“Shall an ordinance be adopted repealng Tustin City Code Sections 1303 and 1308(A)-(D), to eliminate city council member monthly salary and city council compensation consisting of participation in the city medical, dental insurance, life insurance programs, and retirement benefits?”
(You will not see a ballot argument against this measure in your voter guide. That is thanks to the Tustin City Clerk’s office who, when we called, mistakenly told us that the time for submission was past when the deadline was actually the following week. So, this will have to suffice as the argument against the ballot measure.-ed.)
That is the question you will be asked in November, thanks to lame duck city councilmember Jerry Amante. It is not, by the way, the measure he asked for back in October, 2011 when he first brought up the issue stating that more and more cities were taking steps to eliminate city council benefits. In fact, only one city in Orange County has eliminated all stipends and benefits for the city council and that is the Republican stronghold of Villa Park. What Amante originally asked for was to take a look at what, if any, benefits and stipend the council should receive. What we got was an all or nothing ballot measure that leaves nothing in between. Whether this was what he intended, he was more than accepting of it as he gleefully voted, along with his black ops guy, John, and his enforcer, Al, to place the measure written by the city attorney on the ballot.
Amante’s motives aside, the question of benefits for a city council is a good one, considering the attention paid to remuneration of government officials in the wake of the City of Bell scandal. Is it right for a person elected to what amounts to a part-time job to accept health, retirement and life insurance benefits? And, at what level should a councilman’s pay be set at? We might even be in favor of these questions had they been asked in two separate measures, such as one for stipends and another for the other benefits. And, that is our issue with the entire measure and why we do not endorse it.
Although there are cities and counties (ours, for one) where oversight and management by government officials requires their full attention and thus command a commensurate salary and benefits, most cities do not. Tustin, with a population of 75,000, requires only a part-time city council made up of what stateman James Madison envisioned as a citizen legislature. That is, people were expected to serve for a finite period of time and then return to their homes and jobs as regular citizens, hopefully with the thanks of the people they served.
Tustin certainly has no lack of citizens willing to serve their community. And, in the beginnng, they did so without pay or any kind of benefits. It was only in the last 30 years or so that the idea of remuneration for city councils of this size should be considered. And, in Tustin, there is good reason to continue compensation.
A few years ago, the city council decided to eliminate most expenses for city council members unless they were specifically voted upon in open session. This virtually eliminated any reimbursements for casual expenses incurred by councilmembers in the normal course of conducting city business. The cost of attending local functions and events, as well as unpaid committees they served on would be borne by the individual councilmember and not by the taxpayer. The stipend served to alleviate any financial strain placed on the individual by giving them a set amount of money to work with. This simplified issues with the city and eliminated graft and corruption that often went with expense reimbursements (we are not talking specifically about our town, by the way).
However, this poorly crafted measure will serve only to limit the number of residents in the community who can effectively serve as councilmember. Before running, an individual will have to think twice about the financial strain acting on behalf of the city may place on their wallet. This could effectively limit the makeup of candidates to those who are financially well off, where a stipend or reimbursement would be of little consequence.
It should also be noted that councilmembers have the ability to forgo health benefits, as Beckie Gomez and Al Murray have done, as well as opting out of pension plans. The same can be said for stipends which any councilmember may pass on. We’ll note that Councilman Jerry Amante takes the maximum benefit available as well as the city council stipend. He would have made a better argument if he had at least refused benefits and stipend when he proposed the measure.
As we’ve said, the question raised in this measure would have been better as two questions. The first, to eliminate ancillary benefits such as health & life insurance and pensions, is a no brainer. Part time officials should have real jobs that pay these benefits. The idea of receiving a pension for 8 years of part-time service is ludicrous and, in reality, serves no value to the official.
The second question, should councilmembers receive a stipend and, if so, at what rate, certainly deserves scrutiny. But, there are many ways to offer and control a reasonable stipend that does not give one the sense of a part-time job while at the same time compensates the official for out-of-pocket expenses commensurate with the time and effort involved. Doing so would protect the taxpayer from corrupt officials out to make a buck while allowing for candidates of modest means to serve their community.
So, we recommend a no vote on Measure HH and send it back to the new city council for review as a more appropriate and well thought out measure the voters can intelligently vote on next election.
Thanks to an expert at YouTube, we received a couple of links to some city council video from the September 4, 2012 Tustin City Council Meeting. The two videos show Nielsen’s sorry attempt to cover up for Jerry Amante’s abuse of power when he attempted to influence the administratrion of Brandman University over their students’ involvement of a city manager compensation study. Remember, regardless of what Jerry says, he had a copy of the report in tow so that would be, as lawyers say, prima facie evidence of involvement. These videos are 14 minutes each but they are worth watching as Jerry and John try to squirm out of this one.
You have seen it for yourself. We would like to know what you think.
I just spent an interesting hour with our mayor, John Nielsen, and about 75 Old Town residents and business owners. Billed as a “town hall” meeting, we were enticed to attend with the promise of fruit punch and cookies. There were plenty of each, along with the expected rhetoric.
Arriving with my daughter in tow, I was immediately greeted by one neighbor and snubbed by our Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack. Hey, I wasn’t there to hob nob with city staff anyway. I was there to hear what Nielsen had to say about my part of town and the plans the city had for it.
John began the evening with a slick PowerPoint presentation that he read almost word-for-word. He talked about the recently approved projects and the changes in parking that will make it easier to build in the area. He spoke eloquently of how Old Town is the “heart” of Tustin and thanked all of us for coming to his meeting where he could tell us what the city had in store for the good folks of the area. He didn’t talk about the stonewalling the Community Development Department did in handling the new Del Rio Building project or the difference in how Binsack’s department handled the ground contamination at Del Rio and the new Restaurant to be built across from Rutabegorz. He also didn’t talk about the tens of thousands of dollars and hundred of man hours spent opposing Old Town Homeowner Brett Fairbanks. Water under the bridge.
It was during the question and answer session when it became obvious that Nielsen really only wanted to show off and possibly get a little free campaigning without really having to go head-to-head with residents.
Good questions were asked by local business owners, particularly about parking enforcement, or the lack thereof. The owners of Fred and Daffy’s Antiques on El Camino Real asked about parking enforcement which generated quite a bit of interest. Nielsen had a captain from the Tustin Police Department answer questions pertaining to enforcement. Unfortunately, he had a hard time addressing the issue and kept putting it back on the business owners because, as he put it, “we can’t be down there all the time patrolling”. Really? I guess the parking guys have much more important things to do like chase the street sweepers around.
Other questions were asked about traffic patterns and what was being done about putting Newport Avenue through to Edinger. Incredibly, staff blamed the demise of Redevelopment Agencies for the lack of speed on the project. The Acting Public Works director, Doug Stack, stated that much of the design work had been done but it was a $41 million dollar project with no funding. So, even though it is, according to him, the second highest priority item in front of the council, don’t expect to see it completed in the foreseeable future.
Discussion was also held concerning the Old Town residential area. And, here is where it became obvious that our good mayor did not really want to deal with the riff-raff of Old Town.
A neighborhood resident said she heard a rumor that the owners of The Wilcox Manor on Pasadena Street, will be asking the city for a Conditional Use Permit to be allowed to hold paid events on the property. We had heard this rumor ourselves but it was apparent many in the room had not. I heard more than a few gasps of surprise.
Owners Lindburgh Mc Pherson and Michael Demoratz have opened the Manor up for events for several years. They, apparently don’t charge and they offer the use of the grounds as well as their glass and dinnerware. The Tustin Area Council for Fine Arts, the Preservation Conservancy and many other non-profit organizations through the years have used the beautiful grounds of the manor to host their events, all for a good cause. And, in keeping with that, the immediate neighbors have been gracious as far as the traffic and noise go.
After Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack verified for all that it was true, it became clear that Nielsen did not want to discuss the matter. Laughably claiming that, since the issue could come up before him for consideration, he didn’t want to discuss it, he attempted to squelch the issue. You see, he did not want there to be any appearance of bias.
It is also likely he did not want anyone to know that the Mc Pherson and Demoratz have been quietly sowing the seeds for this project for some time. They recently held fundraisers for city council candidates and Amante allies, Allan Bernstein and Chuck Puckett (We wonder how Puckett, who recently resigned from the Planning Commission, would vote on this issue). The Wilcox Trust has also made at least one campaign contribution to Johnn Nielsen’s re-election during the last reporting cycle. The owners have been steadily mailing requests for support for their endeavor to many of the non-profits who have used their facilities in the past, regardless of whether they are in the city limits. If that is not enough, until recently, there was a blurb on OCFabulousEvents.com that listed the Wilcox Manor as an event venue. Clearly, Mc Pherson and Demoratz expect a return on their investment. It is kind of funny, though, how they sided with the city in the Fairbanks matter, calling his issues with the city no big deal.
So, do you really think there will be no bias when the CUP application comes before the Commission or the City Council? Rumor has it that Binsack has her rubber stamp poised to approve. Of course, we won’t know for sure because she wouldn’t talk to us at the meeting. So much for friendly Tustin staff.
In the end, it was just another dog and pony show for Mayor Nielsen and his talking head, Elizabeth Binsack. It was a chance to remind the Old Town folks of who is in charge. It was unfortunate the good mayor was more interested in telling Old Town resident and business owners what the city had planned rather than to listen to their concerns. After all, isn’t that what a town hall meeting is supposed to be for?