I recently had a chance to sit down and have an informal conversation with Tustin’s new Mayor Pro Tem, Al Murray. Al, who recently retired from the Irvine Police Department, is an affable man with a great sense of humor and, it seems, a pretty good finger on the pulse of the city. Running between meetings on behalf of the city and other boards that he sits on, he stopped by at my request and a promise to the City’s Communication Director, Lisa Woolery, that I would not pounce on the good Councilmember. The fact is, I have often felt Al to be a pawn of the majority power structure in the city. I wanted to give him an opportunity to show that he is his own man and makes his decisions independently. We settled into our chairs with a hot cup of coffee, ready for some good conversation. I wanted to get to know Al, not interview him.
One of the first things I asked Al about was the recent controversy over the proposed cell phone towers in Cedar Grove Park. Al, along with Jerry Amante, voted in the minority to approve the flagpole design that T-Mobile had submitted. Al maintains that his main reason for voting for approval was his concern for the public and their ability to make an emergency call when they might need it most. He also felt the opposition was a group of homeowners who did not represent the residents of the area at large. We did discuss the fact that this was one of three parks slated for cell tower construction and it was not lost on him that the city would receive rent from any cell towers placed on city property. Although I did not ask, I got the impression the rent could be substantial. Al was not surprised to see the lawsuit from T-Mobile and, in fact, felt it was a natural reaction to the city’s response to the design review.
I also asked Al about his vision for the MCAS development and the city’s decision to act as master developer for the base property. Al feels this has been a good move for the city as they have already lined up experts to work on consultancy issues and bringing in developers to the property. They have identified five tracts to concentrate their efforts with a good mix of construction ranging from single-family homes to apartments. There is also one business area to be developed. He believes that, with the city in its current role, construction can restart in a short period of time, bringing jobs and families to live in Tustin. He lauded Christine Shingleton for her work on the base property and said the staff had been staying on top of this. We did not talk about Shingleton’s upcoming double-dipping after her retirement and return as an extra-help employee or her hidden raises. But, Al sees her as necessary to future development of MCAS. He expects to see real progress on the property this year. I have to agree that development, once started, should be interesting to see.
Naturally, the conversation drifted to the lawsuits between the Tustin Unified School District and the city of Tustin. As with any litigation, not a lot could be said except in general terms. However, Al was quick to point out that it was the schoold district who initiated the original lawsuit. Just as quickly, I pointed out the school district didn’t have much choice, as they had been backed against a wall when the city demanded permits for construction. Lisa was very helpful in the discussion, pointing out that both sides appeared to have the law on their side. Of course, when there is conflicting law, it would seem that the only recourse is to have the courts figure it out. We did not go into the obvious appearance that this fight seems to have taken on a personal tone with Jerry. The discussion was, after all, not about him but about Al and his views.
The lawsuit concerning Heritage Elementary School was a different story. Al stuck to the city’s official stance that the school was built with Mello-Roos tax money specifically for the purpose of providing an elementary school for children in the Columbus Grove and adjoining areas. We discussed the fact that development had been stalled and that was TUSD’s reasoning for the use change. Al felt there were other ways to fix that problem and, again, the folks in the area paid for the school. Again, this entire issue seemed to be more of an argument than a basis for a lawsuit. I pointed out that the city’s recent settlement offer seemed disingenuous at best. The settlement would call for both sides dropping all issues and paying their own legal fees. The district would also have to promise to remand Heritage back to its original purpose by the fall of 2012. As I told Murray, the district would probably be unamenable to their settlement as it would leave the district subject to the city’s new ordinance regarding building permits by government entities. Again, this looks like resolution in court may be the only way for either side.
On the whole, Murray sees the city of Tustin in good shape, financially, with good reserves to weather rainy days. I did gibe him about his iPad sitting on the table and how they were paid through unappropriated funds. Al laughed a little and said, on the other hand, that the iPad had been a godsend to him and others on the city council. Specifically, he said he used to carry a briefcase just to hold the reports, agendas and other material (over 900 pages for the last city council meeting). He said all of that is now on his iPad making it much more manageable and easier to carry. He also uses the device for his other official duties on boards and commissions he is appointed to. Al sees a few changes coming to commission appointments but sees himself heavily involved in city affairs. The fact that he is now retired was not lost on any of us. He also feels the city is in good shape as far as infrastructure. He continuously praised city staff and workers for their dedication to their job and felt that we have a great police department.
So, what do I think? I think we have a pretty good councilman and Mayor Pro Tem in Al Murray. He remains engaged in city affairs in a way that will allow him to make sound, if not always agreeable, decisions in guiding our town. I still feel he may hold some conservative allegiance to Jerry Amante and John Nielsen. But, Al also seems to have a pretty good rapport with Councilmember Deborah Gavello and appeared at recent holiday events with her, something I have not seen the other two do. With luck and that affability he displayed in our chat he could bring the council together for the benefit of the entire city. And, that can’t be a bad thing. In any case, look for Al Murray to make his debut as Our Town Tustin’s new Mayor Pro Tem. Your rookie days are over, Al.