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Jerry Joins the Claudia Alvarez Ethics Club

Jerry, tell me it ain’t so

(updated September 6, 2012 @ 12:45pm) I don’t often get a Tuesday night off from work. When I do, for some reason, I like to beat myself over the head and check out the Tustin City Council meeting in person. Perhaps it is that sense of self-sacrifice, or that sense of duty to my fellow readers. Who are we kidding? I go because I am still trying to see if John Nielsen can speak without Jerry’s lips moving.

Which brings us to the focus of the evening. After discussing the cost of police cars with Al Murray the expert and hearing how the Biennial Conflict of Interest Review followed the letter, if not the spirit of the law, we got to the main event, the Response to the Grand Jury Report on Use of Government Influence on Private Educational Institutions. At an earlier council meeting, this issue was glossed over by John Nielsen who was already gearing up to defend his puppetmaster’s free speech rights and the city attorney was asked to come back with a proposed response.

City Attorney, David Kendig, did indeed come back with a report as ordered. The report listed 6 ways in which the city council could respond, inlcuding censure of Jerry Amante. The report also had a proposed letter attached for the council to consider as a response. The letter essentially claimed that, since Amante acted on his own as a private citizen, the city council was not bound by any silly rules of the grand jury to respond in any responsible fashion. In part, it read:

The Tustin City Council members have carefully read and considered the Report and its findings and recommendations. Unfortunately the City Council is unable to provide an informed response to the findings and recommendations because the Council does not have evidence that would provide a basis for such findings or actions. The Report discusses the alleged activities of, and statements made by, individuals in their personal interactions with local university personnel. Some of those individuals are said by the Report to be affiliated with another agency or a non – profit organization, and none of the individuals involved in the alleged discussions was acting with the knowledge or authorization of the City Council or City staff.

Put another way, because the Report is not about the City or its programs or activities, the City doesn’t have the evidence to support or refute the statements in the Report. When a grand jury report addresses the ” operations, accounts and records of the officers, department functions, and the method or system of performing the duties” of the City as authorized by California Penal Code Section 925a, then the City and its staff and City Council are generally in a position to provide an informed response. That is not the case here.

….The City Council does not take lightly the circumstances alleged in the Report. In that regard, the City Council acknowledges that, if it were aware of evidence of wrongdoing by a Tustin City Council member and if such conduct was of a nature that was within the authority of the Council to correct, then the City Council would recommend additional ethics training be undertaken over and above that required by State law, or might consider a censure, for instance. However, as noted above, the City Council is not privy to testimony or other evidence that a Tustin City Council member attempted to exert the influence that the Report alleges. In fact, many allegations in the Report seem to suggest that the alleged emails and verbal statements may have been made by an individual not even affiliated with the City of Tustin.

So, the city attorney conveniently provided a detailed letter of response claiming the city had no responsibility to respond and, even if they did, it was a free speech and this council would never quash a person’s right to free speech, would they? The city attorney must have anticipated this would be the most likely response as he did not provide guidance for any of the other possible responses outlined in the report. Gee, why would that be? Could it be that the city attorney colluded with certain councilmen to come up with the “I’m appalled you would say that about me” response?

Amante who, for the most part, had been sitting quietly in his corner, seething, finally got his chance to pontificate. As expected, he began ranting about how he was just a regular citizen having a

Jerry’s Magic Wand

conversation with another fellow citizen and a couple of teachers about how the school was “being used” by other nefarious individuals with “hidden political agendas” [insert laugh track]. He pulled out reams of paper (where’s that iPad, Jerry?) to support his position and, waving them around like a magic wand, claimed he was the victim. He bashed the grand jury, calling the report poorly written, full of innuendo and inference and lacking evidence and fact. he reiterated his position that he and his good friend Alan Songstad went there as private citizens to discuss the disparagement of the university and not to discuss any report on city manager compensation. Of course, it is intersting that, if Jerry had gone down there with just  any close friend, he went with Songstad, a fellow councilmember from Laguna Hills rather than just any friend off the street. Oh, and it was a fact they had discussed this at a local association of local governments (funded by your tax dollar) meeting with others to discuss the report. In any case, this was the Amanteversion of how things went. And, as he said, “I was one of the four in the room” so how would the grand jury know what they talked about? Indeed. Isn’t that why grand jury testimony is secret?

Prior to Jerry’s tirade, Councilmember Beckie Gomez pointed out the real issue with the report. There was a sense of impropriety in the good councilmen speaking to the officials at the university and then discussing the report itself with the association. And, did this impropriety put the city of Tustin in a bad light? She was quickly quashed by the good mayor jumping up and down in his seat screaming, “It’s free speech! It’s free speech!”

At the beginning of the 30 minute discussion on the issue, Councilwoman Deborah Gavello moved to have Jerry censured at the next council meeting. That motion was subsequently  displaced by a substitute motion to have the letter, as written, sent to the presiding judge. When it did come to the vote, there was brief discussion on whether Amante should be allowed to vote on his own punishment. City Attorney David Kendig quickly chimed in that the FPPC had recently ruled that a councilman could vote on his own appointment to a board or committee. Apparently, in his legal mind, Amante’s seat on the local government association in which the report and their actions were discussed, transferred to the dais, here and now, and he should be allowed to vote on his punishment.

And that is what happened. On a 3-2 vote on whether the letter should be sent in response or Hizzoner should be censured, the city council approved the letter as written. You didn’t really think it would turn out any other way with the Gang of Three, did you?

Courtesy Chris Prevatt, The Liberal OC

So, what do Republican Jerry and Democrat Claudia Alvarez have in common?

Well, not too long ago, in a nearby city, Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez did the same thing. Speaking at a city council meeting about the 4th Street downtown area owned by the Chase Brothers, she expounded on Irv Chase renting his property to just anyone. In her tirade, she asked, “If Hitler rents you a place and gives you a good deal, would you take it”? Of course, you don’t invoke the “good” name of Hitler when speaking to a Jewish businessman and the son of a Holocaust victim, and certainly not in a public forum. It raised a huge outcry among the folks in Santa Ana. And, while we may disagree on whether Amante was actually attemtping to use his influence as a councilman while Alvarez was clearly acting in her official capacity, the eventual outcome of these two situaitons was the same.

Like Amante, the Santa Ana City Council initially attempted to squelch the issue, claiming she had free speech rights. When that didn’t work, Alvarez attempted to justify her position, claiming the people had her all wrong and they obviously misinterpreted what she had said (does this sound familiar?). Eventually, her cohorts on the council were obligated to bring up the issue, and they did. And, like Amante, when it came time to vote on whether she should be punished and to what extent, she was allowed to vote on her own destiny. Now, we’ll hand it to Alvarez. She must have seen the light, finally, and cast the deciding vote to censure herself. But, in doing so, she saved her pro tem title and the censure itself did little else than say, “no-no”. So, you can see that Jerry and Claudia have a lot in common. Perhaps they should start the Amante-Alvarez Coalition on Ethical Behavior on the Dais.

If there was any more hilarity to the issue, it is the transaction that occurred between Councilwoman Gavello and Mayor Nielsen at the beginning of the discussion:

Nielsen: Let me say a quick couple of things…
Gavello: Can I go first?
Nielsen: When I’m done.
Gavello: Point of Order
Nielsen: Well, let me finish my sentences, if you would please? Thank you. Basically, we’re looking at, definitely free speech that councilmembers do have…
Gavello: Point of order, Mr. Mayor.
Nielsen: Can you let me finish?
Gavello: No, actually a point of order….a point of order
Nielsen: Please…
Gavello: I don’t have to.
Nielsen: Quit talking over me.
Gavello: I’m not talking over you, it’s a point of order… which means you are supposed to….
Nielsen: Councilmember Gavello, I will not let you bully me….

Say what? So, the King of Bullies’ black ops guy, John, won’t let Deborah bully him, yet he will readily allow Hizzoner Amante to bully and rant against Gavello. That’s the Republican idea of free speech for you in action. Alas, we don’t have the ability to put Silverlight videos on the blog (perhaps someone will YouTube this and I will update the post with the links) but, you can see this little tirade on the city website beginning at time mark  52:25. You can also then hear Jerry Amante tie the upcoming 911 commemoration in with rants full of innuendo toward Deborah and my blog at the end of the meeting beginning at time mark 1:31:55.

That, in itself, was worth coming to the meeting.

On the Agenda, August 7, 2012

Except for a few items, the Tuesday City Council Meeting should be pretty routine. Because of the Strategic Planning Session, which we’ll get to in a minute, it looks like the Closed Session will be pushed off to the end of the evening. And, there are no surprises in Closed Session so I wouldn’t wait around for a report, especially since they are adjourning directly to the August 14th Special City Council Meeting. Besides, I’ll report on anything earth shattering.

The afternoon will actually start off with a Strategic Planning Workshop beginning at 3 pm. The agenda sounds more impressive than interesting. If you were ever involved in the aerospace industry, then you have been through this. In industry, it has gone by such catchy names as Total Quality Management, Quality Circles, and Zero Defects. Someone finally found a way to market the idea to government and they have managed to reinvent it. If you would like to see what your city envisions doing (as opposed to what they actually do, sometimes), take a look at the draft here. The workshop is put on by a nationwide firm called Management Partners, a consulting service whose laundry list of clients includes no less than 16 OC cities and the County of Orange. It may be interesting but I think I’ll just watch the video so I can skip the commercials.

One important item you may want to take a look at is the Analysis of Strengths, Limitations, Opportunities and Threats or, SLOT for short. It has already turned my initial impression of Management Partners around. There were no surprises in Tustin’s strengths: great parks, community pride, safe community, diverse business, strong staff, etc. All the things you would expect to see from a community like ours.

But, the “L” part. Well, let’s just say I thought it was just me. I mean, with the things I write about the city, I don’t expect to be invited into city hall and given a cool cup of water on a hot day. But, when MP ran their focus groups, guess what they found? Limitations included:

  • Poor Relationship with TUSD
  • City Hall not customer friendly (hint: cold cup of water?)
  • Community outreach – needs improvement
  • Not enough cooperation and civility between city council members
  • Little to no staff development or succession planning

A big one has been that the city has been so focused on developing The District business area, they have neglected other businesses in the city; Old Town is not as vibrant as it could be. We can certainly agree with that although lately, we have seen more interest by the city in developing businesses in Old Town with the recent approval of two new buildings in the area that will bring people to the Old Town area for more than just the Art Walk and Chili Cookoff. The changes in parking requirements have been innovative, to say the least. We hope this is a trend and not an anomaly.

And, you know, it is one thing when this blog and certain community leaders are aware of the discord among councilmembers in both public and private. It is quite another when MP’s focus groups show the exact same thing. We had hoped that, when John Nielsen assumed the Mayoral duties, there would be new civility on the dais. Instead, we found Nielsen unwilling to speak out on the absurdities of his colleagues. Of course, he has no problem publicly lashing out at legitimate press sources who question his motives.

Ooooh, lookie. Under Opportunities, they seem to disagree with our City Council on the development of Tustin Legacy and the hangar re-use as well. Can someone make sure the councilmembers are awake and listening to this part of the presentation? We have been harping for years about the re-use of the hangar and the fact that this city has been more interested in tearing down what Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack apparently considers an eyesore, rather than work with businesses and the community on generating interest in reuse. The County of Orange is going ahead with a plan to create a park around their hangar. Perhaps a partnership would be in order to save both hangars as a substantial and visual part of our history. It would be a shame to have to answer a visitor’s question, “The pictures showed two hangars. Where’s the other one?”

There is plenty under the “Threats” category as well. So, this may be an interesting workshop after all. And, this is all before the regular City Council meeting which, thankfully, should be short.

Item 7, Approval of an Exclusive Agreement to Negotiate with Regency Acquisition, may generate some interest from the Legacy folks. I have been listening to complaints that the city is now modifying plans to allow more apartments and fewer single-family homes than originally planned. All those folks the city says they are protecting with the TUSD lawsuits, are not happy about the new mix. It seems the city commands the TUSD to “do as I say, …”

Item 8, Legislative Report Affirmation of City’s Compliance with the Brown Act is probably one of the most important items they could have agendized. The Brown Act mandates that city’s follow certain rules regarding Closed Sessions. The city is reimbursed by the state for the cost of implementing the Brown Act. Unfortunately, what the State giveth, the State can taketh away (hey, I’m writing this on Sunday). In this case, they suspended parts of the Brown Act to save some money. This could give cities an opportunity to close their doors even more to the public than they already do.

In the case of Mayor John Nielsen, he has chosen to do the right thing (most cities have) and have the city continue to follow the Brown Act in its entirety. The resolution before the City Council reaffirms their committement to follow the Act. Let’s hope Hizzoner doesn’t see his chance and filibuster. Cost to the city to pay for full implementation is $38,000. I know that’s a lot of iPads. But, it is cheap to keep the windows open and the sunshine on government.

As I said, it  should be a long strategic planning session followed by a short city council meeting. The City Council meets again in special session on August 14th, the same day the Planning Commission is scheduled to meet. That could be for Closed Session only, however. We’ll keep you posted.

On the Agenda, February 7, 2012

The first thing you may notice about the Agenda for the Tustin City Council Meeting is the heading. Since redevelopment agencies have been effectively eliminated, the remaining responsibilities for RDA obligations has been remanded to the Tustin Housing Authority. So, now the city council will meet as the “Tustin City Council and Tustin Housing Authority”. Of course, we think the “authority” of Housing Authority should not rest on the shoulders of this group and they should seriously consider creating a separate housing authority and board to oversee it. That won’t happen in Amante’s (political) lifetime as we believe he still pulls the strings on the dais, regardless of who takes the center seat. Amante has shown little interest in light shining on anything he doesn’t want the public to know about.

Closed Session

Liability Claims – Several lawsuits the city is involved in are on the closed session agenda. It is unfortunate that T-Mobile has chosen to sue the city over the design review in Cedar Grove Park and we hope the city will do the right thing and fight this to the end. Citizen rights should never be abridged for the sake of corporations and corporations should never expect cities to abridge the rights of its residents.

Conference With Real Property Negotiators – This apparnetly involves the old Army Reserve base on the South side of the MCAS property. Rumor has it that attempts to move the Reserve Center elsewhere in Orange County hasn’t worked out too well.

Public Hearing

Ordinance Relating to Graffitti – The staff asked to have this placed on the agenda because the  public notice has already gone out. However, there is no agenda report to indicate what changes will be made. We will be at City Hall tomorrow so we may ask for a copy of the proposed ordinance at that time.

Consent Calendar

Expect Items 4 and 7 to be pulled for discussion. Item 4, RDA Status Report, because the Republicans will have to gnash their teeth and wail one more time about the demise of the evil redevelopment agencies. It seems even their champions in Sacramento who, curiously are Democrats, couldn’t muster enough votes to even extend RDAs for a few months. I have a few PRA requests in for an update on Tustin’s redevlopment and the overblown figures in their reports to be published soon.

I expect item 7, Quarterly Investment Report to be pulled simply because Councilmember Gavello is critical of the City Treasurer and his investment policy which has had some questionable moves in the past. If you want more on that, see the YouTube videos on Gavello’s site. Look for, City Treasurer violates city’s investment Policy – Tustin City Council August 4, 2009.

Item 14 Adopting a resolutionto add ICMA Retirement Corporation as a Plan Administrator to the city’s 401 and 457 plans has an interesting issue. The agenda report indicates that plan participants would be able to borrow against their investment in the plan with this company. It is interesting because, except for private 401(k) plans, it is almost unheard of to allow this.

Regular Business

I hate to say it, but the only thing of interest is the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Year. Trust me, it is comprehensive and it is pretty boring for the most part. If you can stay awake, go for it. It’s only 161 pages long. Otherwise, watch the staff presentation. I am sure the cool media tricks they present will enhance the information. I plan on picking through it. But, I don’t expect to find any hidden iPads in there.

Jerry and Deborah’s (iPad) Fight

Anyone attending (or streaming as I usually do) last Tuesday night’s City Council meeting could not have missed the latest installment in the long running, knockdown, dragout fight between Boss Tweed Amante and Councilmember Deborah Gavello. Gavello had asked to pull a number of items from the consent calendar, including Item 14 which had to do with the updated iPad policy. The iPads were purchased last year, under the guise of eliminating the reams of paper from agenda packets that cover the dais during a council meeting. Our friends at the Liberal OC recently wrote an article that showed the iPads, which were purchased with reserves because they had not been budgeted for (apparently, this was an emergency), did not save much -if any- money.

So, when Gavello asked to pull this item, it was an opportunity to see what, if any money the City would actually claim to have saved. Gavello gave her usual diatribe against the purchase of the iPads, saying she felt the expenditure unnecessary. But, her focus was on the fact that iPads had been returned and would now be issued to….who? As John Nielsen started to speak, Jerry shoved his black ops guy out of the way and came back swinging, stating that Gavello is the only one who did not accept an iPad (did we mention the city paid for these out of reserve funds so Deborah saved the taxpayer money they weren’t supposed to spend?) and that she, alone, continues to receive a full agenda packet which, Jerry announced triumphantly, average 578 pages each meeting. Every other councilmember receives their packet electronically. He also screeched, “And in addition to all that, we make a DVD for Councilwoman Gavello for the meeting, which needs to be specially formatted which requires realtime conversion so that she can have a DVD.” He goes on to rant that he doesn’t understand why, since the council meetings are on cable and available on the website. He tells everyone about how other councils use laptops “which are far more expensive than iPads”. He even tells us how the iPads actually make government more efficient. Jerry even got his black ops guy, John Nielsen, to  tout how, by converting to iPads, they are really environmentalists, leading the way to save the forests of California from decimation by city councils across the state.

Huh… Really… The nerve of you, Deborah, to be concerned over the toys the mayor buys for himself and his buddies.

So, I did a little asking around of my own. And I found out some interesting stuff, including that Hizzoner, Jerry, may have fibbed again. I asked the simple question, who is using the iPads distributed by the city and who is using a personal iPad. I also asked if the city was paying for any part of the cost of maintaining the personal iPads?

City staff were very happy to tell me that Councilmembers Al Murray and Beckie Gomez purchased their own iPads and had turned in the city owned ones. They did not bother to tell me whether the city was paying for connectivity or “apps” on the personal iPads. They did make a point of telling me that each agenda packet averages a whopping 578 pages and it is distributed to each councilmember that asks for one as well as four others and a slew of smaller partial packets. The city staffers also pointed out that Gavello receives, at her request, a “DVD of [the] meeting in real-time conversion”. They also pointed out that many other cities issue laptops, rather than iPads…… wait a minute. Didn’t Jerry just say this? So, if the city staff had the answers all along, why didn’t they give them to The Liberal OC when they asked (I asked for this information, by the way, several days before the city council meeting)?

Another thing I found interesting was the fact that, through the year, I often saw the various councilmembers sifting through reams of documents, even though they had an iPad sitting next to them. So, I asked about that. What I got back was interesting. It seems that “It has taken various council members various amounts of time” to transition to the iPads. In fact, it wasn’t until the October 17th meeting that all four of the councilmembers were using their iPads and stopped using paper agendas altogether.” That is over a year after the iPads were approved for use. So, how much money was saved? I would say, none. Because, now we have the iPads which, for some mysterious reason, the councilmembers had trouble getting used to for an entire year, as well as the 578 page packets for those 20 meetings. Let’s see, if I go to Kinko’s and do this myself, at five cents a page, it comes out to (yes, I am willing to do the math for you) $2,312 per year just for the copies. Now, we have to have someone running the copier, so lets say a mid-payscale city clerk services specialist making $27.00 an hour slaves over a copier to make these copies and probably takes about an hour to do so. That’s about $540 plus benefits just to copy them. Of course, she has to make copies for the rest of the staff at the meeting anyway, so there really is no money saved there.

Let’s see. The cost of the iPads including all the goodies was $4,794.75. So, where is the cost savings? Let’s hear it for our fiscally conservative mayor, who cost the city nearly $5,000 out of reserve funds for unbudgeted toys for him and his buddies on the city council. Instead of saving the taxpayer trees and money, he has actually managed to cost the city more by using the great technology that he claims not to know much about. Remember, he recently stated that he doesn’t know how cellphones and televisions work. Well, he’s a lawyer, not an IT specialist. He’s also not much of an accountant.

Now, don’t forget, Jerry justified this expenditure by saying that all the other kids on other city councils use laptops for their work. And, everyone knows those are much more expensive than iPads. Not. A look at the latest Microcenter ad shows various laptops that are easily capable of doing the job for quite a bit less. In fact, one laptop that could accomplish the job could be had for as little as $249.  The iPads without any software or accessories, according to The Liberal OC, cost the city just under a thousand dollars each. Even including software which, I will admit is going to cost more for the laptop, it is still cheaper, as other city councils seem to have found, to buy the laptops. So, there goes another exaggeration by Hizzoner.

And, what about that DVD that is “specially formatted which requires realtime conversion”? Let’s see, an IT guy can do that in about 15 minutes. Cost of the blank DVDs in bulk are about forty cents each. So, really, the cost to make the DVD is minimal compared to what Hizzoner has paid for his new toy.

So, here we go again. A self-proclaimed fiscally conservative mayor who likes to bully other councilmembers from the pulpit, makes another claim that turns out to be false because he didn’t bother to check his facts. On top of that, the iPads that were specifically purchased as an urgent need for the city council, are now being handed off to the “new” city manager and another, unnamed, staff member. Cool. Except, what happens when new councilmembers are seated next year? Do we just buy new ones for them from reserve funds as well? Does Jerry think it might be a good idea for the city to make a plan on disseminating this fabulous technology rather than just buy them willy-nilly? Guess not. It is pretty obvious that, when it comes to Jerry and his Kids getting what they want, planning be damned.

In his parting tirade, Jerry complained that the media, who were badmouthing him (presumably us and the Lib) and his fiscally sound policies, just got it wrong. And we should just sit down and shut up. Dan Chmielewski of The Liberal OC recently reminded me of a quote to the late Finley Peter Dunne, that the job of a journalist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I would have to add that we are the ones who will ask the questions that will keep our elected and appointed officials accountable to the public. Most officials understand that and consider it part of the cost of plying their trade. Like most things political or technical, Jerry just doesn’t get it. But, after all, he is a lawyer, not a philosopher.