached an amicable resolution of the litigation regarding the City’s review of TUSD’s grading and drainage plans.

The two agencies are pleased to announce the case has been resolved, and agree that the resolution of the case benefits both of the agencies and the public.

The press release is a bit underwhelming. The city and school district first began having problems in 2010 during a construction at Heritage School and Tustin High School over the inspection and approval of grading plans. The city demanded the school district submit their plans for the schools to the city’s planning department. The school district originally submitted their plans “as a courtesy” but subsequently withdrew them and refused further submittals saying they were not required to obtain permits, grading or otherwise, from local authorities for construction. When it was rumored the city would physically halt any further grading efforts, possibly with arrests, the school district filed the first of a series of lawsuits.

The city quickly filed a countersuit and, later, another separate suit against the school district in an effort to halt a change in use of the new Heritage Elementary School built on the old MCAS base property. That lawsuit was heard last year in Riverside Superior Court where the judge chided the city for filing what amounted to a retalatory lawsuit against the school district. The school district won handily and focused its efforts on the original lawsuit which had, by then, been continued twice.

The lawsuit was also a contentious point of the Tustin City Council elections. Candidates sparred back and forth with then Mayor John Nielsen attempting to back pedal from his previous hardcore stand against the school district, saying that he favored resolution of the lawsuit. Candidate Allan Bernstein publicly called for term limits for school board members. The third member of “Team Tustin”, Chuck Puckett,  was the only cool head among them, joining Tracy Worley and David Waldram, a Tustin High school teacher, in calling for reconciliation and resolution to the issues. Worley and Waldram both believed the entities’ differences were the result of a personality conflict between the school district and councilman Jerry Amante.

The Orange County Register, which broke the story on-line last night, said there is a 10 page agreement outlining how the two sides will handle future school construction for the next 15 years. Among other things, the school district agrees to submit grading plans and pay plan check fees for grading only. No other permit or construction fees will be paid to the city. In return, the city agreed to limit their comments and checks to two submittals. According to the story, there are no plans coming up for future upgrades to schools that would require plan checks by the city.

Both sides agreed to publish a joint press release. No other information came from the city other than a comment by Mayor pro tem Chuck Puckett who told the Register, “All I can say is we’re happy with the agreement.” We think it satisfies both parties and the residents of
Tustin. We’re extremely pleased with it.”

All we can say is, it’s about time. The lawsuits were the fruit of former councilmember Jerry Amante’s reign of terror in the city. When news of the tiff between the city and school district first arose, it became clear to most of us it was a power struggle by the little dictator to maintain control over all things in the city. And, while the Register maintains the cost of the lawsuit was just over $1.5 million dollars, Our Town Tustin received information the total cost of all the lawsuits (including the previously settled Heritage lawsuit) was over $2 million dollars and counting.

So, did the recent change in staff and councilmembers have anything to do with the settlement? Most certainly the exit of Amante could only help matters. The addition of veteran councilman Chuck Puckett was a plus, in our opinion. Previous discussions with him on the issues led us to believe he would press for a settlement if elected.

Ed Connor, the attorney for Tustin Unified School District also applauds City Manager Jeff Parker and Schools Superintendent Greg Franklin, who both came on board their respective agencies in 2011, for directing the lawyers to  “stop banging heads and to get this resolved.” Parker, who appeared to walk softly around Hizzoner Amante, seems to have become more of the manager Tustin needs under the new regime. We look forward to seeing more of that aspect of him.

The new year has started off with a bang. A somewhat bland city council has taken their first bull by the horns and, applying commonsense, has hammered out an affable agreement to the benefit of all. Maybe it is not just the economy that is turning around.

Postponed, Again…

In an unsurprising move, Orange County Superior Court Judge John Gastelum postponed the trial between Tustin Unified School District and the city of Tustin. The parties were due to go to court yesterday, after more than 2 years of failed negotiations, to resolve grading and permitting issues. Last month, the city of Tustin lost a lawsuit brought against the District for moving a continuation school into a newly constructed school meant for elementary students. In that case, the court said the city had no business telling the school district how to manage their school properties.

The postponement, first reported by Dan Chmielewski of the Liberal OC, was due to a heavy court docket, according to the judge. However, we find the timing a bit curious. Judge Gastelum has been trying to mediate a settlement with the parties since the inception of the suit. The trial is now scheduled to begin January 28, 2013, giving both sides a little breathing room and a second chance.

Councilmember Deborah Gavello has opposed the lawsuits from the beginning. At an early meeting, she stated, “The entire basis of fear and consequences is crazy. The cost the taxpayers have spent in attorney fees of over a quarter million dollars is more than any fine ever given to a city. I believe the contractors know the laws and so did the state architects. We haven’t had an issue with school grading to date on schools that have been around for a long time.”

Gavello says she has spoken at length with officials at the Regional Water Quality Board on several occasions and has even attempted to get them to attend a city council meeting. In those conversation, according to her, officials can recall only one issue with Fullerton School District. Officials also say that, when there is an issue, fines are not the complete answer and other environmental work ensues.

So why, if even the regional water boards have not had issues with school districts in the past, does Tustin continue to chase windmills?

In reality, this is the second best outcome of the lawsuit. The issue is sure to become a political football during the Fall elections with candidates taking positions on both sides. Candidates should be aware by now that this city council has dug themselves into a pit they seem unwilling or unable to dig themselves out of. Jerry Amante is out. Should cooler heads prevail in November, a new council majority could still resolve the lawsuit through mediation before heading into another million dollars to defend a defenseless case.